To kill a February dream

Published on Saturday, February 2, 2019

"We must not impose restrictions on knowledge in the name of religion"


John Milton in Areopagitica wrote, "Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties."

His view is not solitary. In the world of literature, there are countless numbers of epigraphs- authors inscribing what they desire to say in words that speak the truth.

But what, precisely, does it mean?

Milton in Areopagitica traced the origin of this literary fundamental back to ancient Athens: think of poet and dramatist Euripides's outcry, "This is slavery, not to speak one's thought."

Sayed Waliullah as well comes quickly to mind. In Lalsalu he told us how ordinary people are exploited by religious zealots with an unflinching eye. No fear, but no hyperbole either. His view is true because it's unafraid, bold and fair.

Had he been afraid, holding back from exposing the truth, his Lalsalu would have depicted Mazid just as a perverted individual who has nothing to do with faith. If that were the case, will you rate Lalsalu as a literary masterpiece?

Luckily, Sayed Waliullah like many before and after him realised that writing is about being fearless and an author's obligation is to be authentic in telling a story, however painful that truth may be.

This realisation was recently echoed by Kristen Einarsson, chair of the International Publishers Association's (IPA) Freedom To Publish committee when she rightly pointed out, "If publishing and literature are going to be able to help create and maintain free healthy societies going forward, then publishers must have the will and the ability to challenge established thinking, preserve the history of our cultures, and to make room for critical opposition and challenging artistic expression."

However, unlike Milton, her insight is derived more directly from the struggles of the writers and publishers of the modern time.

It also, at once, connects us to the warning recently issued in Bangladesh that legal action will be taken against writers and publishers if any book hurting religious sentiment or disrupting communal harmony is published at this year's Amar Ekushey Book Fair.

This call for censorship, understandably, is motivated by the latest slaughters of the innocent writers and publishers by the Ìslamic extremist outfits, which is no surprise given that our political establishment has a mediocre tendency of playing into the hands of the extremists and censorship often imposed when terrorists preach and kill in pursuit of their violent and hateful ideology.

Isn't it, exactly, what the religious fundamentalists - those who see themselves as possessors of the only truth, and constantly wary of those who, by challenging false doctrines, or by insulting divinity, threatens to defile this truth - aim to achieve?

History tells us, religious fundamentalism always had conflicts with the brightest minds as it is their job to question and to establish the truth.

In case, you're confused, let's have a quick review:

In a bid to restrict the truth from prevailing the Catholic church continued publishing the notorious Index Librorum Prohibitorum since 1559, which was a list of publications that were forbidden according to the Catholic Church. Authors such as Descartes, Voltaire, Victor Hugo, and Sartre were on the list.

The beginning of the Islamic empire is marked with the killing of the poet Asma Bint Marwan. She was killed lying next to her newborn baby.

Hinduism is no exception. The brutal murder of journalist and writer Gauri Lankesh by Hindu extremists in India serves as a recent example.

All those events remind us of wicked and deplorable trends of the past and societies when it was held the duty of the State to enforce and openly coerce opinion in the name of faith where duties of citizenship included upholding values of a particular faith.

Fortunately, the human civilisation has come past those dark times and reached a point where everyone, at least those who believe in reason, can agree that censorship should not be imposed on creativity.

But, ironically, that's not the case for us. We're, apparently, going backwards.

It's a pity that the aim of this renewed sanction is directed at the Ekushe book fair which is the single most important literary festival of our nation attached to a proud history of freedom of expression and diversity of opinion that takes us back to the language movement of 1952.

Now, allow me to call a spade a spade, this entire concept conjures an image of a rigorous political regime, scrutinising every line of a book either to delete or to destroy anything that speaks against the existing orthodoxy and hypocritical ideologies. Who can create art when afraid of offending?

In the last line of "Arek Falgun" fearless Jahir Raihan wrote, " In the coming spring, our numbers will multiply".

Yet another spring has come to us, but this is not the spring he has dreamt of on the day of February 21st 1952.

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