Strict blasphemy laws limit religious debate in Bangladesh

Under Section 295A of the Bangladeshi Penal code, 1860, any person who has a 'deliberate' or 'malicious' intention of hurting religious sentiments is liable to face imprisonment. This article of the penal code was recently, and prominently, enforced against controversial and now exiled feminist and writer Taslima Nasreen. Nasreen wrote a series of newspaper columns in which she was critical of the treatment of women under Islam; many of her books are now banned in Bangladesh.

Under clauses 99(a),(b),(c),(d),(e) and (f) of The Code of Criminal Procedure, "the government may confiscate all copies of a newspaper if it publishes anything subversive of the state or provoking an uprising or anything that creates enmity and hatred among the citizens or denigrates religious beliefs. The magistrate can send police with a warrant to the place where these newspapers are found. The aggrieved person can take the matter to the notice of the high court."

And, under clause 108, "a magistrate can ask for an undertaking from a person who has made an attempt to express anything seditious or create class-conflict," while a journalist can be prevented from going to his specified place of work under clause 144.

The relative strictness of these laws implies the existence of several limitations on the discussion of some religious questions in the public sphere, given that there is a criminal sentence for the rather ambiguous crime of 'hurting religious sentiments'.

As a consequence of these laws, there was a largely homogenous response to the cartoons, with a widespread condemnation of European newspapers, with some sections even demanding a complete boycott of trade with Europe.

This sentiment was also mirrored in the response of the Bangladeshi government -- arguably the strongest official stance seen in Asia -- which demanded an offiicial apology from the Danish envoy in Dhaka.


Leaders Respond


"We've urged the government of Denmark to take necessary steps to stop recurrence of such heinous act. We also requested them to tender apology to diffuse the sense of insult and anger created following the incident," Foreign Minister M. Morshed Khan said in the Bangladesh Parliament.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Khaleda Zia demanded an apology for what she called "extremely arrogant" drawings, but appealed to Muslims to not allow their anger to turn into violence.


Commentaries

  • Media the worst enemy! (Daily Star)
    The government in Bangladesh, not the media, is responsible for negative images of Bangladesh in the world, writes A.N.M. Nurul Haque
  • What would Prophet Mohammed have done? (Daily Star)
    Bangladeshi Muslims should respect the spirit of the Prophet and not overreact to the cartoons, writes Tarek Fatah

Resources

  • Banglapedia
    Banglapedia is an online encyclopedia that provides a history of the country's press laws back to 1799. This entry includes information about the nature of criminal procedures in cases of religious blasphemy.

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