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A New Era in Bangladeshi Human Rights
[Thu, 26 Jun 2008 00:53:21 -0500]

By Dr. Richard L. Benkin

People would find the matter of religious freedom and human rights more puzzling in Bangladesh than anywhere else if they took the time to study it.  Unfortunately, few have; and so we must deal with the impressions they get from international media, government missteps, and minority rights advocacy groups both principled and corrupt.  The puzzling part begins with the fact that the Bangla people are traditionally open and tolerant of others.  The variance of Islam practiced in East Bengal has always tended to be that way, too.  Bengalis have built a society that embraces religious diversity more than any other in South Asia.  At the same time, Bangladesh is notorious for minority oppression and violence against its non-Muslim minorities that the government seems to tolerate.  This has been true under every government, civilian and military-backed, regardless of whom the ruling party happens to be.  Two divergent pictures; but both of them accurate.

Why has that occurred?  After all, when Bangladesh won its independence in 1971, it declared itself a secular state; that is, one that accommodates peoples of all faiths, placing none in a dominant position vis--vis the state.  But that commitment was short-lived.  In 1974, the government passed the racist Vested Property Act, and two years later declared Bangladesh an Islamic Republic.  That change and the Bangladesh’s subsequent slide away from its historical values have everything to do with Islamist radicals and is in no way the inevitable path that the nation must follow.

In 1971, the radicals were at their weakest.  Having opposed Bangladesh’s struggle for independence and in some cases even participated in atrocities alongside the Pakistanis, they were in no position to gain any sort of popular following.  As Bangladeshi politics became more and more muddled, however, they were able to secure positions at the local and national levels with the help of Middle Eastern backing and funds.  In the succeeding years, Bangladesh’s political leaders continued to make a mess of things and did an exceedingly poor job of providing for its growing population.  This allowed the radicals to secure a firm footing, in the cities and countryside, by offering the people needed services that politicians failed to provide.  Along with that came a resurgent commitment to communalism, including anti-minority persecution.

Only now is there a real chance of changing this.  Since 2007 the politicians—whose rampant corruption and disregard for the people’s good opened the door for resurgent communalism—have been out of power; and they should not be allowed to return to power unless or until they demonstrate that their return will not bring back the rot that brought Bangladesh to its current state.  An interim government should be perfectly capable of ushering Bangladesh back to respectability.  Beyond that, however, William Gomes and others are launching a human rights effort that is thoroughly anti-communal.

Mr. Gomes is a Christian, whose community members often are victims of religious violence and radical jihadists.  Yet, this past spring, he was the primary informant to expose the false nature of a case of alleged anti-Christian violence that almost made it to the attention of the US Congress.  The story went that a Christian woman, Mary Mondal, was forced to marry a Muslim man who beat her continuously until she fled to safety provided by Mr. Gomes.  I first read about it in a Canadian newspaper not long before I was to appear at a Congressional briefing on Bangladesh.  I—a Jew—contacted Muslim journalist Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury for some “on the ground” information about the case; and he began an investigation.  For the next several days, he continually updated me on his investigation, letting me know that he continued to turn up zero evidence of the case.  He even enlisted the help of Kazi Azuzul Huq and his fundamentalist Muslim group, Khelafat Andolin Bangladesh.  They, too, were coming up empty.  Finally, Shoaib contacted me:  they found William Gomes who said that the entire story was fabricated.  In fact, he said, it was spread by individuals who are paid for sending stories of minority persecution to people outside of Bangladesh who never check their veracity.  Mr. Gomes met Mr. Choudhury and Mr. Huq at the offices of Dhaka’s Weekly Blitz, where he gave additional details and eventually produced Mary Mondal who confirmed that charges of anti-Christian persecution in her case were false.  Weekly Blitz ran a series of stories that exposed the scam, and I published the information in the same Canadian paper that ran the original.

This cooperative work by Bangladeshi Christians and Muslims—with the help of one American Jew—led to Mr. Gomes’ current human rights effort.  It is one that rejects the anti-Muslim tone often taken by those who claim to defend minority rights.  In fact, there already have been cases raised by Mr. Gomes that have found support from both Messrs. Choudhury and Huq.  Are we seeing a new dynamic in the fight for rights in Bangladesh?
Over the years, that battle has been carried out of the country by the so-called secularists.  Perhaps it is because many of them—in particular, Shahriar Kabir—are leftists, or like Mr. Kabir Communists, they often take on a definitely anti-religious tone.  It seems highly unlikely that the people of Bangladesh ever will follow a path that demonizes religion, which is what these secularists offer.  Mr. Gomes’ effort rejects such a path outright.  Mr. Choudhury has been one of Bangladesh’s most vocal critics of Islamists, but similarly always maintains a healthy respect for religion.  In the end, that offers religious minorities their best chance of being defended effectively because it refuses to set up a false dichotomy between their concerns and the concerns of Bangladeshi Muslims who make up close to 90 percent of the country.  Additionally, it should be embraced by the government as a way to eliminate the scourge of religious prejudice in the country and improve Bangladesh’s image worldwide.

Earlier, I mentioned that the Mary Mondal story almost made it to a US Congressional Briefing.  I was part of that briefing and can attest to the fact that the Congressman whose staff organized the event is very concerned about anti-Christian persecution in particular and anti-religious persecution in general.  Reaction to that case could have been disastrous for Bangladeshi efforts in the United States.  But due to the efforts of Messrs. Gomes, Choudhury, Huq, I was able to expose the false nature of the matter prior to the Briefing; and it was not even mentioned.  At the same time, all of us are working together to expose real cases of anti-religious violence and persecution, based on an anti-communalist approach, interfaith cooperation, and a high level of credibility with authorities in Bangladesh and elsewhere.

[Dr. Richard L. Benkin, an American Jew and independent human rights activist, secured the release of Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury from imprisonment and torture and ahs continued to defend him against attacks from both government functionaries and others.  He also is working with others in Bangladesh to stop anti-religious persecution.  Currently, Dr. Benkin is also leading an effort to defend Bangladeshi Hindus both in Bangladesh and India.  He is a correspondent for Weekly Blitz and Amador Shomoy and writes for numerous journals internationally.]

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