Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Curse of Cartooning Strikes Bangladesh

The political cartoon has always been a potent weapon, and the riots across the Muslim world over those infamous Danish cartoons is evidence of such, as well as suggestion that some can be a little over sensitive. Then there were the recent Swedish cartoons: it seems that Scandinavia has something to say to Islam that can only be done through pen and ink sketches. Bangladesh saw its fair share of rioting over the Danish cartoons (though some demonstrated outside the Norwegian embassy), but nothing compared to recent events.

A week or so ago a local cartoonist working for a Bangla daily – Prothom Alo – drew a small strip for a magazine mainly read by teenagers and young people. In it, a man asks a boy holding a cat what his name is, to which the boy replies. He is scolded for not adding the name Mohammed to his name, as ‘all Muslims should have the prophet’s name’. He is then asked his father’s name, and replies with the addition of Mohammed at the front. Praised by the man, the boy is asks the name of his cat, and like all good jokes, takes the advice innocently and adds Mohammed to the cat’s name.

Except, because this is Bangladesh, it was not interpreted as a joke and was instead the catalyst for enormous protests, as people poured onto the streets and marched towards the Prothom Alo offices determined to show their outrage to the cartoonist and the paper. Despite the ban by the caretaker government on protests and gatherings, offendees congregated, baying for the blood for yet another cartoonist.

Despite Bangladesh’s rather fierce secular tradition, the police were swift to act by arresting the cartoonist (a twenty year old) and charge him under a British blasphemy law that has been on statue for over a hundred years. Roughly speaking, his crime is to offend the religious sensibilities of the people. A difficult crime to define surely. Not content with the arrest of someone who amongst more nuanced opinion is seen to have made a mistake and misjudged his audience, the protesters did a little bit of bus burning (standard practice for a Dhaka protest) and demanded the government shut down the newspaper and arrest all the editors.

The media in Bangladesh is already under tight controls since the State of Emergency was announced in January, and some electronic media has been shut down whilst other editors have been warned to tow the government line on stories. Prothom Alo is the country’s biggest Bangla newspaper and has been respected for its comment and attempt to remain free in the tightening environment. It therefore seems incredible that protests, rather than complaining against the media crackdown and the decline of free speech and analysis, are actually calling for this to be accelerated!

It is of course true that Islam in sensitive to blasphemy, and free speech is not an excuse to cause deliberate, provocative offence, but in this case the cartoonist simply made a mistake, as many young journalists do. His joke was ill-judged. Yet he now faces two years in prison, and his newspaper is under threat from a powerful minority of professional offendees who manage to take offence at anything and everything.

Bangladesh at this time desperately needs a powerful and free press if the unelected, military backed government is to be kept in check in any way, and such protests are not helpful. Nor is it helpful or right to destroy a young man’s career and work without recourse. As always in Bangladesh, the marginalised and unpowerful can never make mistakes, whilst the rich and influential build careers out of doing so.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Bangladesh...Living on the Edge

I just read a small article from the World Bank which notes that Bangladesh is the most dangerous place in the world to live, in terms of natural disasters. On average, there are 6.14 natural disasters per year in Bangladesh, with Afghanistan a poor second with only 1.34 (though I am sure the Taliban and Nato can make life a little more exciting there if anyone is feeling a little humdrum). This is a little astounding, and more than a little worrying for those in the disaster basin that is the 'desh.
The range of disasters that Bangladesh can and does face are very numerous. Only last week was I awoken in the early hours to be informed of a Tsunami warning, though it proved to be a false alarm. Quick onset disasters are pretty regular - tsunamis are accompanied by earthquakes, landslides, flash flooding, cyclones, tornadoes and coastal flooding. This year, we have had a landslide in Chittagong which killed around 150 people, two cyclones that made landfall, a tornado in the south-west and many small earthquakes. In general, Bangladesh has not the resources to cope with these problems and as such many more people die than would in other places.
Slow-onset events compliment the quick disasters. River flooding is the main one, with this year's floods reaching the highest levels in 30 years and displacing millions. Round two of this episode kicked in late last week. Famine is also a regular event, as are droughts and insect infestations, all leading to crop losses and deaths.
Combined, these events do much to undermine Bangladesh's efforts to bring sustainable and long-lasting development, and this before the social issues of rising population, increased social tension and extreme poverty are added into the mix. All in all, it is easy to see why Bangladesh faces such challenges.
However, it also makes even more ridiculous the idea that is being floated around Bangladeshi policy circles at the moment, that what the country really needs is a nuclear power station! I would rather that Iran had nuclear power than Bangladesh - it would be in safer hands. In light of the 6.14 natural disasters a year (6 times the next highest!), is it really safe to build such things here?
Another article (on water policy and development in Bangladesh) can be read here

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Ramadan Is On The Way

Ramadan – Islam’s holiest month – is upon us once again, and like most of the Islamic world, Bangladesh’s 120 million or so Muslims are preparing to fast for the next four weeks. Ramadan sees a partial shut down of the country that makes the Christmas period at home seem like a Victorian workhouse. All the small shops close during the day, covering their entrances with cloth so as not to advertise that there is any food on sale. The shacks and tea houses that hug little street corners and are like miniature food factories stop their industrious production of samosas, shingaras, dhal puri and paratha and instead stand empty until around 3 pm when the production of Iftar food begins in earnest, ready for the fasters to descend at sunset as ravenous vultures do to a fresh corpse.

