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     Volume 11 |Issue 44| November 09, 2012 |


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Food for Thought


Farah Ghuznavi

In recent months, the ugliness of headline news across the globe has brought me close to despair. It is difficult to retain any faith in humanity when incidences of utter barbarity are so plentiful. In fact, following the news sometimes makes it hard to believe that we do indeed live in the 21st century. Clearly, not all of us do. As evidenced by the Taliban attack on the 14-year-old schoolgirl and education activist MalalaYousufzai in Pakistan. From the reaction to the vile propaganda video “The Innocence of Muslims”, that resulted in the loss of innocent lives, to the shooting of Malala, to the abandonment of the Rohingyas who face ethnic cleansing in neighbouring Burma, to the violence and destruction against minorities and indigenous people taking place closer to home, one thing remains constant. It is invariably innocents who are caught up in these events; and in some cases, they are actively targeted.

Peaceful protest, which one might consider a sign of sincere opposition (as opposed to politically motivated violence of one kind or another), seems to have gone by the wayside. And in the process, we have jettisoned any number of important principles, including the rule of law.

When Iran occupied the American embassy in 1979, the world was shocked - and with good reason. Diplomatic missions have always been sacrosanct. Indeed, that is the fundamental basis on which consulates are set up in each other's countries. That is not to say that nothing shady ever happens in an embassy, of course – instances of spying, for example, are routinely uncovered, with some countries being more 'active' in this respect than others. But in that instance, the civilised remedy is to expel the diplomat(s) concerned.

The fact remains that there is a reason why receiving states guarantee the protection of diplomats from other nations. In situations of conflict, they are the envoys responsible for improving relations, and in some cases brokering peace deals. It is of paramount importance that their protection is assured, regardless of any differences of opinion between the nations that they belong to. In my opinion, diplomats, aid workers and journalists all fall into the category of professionals who must be guaranteed protection by the state in which they are working - they are responsible for building international relationships, carrying out humanitarian activities and reporting the truth on behalf of those who cannot tell us what is happening themselves, particularly in war zones.

And then there is the point that when we disrespect these principles - in the name of provocation of whatever sort - we open the way for others to do the same. When there were demonstrations outside the Bangladesh Embassy in Sri Lanka recently, in response to the attacks on Buddhists in Ramu, most people were outraged. But why, I wonder? If we decide that the US Embassy in Libya or UN offices and European embassies elsewhere can be attacked, why should we be surprised that our embassy in Sri Lanka could face hostility in that country? I am no apologist for US foreign policy. There are a number of American 'overseas adventures' that I consider reprehensible, not least the drone attacks in Pakistan and the invasion of Iraq. But attacking embassies cannot be considered an acceptable response.

The recent attacks against indigenous people, Buddhists and Hindus in Bangladesh are the latest step in a worsening situation. It increasingly appears that these attacks were cynically orchestrated by certain political forces for reasons rather more ignoble than the alleged offence to religious sentiment created by the doctored Facebook page of a Buddhist man. Quite apart from the fact that the situation seems to be the work of communal forces bent on hounding minorities out of the country, it raises the question of how any alleged offence committed by one individual belonging to a particular faith could possibly justify the kind of collective retribution that has been visited upon the citizens of Ramu and Patiya?

In the past, when Israel has blockaded Gaza in the name of preventing terrorist attacks or taken punitive measures against the families of suicide bombers, many of us have spoken out against the injustice of such collective punishment, and rightly so. The fact that Israel has persisted with many of these policies has won it more than a few opponents –in addition to its traditional enemies - around the world. Because once again, whatever the 'crime' of an individual, this kind of wholesale action against a group cannot be considered an acceptable form of punishment.

