BANGLADESH: Photography students receive death threats

Students and staff of Pathshala, the South Asian Institute of Photography, told to stop violating Islamic law with their work

By Angilee Shah
Contributing Writer

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Students and staff at Pathshala, the Dhaka-based South Asian Institute of Photography, received death threats over the weekend from proponents of Islamic law in Bangladesh. The letters, sent to at least three students and 16 staff, faculty and board members, allege that the school's photographers are violating Islamic law in their work.

The letters were individually addressed and mailed to Pathshala and to students' home addresses. While it is unknown who made the threat, the author claims to be a leader of Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), an organization banned by the government and known for its militant activities. The page-long form letter, one of which was seen by AsiaMedia, outlines alleged goals of JMB and warns students and staff to stop "all kinds of photography except natural photography," "all kinds of movie [sic] and movie posters," "cultural program" and "fine arts." The author writes that addressees and their families will be killed if these activities continue.

In Islam, idolatry is forbidden and in some of the strictest traditions, representing people in a form such as photography is considered a form of idolatry or a practice which can lead to idolatry.

Pathshala founder and principal Shahidul Alam received initial notice of the threats from staff members. On Monday, several students emailed him to say that they too had been threatened. Alam is visiting the United States this week to give a series of talks at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Alam said he has instructed the staff of Pathshala to file a complaint, or general diary with Dhaka police, increase school security and maintain good communications. While students and staff are concerned about the threats, Alam says it is important not to panic.

"I think it is known," Alam told AsiaMedia, "that Pathshala is not an organization that caves in to external pressure."

The institution, according to Alam, is "a very progressive space" which hosts critical events that Islamists and some political groups might find objectionable. Journalists in Bangladesh are often threatened for investigative reports, particularly those about corruption, but Alam said that this particular threat appears to be "a general attack against culture."