On my penultimate morning in Bangladesh, I opened The Asian Age to see many of the same headlines I'd see in my hometown Chicago Tribune. The party in power was complaining about media coverage; there was news about the favorite sports team; and there were articles about the travels of the nation's leaders; all the stuff you'd expect to see in most any newspaper. But then, my attention became fixed on a headline that read: "Tough measures demanded against Bangabandhu's defamers."
I was dumbstruck because this is not what I expected to see in a democracy; and the Bangladeshi Constitution agrees. Article 39 "guarantees" freedom of thought and conscience, and extends that to freedom of expression in Subparagraph a. All international standards and agreements on the subject recognize that such expression can be oral or written, as in the book in question.
We see this most prominently in articles 19 and 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, articles 4 and 5 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, articles 12 and 13 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and article 21 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
These latter agreements make clear how restricting that right exacts the greatest harm on the most vulnerable citizens in any society.
I want to be clear at the outset that this piece is not about the Bangabandhu for whom I have great respect. When I was here in March, I personally laid a wreath on his grave, paying homage to the Father of the Nation. This is about the quality of Bangladeshi democracy, and how other nations would view Bangladesh.
Protections of free expression that extend only to expressions with which we agree are meaningless. The quality of any democracy is measured against how we apply its guarantees to those with whom we disagree-or in this case, expression that is "audacious and deplorable," as it is described in that front page article.
Many years ago, members of the Nationalist Socialist Party of America-Nazis-wanted to march through the streets of Skokie, Illinois, carrying the Nazi flag. They chose Skokie specifically because it has a large Jewish population, and one of every six citizens was a survivor of the Nazi holocaust or a direct relation of one.
I myself have Holocaust survivors in my family, and other family members who did not survive Hitler's war on my people, the Jews. So along with many other (at the time) young men, I was going to do something about it-confront them physically if they marched and stop it.
But then, the United States Supreme Court ruled that even carrying the Nazi flag-something so odious and hateful to most Americans-was protected as free expression. The Nazis had their march, which very quickly faded without leaving a lasting impression. We felt that was a much worse fate for the marchers than the whooping we planned to inflict on them.
Same thing with this book. The idea is that a book which so distorts a history that even schoolchildren know, is likely to sit on bookshelves and collect dust.
By using their buying power, the people of Bangladesh will freely send the writers a message that they reject the distortion and the dishonor paid to Sheikh Mujibar Rahman. And that is a powerful rejection of Abul Kalam Azad, who published the book, and the ideas behind it; much more powerful than government imposed sanctions on free expression.
Because if history has taught us anything, it is that once we allow such restrictions, we never know how they will be used the next time; or if the next set of powers will find what we say to be "audacious and deplorable" and deserving of "tough measures."
The writer is an American intellectual and a contributor to The Asian Age
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