It all began with a remark made by Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islam Dhaka city leader Rafiqul Islam Khan. Since Sheikh Hasina’s government came into office in early 2009, it has been thwarting political activity of Jamaat and of its student wing Islami Chhatra Shibir and harassing the leaders and activists of these two organizations in the street and in their offices and residences.
In such a context, in a discussion program organized by Shibir on the life of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in Dhaka on 17 March 2010, Rafiqul Islam Khan tended to compare the difficulty the Islamic party people were facing to that of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions in the seventh century. He also reportedly said that Jamaat chief Motiur Rahman Nizami was made a target of political vendetta by Sheikh Hasina’s government, and in this respect he pointed to the fact that Prophet Muhammad also faced a comparable situation when he was preaching Islam.
That was it. The ruling party Awami League got the cue and presumably used a man called Syed Rezaul Haque to file a blasphemy case against Shibir’s leader ASM Yahia and against four topmost prominent Jamaat leaders: Matiur Rahman Nizami (Jamaat Chief), Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojaheed (Jamaat Secretary General), Delwar Hossain Sayedee (Jamaat Deputy Chief) and Rafiqul Islam Khan (Chief of Jamaat’s Dhaka city unit and the party’s Acting Secretary General).
The plaintiff Syed Rezaul Haque filed the case on 21 March 2010 and claimed that Rafiqul Islam Khan compared Nizami to the Prophet Muhammad and thus hurt the religious sentiment of Muslims. Before the case was filed, few people gave any heed to what Rafiqul Islam Khan had said in the small gathering of 17 March 2010. People in Bangladesh were flabbergasted for the obvious reason that Jamaat-Shibir people are the ones who regularly protest against any offensive remarks on Islam or on its holy symbols.
Ironically, in that court case the same group of people were accused of the crime against which they generally inveigh whenever there is an occasion for protest. No secular media (local or international) regarded Syed Rezaul Haque as intolerant or as a man with anti-free-speech tendencies. No secularist commentators wrote in the print or electronic media or appeared on the television to defend the freedom of expression. Eventually, Sheikh Hasina’s government used Syed Rezaul Haque’s case and arrested all the accused.
Surprisingly, Matiur Rahman Nizami and Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojaheed were not even present in the 17 March 2010 meeting in which Rafiqul Islam Khan made that fateful remark. All the four topmost Jamaat leaders eventually landed in jail with the charge of blasphemy, and gradually the government kept bringing other charges against them, the most fatal being the charge of crimes against humanity allegedly committed by them four decades ago during Bangladesh’s 1971 independence war. Including those four, now altogether nine Jamaat leaders have been incarcerated on the alleged charge of crimes against humanity.
Surprisingly, since Sheikh Hasina’s government came to power in early 2009, there have been many incidents of blasphemous remarks in various parts of Bangladesh. Most of these have been against the Prophet Muhammad and many of them have been reported in the Dhaka-based Bangla vernacular daily Amar Desh. Perhaps coincidentally, most of the blasphemers in different parts of Bangladesh who have been making offensive remarks against the Prophet Muhammad are Hindu school teachers. And the Hindu community in Bangladesh is proverbially regarded as a vote bank for Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League party.