What happened to 'freedom of speech?

Published on Sunday, October 5, 2014
									<strong>A Rahman</strong>

The chorus of condemnation of the ex-Minister for Post, Telecommunication and Information Technology, Mr Abdul Latif Siddiqui (ALS) for raising some pertinent questions regarding Hajj and its implications are raging not only in Bangladesh but also in all countries of the world where Bangladeshis live. On Sunday, 28 September afternoon local time, Abdul Latif Siddiqui was speaking as a guest speaker at a local Bangladeshi gathering at the Jackson Heights Party Centre, New York. ALS was in New York attending the UN General Assembly Meeting as a member of the delegate (184 member team from Bangladesh) with the Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina.

During the meeting he raised, somewhat out of context, the question of Hajj. He commented, almost facetiously, that a large number of people performing Hajj are basically non-productive during the period and it constitutes a drain on the national resources. He also mentioned about civic disruption in the capital due to large influx of Hajjis during the pilgrimage period and gave verbally some estimate of national resources that is wasted.

It may be pointed out that he was not in charge of Hajj matters in any capacity, nor had he any business with Hajj while in America. Nonetheless, he raised this provocative issue in the meeting, knowing very well that an overwhelming majority would be Muslims from Bangladesh. Probably he thought the Muslims living in America would be moderate, more sympathetic to his view than those in Bangladesh. However, there was some disquiet in the meeting, but being a Minister with the Bangladeshi people in audience he got away without much of a protest.

But after the meeting all hell broke loose. People started accusing him of spreading anti-religious views, for hurting their religious sentiments and insulting their prophet. Some of them demanded his resignation, others called for his arrest and imprisonment for 14 years. Even some extreme elements demanded that he should be hanged! The religious parties in Bangladesh had a field day and started spreading innuendo not only against ALS but also against the Awami League government. A badly drafted transcript (probably by some religious men) of his speech went viral in the cyberspace on the following day.

He may have raised the point out of context, his manners and style of presentation in a public forum were most despicable; but as a citizen of a democratic country he has the right to raise any point, as long as it does not conflict with any existing law. Even if it does conflict with some existing laws of the country, it is the government to initiate the process of redressing that conflict through the legal system. No individual or a political party can demand summarily punishment. The individual has the democratic right to raise an issue which he may think important.

To appreciate and value democratic rights, one has to look at the fundamentals of democracy. Democracy is a form of government in which all eligible citizens (without regard to race, religion, caste, creed, ethnicity etc.) participate equally to form a government which would run the country according to the established laws of the land. The original concept of democracy came from Greek philosophers who envisaged ideally the "rule of the people". A government elected either by (i) directly on 'one person one vote' system or (ii) indirectly through 'elected representatives' by the majority of all eligible voters would be the legitimate body to run the country. There are certain essential requirements of democracy and these are, as in Westminster System: parliamentary sovereignty and judicial independence. There are certain characteristics of democratic system that need to be adhered to and these are: freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom of the press. Denying any one of these three characteristics or attributes would impair the conduct of democracy badly. In extreme cases, if all of these attributes are denied or violated, democracy would disappear completely. Democracy is not merely conducting an election, although a free and fair election is an essential element of democracy. But election cannot be free and fair if the above mentioned three attributes are violated.

So, the right of the said Minister (ALS) or, for that matter, any individual is enshrined in the democratic system. Any abuse of this right or transgression of liberty is to be dealt with by the legal system – not by the chorus of the mob or demonstration by the public. He raised the point that Hajj creates civic disturbance in the city and financially it is unattractive for the country. This financial consideration should be pitched against the religious obligation, if that is considered paramount.

But to consider the religious obligation, one has to look back at the origin of Hajj, the fourth pillar of Islam. The Kabah was dedicated to worshippers of Allah ever since Abraham and his son, Ishmael (the ancestors of Judaism) built it in Mecca and the Quraysh tribe, to which Hazrat Mohammad belonged, was the guardian of Kabah. The Arabs from all over the peninsula used to make the pilgrimage, called hajj, to Mecca each year to carry out traditional religious rites of worshipping Allah in Kabah over several days. Wars between the tribes, violence of any sort, cruelty to anybody or even to animals were forbidden during this Hajj period. Consequently, the tribes of the region could get together and carry out trade during this period in peace and in the safety of the sacred enclave (haram) containing Kabah and that helped Mecca to flourish as the main centre of trade in the western part of Arabia. The Quraysh tribe carrying out trades in that area became very prosperous and gradually became the dominant tribe. This tradition of Hajj was incorporated in Islam and was given the status of fourth pillar in Islam.

So, in the religious-political-economic framework of Islam, it is extremely difficult to separate religion from other aspects such as economic or political issues. Religious rites and rights had been firmly embedded in socio economic bedrock of Islam so that the religion could survive and flourish in the competing environment of the Middle East. Hajj comes from one of these considerations. Moreover, one must take into account that this Hajj predates Islam – Islam adopted it from the Jewish tradition. One other adoption in Islam was the practice of 'animal sacrifice' or 'Qurbani'. It also comes from Jewish practice and is related to Hebrew word 'qorban'.

Now, considering all these matters, ALS's verbal onslaught on Hajj does not seem all that irrelevant. It may have been raised inappropriately, the venue was definitely not the right place for religious discussions and his mode of presentation was most atrocious – but his point was worth considering. In fact, he should be praised for raising the point, for coming out of the religious box. He was also brave, in the sense that he surely knew that this controversial issue might have serious political repercussions and he was prepared to take that risk. His political opponents are already demanding, tagging on this matter, that his past corrupt records and practices should be considered now and punished. He was a Textile Minister in the previous Awami League government headed by the same Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina.

This issue which ALS' Hajj tirade had thrown up into the open goes far beyond the religious matters of Hajj, though very important matter as it is. It goes into the heart of our understanding of the religion and its adherence, the application of democratic principles in Bangladesh and the governance of the state. The following issues are worth considering in this respect:

  1. A national debate should be initiated to consider the various issues and strands related to Islam. It is particularly relevant at this point in time when IS is savaging vast swathes of land in the Middle East in the name of Islam.
  2. Are we following the democratic system with the rule of law at its heart or are we deluding ourselves in the name of democracy? Where does Bangladesh stand with regard to the 'freedom of speech', 'freedom of expression' and 'freedom of the press'?
  3. If ALS was guilty of corruption during the previous term of the government, why had he not been charged at that time? Why had he been taken in the present government as a senior minister and a member of the Presidium of the Awami League? What does it say of the honesty, accountability and competence of the present regime?

Dr. A Rahman is an author and a columnist. He can be reached at anisur.rahman1@btinternet.com

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