We freed our country – according to our constitution – to establish democracy, socialism, nationalism and secularism. Socialism, we gave up a long time ago. Nationalism, we never talked much after independence. Democracy, we are in the process of giving up. Last, secularism, we never knew what to do with it. We liked it as an idea, but it was never clear what it meant, how to translate it into our socio-cultural context, and how to apply it in any sustainable way. We have never had the sincerity and courage to pursue it with any degree of perseverance. On several occasions, we rhetoric for it, but more often than not, we have seen the other side, when ideas have been torn to pieces and members of minority religious groups were victimized under one pretext or the other.
Religious conflict – commonly referred to as communalism – has a long history in South Asia. The partition of the Indian subcontinent was done to resolve the Muslim-Hindu question and to bring about inter-communal harmony. Pakistan could never get out of its clutches; In fact, never tried it. India seems to be getting deep into it once again. For Bangladesh, we came out of Pakistan to build a society of religious harmony, among other things. Now our story is about slipping away from our founding ideals.
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Our position on the question of religion is very clear. Everyone has the right to be proud of their religion. But no one has the right to hate, condemn, insult or defame the religions of others. This fundamental belief is what separates us from the medieval era or even the early modern era. Religious tolerance is a major achievement of modern civilization, and its careful implementation is the foundation upon which a world of peaceful coexistence can be built.
Religious tolerance is the most important value that a modern society must instill within itself, and Bangladesh is no exception. What we are seeing with growing alarm is that while displaying pride and respect for our religion, we think nothing of insulting others. In fact, the truth is still deeper. It seems that insulting the religions of others or punishing the followers of other religions has become a part of showing pride for us.
The events of Narel are a fresh reminder of the fact that we have not been able to build a society of religious tolerance. For minority communities, the issue is life or death, living or perishing, living with dignity or slavery. It’s not something you turn on and off. The fear remains, a lack of confidence in the future destroys dreams, and the fear of repetition slowly but decisively takes over.
The Ain O Salish Center (ASK), a human rights and legal aid body, said based on newspaper reports that from January 2013 to September 2021, there were a total of 3,679 cases of violence against minorities in Bangladesh, ranging from mob attacks to setting were different. Setting fire to their houses or shops, sabotaging various kinds. In some instances – thankfully very few – even death occurred.
A cursory analysis of major incidents of communal violence reveals the pattern of well-planned attacks against minorities. Ramu, Ukhiya and Teknaf (2012), Nasirnagar (2016), Bhola (2019), and large-scale attacks in Sunamganj, Chandpur, Kamila and Rangpur (2021), with the latest incident at Narail (all attacks were on Hindus, Ramu , except for Ukhiya and Teknaf, which saw the destruction of 19 Buddhist temples) – they all had surprising similarities that cannot be easily dispelled.
Firstly, all these incidents originated from a Facebook post in which a member of the minority community was allegedly shown disrespecting Islam. The post was then made to go viral, generating severe reactions – mostly orchestrated – among the majority community, leading to public gatherings, demonstrations and later violent attacks. In most cases, the “outrageous” Facebook post was found to be fake, implanted by a hacker – a fact that seemed to have no effect on the perpetrators of the subsequent attacks.
Second, once the fake Facebook posts go viral, protest groups are formed in no time, with provocative speeches, slogans raised to incite anger and then demanding the arrest and punishment of the alleged perpetrator. However, without waiting for action by the police, the agitating groups take the law into their own hands and swoop into action. In no time things get out of hand and violence erupts.
Third, homes and shops belonging to minority groups are attacked once the stage is set. It begins with an attack on the home or property of the alleged perpetrator, but soon becomes an attack on the entire community.
Fourth, no one raises questions about the authenticity of Facebook posts, especially when there are previous examples of this type of hacking. Also, the fundamental injustice of punishing an entire community for the alleged crime of one person is never raised.
Fifth, in most cases the police play a very curious role. Either they take too long to get to the scene or, if they are quick enough to come, they never take decisive action to stop the violence. This mysterious behavior of the police never came under question.
The Camilla incident is quite extraordinary. Someone – the man later apprehended by the police – goes to a worship pavilion at night and places a copy of the Holy Quran at the feet of an idol. Later, early in the morning, another man with a smartphone started Facebook Live coverage of the scene insulting the Holy Quran and inciting people to take action. The interesting thing is that a police officer who reached the spot did nothing to stop him.
If we start with the incidents at Ramu in 2012 and move to the latest incident in Narel over the past 10 years, the same narrative and the same techniques – social media posts or livestreams – were used to trigger violent attacks on minorities. has gone. Is there a lesson not to be learned? Why were the enormous progress in our capabilities for surveillance and immediate response not used to prevent communal violence?
The most damaging and depressing aspect of these recurring tragedies is that not even a single case has fully completed the legal process. This prevented the full story from unfolding, and the individuals and forces responsible from being exposed and punished. In most cases, some initial arrests were made and the story ended there, except perhaps a few spontaneous follow-up actions that didn’t reveal anything. To this day, we never know the full story of how, by whom and why these attacks happened. This lack of legal action has created an atmosphere of impunity by encouraging forces that aim to destroy communal harmony.
So, at the age of 51, which Bangladesh have we created? The economic story remains strong, with some questions re-emerging due to the current global unrest. The story of democracy is fading. However, we have to do more to make our story of tolerance stronger. In Bangladesh, Muslims are not only the majority, but an overwhelming number – at 90 percent. This places a special responsibility on them to ensure that minority rights are protected and followed at all levels.
It requires us to do much more not only for our minorities, but for ourselves. Once a culture of hatred enters the psyche, it rarely leaves. It spreads and surrounds the whole society and us as individuals. Certainly, that is a Bangladesh we don’t want and don’t want.