And this was pointed out by Mohammad Moinuddin, assistant superintendent of Kharulia Talimul Quran Dakhil Madrassah and chairman of East Kharulia Sikdarpara Jame Mosque, who put his own life at risk by barring a mob from attempting to destroy a Buddhist temple in his area. In a newspaper interview, he described his reaction when members of his congregation asked what to do if anyone insulted Islam or the Holy Quran – “I told them to condemn the act but said, if one commits an offence, his or her community cannot be held responsible for that. Quran or Hadith never permit it. Devotees asked me, what they should do if the neighbouring Buddhist villages are attacked like Ramu. I told them to protect the community in line with Islam's advice to protect the innocents.” Of the moment when he confronted the mob, he said, “The crowd expressed its eagerness of taking revenge of the alleged insult of Quran. Police were trying to stop them. I tried calming them using the verses of Quran and Hadith to explain their duties…They again argued if it will be a sin for them if they do not protest it. I told them, 'It will not. However, if it will in any way, I shall take the responsibility of the sins of all of you on the day of judgment.' After a long argument they calmed down and left.”

There were others who also took a stand against the blatant injustice and shameful violence. Like the young men from Ramu- Masud Rana, Harun, Osman, Mosharraf, Helal and Kamal- who tried to prevent the destruction of Buddhist temples and homes, and were attacked for their efforts. Or the local leaders, Kamaluddin and Shehab, who managed to mobilise in time to protect the oldest monastery in the country, RaungKut Bihar. Even where they were unable to prevent the devastation, these men heroically put their own safety on the line to try their best to protect their neighbours and fellow citizens.

The fact that they did this was important, because it brings back echoes of Pastor Martin, Niemoller's words about the actions of the Nazis during the Second World War. The truth is, too often, we do not even do what we can. Niemoller listed how most Germans remained silent as the Nazis targeted and killed various categories of individuals who didn't fit into their dreams of a 'pure' Aryan nation. They did so because they did not themselves fall into those categories. Interestingly, we in Bangladesh can recall echoes of such rhetoric from the genocidal killing spree undertaken by the Pakistanis against us in 1971, citing among other things, the contamination of Islam in this country, and the racial inferiority of Bengalis as compared with Punjabis/Pakistanis.

As Niemoller pointed out in his elegy, by the time a category was targeted to which the previously silent individuals actually belonged, there was of course no one left to protest on their behalf. The truth is - you never know when it could be you, however unlikely that might seem. As a brown child in 1970s Britain, during a brief stint when my family lived there, I struggled to understand why some of the other kids in the playground hated me so much, and called me 'blackie'. I still haven't figured it out actually - why difference should be considered a reason for hatred. What I do remember is that it was my blonde English friend Belinda, who called for reinforcements – and the big girls who lived on my street, Gillian and Anne, who came and made sure that those bullies left me alone for the rest of my time at East Sheen School.

That is why those of us who believe that every citizen - regardless of factors such as race or religion - deserves to feel safe in their own country, that the rule of law must be strengthened to cope with social tensions and ill-intentions, that mob action and vigilante 'justice' has no place in a civilised society, need to act now. As someone once very wisely pointed out, those who remain uninvolved in the struggle between the powerful and the powerless are not neutral - they are, by default, on the side of the powerful.

So don't delude yourself that not being part of those rampaging mobs - or even experiencing genuine horror at these events and expressing verbal condemnation - absolves the rest of us of any responsibility in this situation. This problem is one that is shaping the fabric of our society, and affects each and every one of us. There is no getting away from it. It is easy enough to feel overwhelmed by the scale of the problem, so the question becomes, what are we to do in these circumstances? And the answer, in my opinion is - whatever we can. If you wonder whether it will make a difference, consider Margaret Mead's famous quote: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

So do what you do best. If you are a person with any social influence, speak out and make your views heard - and even if you feel that you are not, make your opinions clear within your friends and family, and stand by them. If you are a writer, then write, as Anisul Hoque and Afsan Chowdhury have done. If you are a performer, use your craft to get the message of tolerance and harmony across. If you are a social activist or fundraiser, help bring together resources to reach out to the communities that have been devastated by this violence, and help them to rebuild their lives.

If you can do nothing else, then contribute your time and money to support those who are undertaking various initiatives to help others. Let the dream of a Bangladesh where everyone has equal rights rise like a phoenix from the ashes of destruction. Let our fellow citizens in Ramu, in Patiya, in the CHT – indeed, all over the country – know that we stand with them, that we have not forgotten their plight once newspaper headlines move elsewhere; and above all, that the 'haters' are not in fact the majority community in Bangladesh.


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