Cartoon Jihad in Bangladesh
On Sunday, Bangladeshi journalist Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury returns to court to face charges including blasphemy, sedition and treason, charges that carry the death penalty. Mr. Choudhury's "crimes" consist of praising Israel and condemning Islamist extremism. There had been some hope that Bangladesh's new government, which is less beholden to Islamists than its predecessor, would drop the charges. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case.
One recent event in particular offers a very bad omen for Choudhury. On Thursday, Bangladeshi authorities arrested a newspaper cartoonist named Arifur Rahman and arbitrarily sentenced him to 30 days in prison for drawing a cartoon deemed defamatory of the Prophet Mohammed. The BBC describes the "offending" cartoon:
Police arrested Mr Rahman following complaints by the head cleric of Dhaka's main mosque.
The cartoon featured a conversation between a mullah and a child and ended with a joke about the Prophet Mohammed's name.
Mr Rahman was jailed under Bangladesh's emergency laws.
These give the authorities powers to hold people without charge if they are deemed to threaten national security.
The government's information minister said the cartoons were part of a conspiracy to throw the country in chaos, but a senior editor of the newspaper said the cartoons had been published by mistake.
The newspaper in question, Prothom Alo, has fired Rahman and apologized for the cartoon. As usual, the Islamists remain unsatisfied. To begin with, the cartoonist, editor and publisher involved are being sued by an Islamic university. Many Islamists, however, aren't content with legal responses to this "offense".
Today, in an echo of the 1994 protests demanding the death of author Taslima Nasreen, Islamist protestors in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka demanded that Rahman's editor be killed. Agence France Presse describes the scene:
Demonstrators chanted slogans demanding the execution of newspaper editor Matiur Rahman and burned effigies of him and copies of the Bengali-language daily.
"More than 9,000 people protested against the cartoon in front of the national mosque and tried to march to the Prothom Alo office," said a police official speaking on condition of anonymity.
A doctor at the city's main hospital said that five people had been treated for "very minor" injuries.
The cartoon appeared in Prothom Alo's weekly satirical magazine Alpin. Its cartoonist, Arisur Rahman, 23, was detained earlier this week and later remanded in custody by a court.
Matiur Rahman Thursday apologized for the cartoon, which showed a small boy adding the name Mohammed to the name of a cat.
In addition to the arrest of Arifur Rahman, AFP also reports that "Bangladesh's military-backed emergency government seized copies of another magazine for allegedly insulting Islam":
"The government has banned the Eid issue of the Bengali language weekly magazine Shaptahik 2000 for publishing an autobiographical article where the writer desecrated the holy shrine Mecca," said Shahenur Mia, senior information officer at the home affairs ministry.
Mia declined to elaborate, but the Daily Inqilab newspaper said that the author, Daud Haider, who has lived in Germany for 30 years, compared Mecca to a brothel in India.
"The government has ordered the seizure of all copies of this issue of the magazine," added Mia.
The events in Bangladesh show that Islamists do not have to hold power in order to censor that which they deem "un-Islamic". Just the threat of Islamist anger is enough to persuade many Muslim governments to crack down on expression that offends the extremists. However, instead of placating them, such appeasement merely emboldens the Islamists.