Ramadan is noticeable on the streets as well. Rickshaw pullers are prolific smokers, and can be found hanging around their rickshaws puffing away all day, but during Ramadan they are forced to twiddle their thumbs as they wait for passengers. Beggars flood into the city as most of the alms giving that is a requirement of Islam is done during this period. The VSO office is opposite a mosque, and getting in can be a bit a gauntlet of the lame, blind and homeless as these unfortunate people line the walls of the mosque entrance.

In the office, most of the staff will be fasting, and as a consequence work will probably end at three or three-thirty each day, as after this they have very little energy left to do anything. As I have only two weeks now to finish off the final bits of my placement work, it is slightly less than helpful! I have investigated the possibility of also holding the fast, but this gets mixed reactions. Some people are quite adamant that non-Muslims should not do it as it is associated with a certain sincerity and belief, which a non-believer would insult by participating. Whilst I think this is somewhat an overreaction (I know many non-Christians who celebrate Christmas), I can sympathise with the idea that the fast is part of a lifetime commitment. It is also part of the Muslim experience, whilst not necessary being part of the Bengali experience and hence is less necessary to understanding Bengal, Bangladesh and their complex history. I also get very hungry around one o’clock and don’t think I could make it through until five thirty without something – I’m still drinking three or four litres of water a day because of the heat, and couldn’t manage without that. I’m planning to through my hat in with the pregnant women.

You can see my latest article for New Age here

Friday, September 07, 2007

Goats and Gatemen

I’ve been away in Tibet for a few weeks, so hence this update is a little late. As before, this blog is about Bangladesh and so there is no space for recounting tales of the Himalayas, save on snippet that reveals the good nature of Bangladeshis and is a further lesson to how to have a genuinely inclusive society. Tibet is famed for its monasteries, but Tibetan Buddhism has its routes in India. One particularly notable pioneer in the second wave of Buddhist defusion was a Bengali scholar called Atisha, who amongst other things set up some monasteries and lived in a cave, as all good religious people of that era would do. He was originally from what is now part of Bangladesh.

Tibet, as you will know, has since been brutally inserted into the modern world through the Chinese occupation, and during the cultural revolution many thousands of monasteries were destroyed by the Red Guards. It is to Bangladesh’s eternal credit that it made a direct appeal to the Chinese government to ask for a monastery west of Lhasa set up by Atisha some 900 years ago to be spared the assault. This was around 1972/1973, when Bangladesh had just emerged from its war of Liberation and was coming to terms with the aftermath of the Pakistani genocide (at least 1 million people died, some say 3 million), devastating 1971 flooding, and the problems of establishing the rule of law in a new country wrecked by a year of conflict. However, amidst widespread hardship and suffering in a country where the form of Buddhism is of a different school and practiced by less than one per cent of the population, Bangladesh made efforts to protect a small part of Tibet’s cultural heritage. It is important that Bangladesh’s empathy is noted, especially in world we live today.

Unfortunately, Bangladesh today has many of the problems that other countries face and the rioting and curfew events of August 20th – 22nd was a rather different story, with a crackdown by the police on protesters, increased reports of police brutality towards those in custody and the arrest of former prime minister Khaleda Zia and her two sons. Bangladesh is entering a nervous period as it is uncertain where it will all finish – a full, overt military coup, or a renewed and deep democracy minus Hasina and Zia? Whatever road is finally taken, it seems unlikely that this cannot be traversed without bloodshed, as the prospective election is some way off and tensions are mounting.

Back in the more secluded world of my flat and its environs, I am having my sleep disturbed by a goat. Most housing blocks in Dhaka have a caretaker of sorts, whose job is to open up the doors, collect rubbish and other menial jobs. Usually they live in the garage on the ground floor, not a particularly pleasant place to have a bed and mosquito net, but that is the way it is – life is cheap, and many people will do this job for worse conditions.

However, despite living in the garage, my sympathy for Ali, our caretaker is rather limited. Not only does he seem incapable of completing any simple task without asking for a little baksheesh (he has at times asked me for baksheesh for work he has done for someone else!), he has now decided to by a goat that lives with him in one side of the garage. The goat is either quite young or quite astute, as its constant bleating is that of a creature missing its mother or knowing it is for the chop, but it is certainly incredibly annoying. It only whinges at night, and then deposits droppings around the garage and up the stairs to our flat, as well as generally making the place look miserable with its forlorn ‘soon to be slaughtered’ look – I’d rather it just got on with it and accepted its fate. Instead, it has made its bed directly beneath my window, which needs to be open to prevent the spontaneous combustion of me and the room in the early September heat. I have noticed with satisfaction its growing waistline, and am looking forward to its date with the halal butcher. The goat is less anxious for that day to arrive.