Fundamentalism east and west

I expect many readers who watched SBS World News last night were, like me, horrified at the report on the anti-blasphemy rally in Bangladesh. (I can’t find it online, but here’s the Al-Jazeera report.)

Hundreds of thousands of people rallied to demand a new law against blasphemy, particularly in relation to so-called “atheist bloggers”. As the BBC’s reporter puts it, they asked for “the provision of the death penalty to punish those who insulted Islam and the Prophet Muhammad.”

The politics of this are somewhat complex. The controversial bloggers are not explicitly about religion, but they have been calling for the death penalty for war criminals from Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence. The accused (and in some cases convicted) war criminals just happen to be leaders of the opposition fundamentalist party Jamaat-e-Islami. No doubt many atrocities were committed in the war, but it’s unlikely the fundamentalists would be on trial were it not for the fact that they fought on the losing side.

So this is much more a party political move than a spontaneous demonstration of religious outrage. All the same, the fact that such numbers of people can be mobilised to demand death for the expression of opinion is deeply shocking.

What it particularly reminded me of was the huge protests in France in January, where a similar number (in a much smaller country) turned out to oppose the legalisation of same-sex marriage – or “a change to civilisation”, as they put it.

Of course the analogy should not be pushed too far: the French protesters were not demanding the death penalty for gays (although it would be interesting to know how many of their leaders would have explicitly repudiated the idea). But that mainly tells us that France is a safer and more politically peaceful society than Bangladesh, which we knew already.

The basic similarity remains. In each case religious fundamentalists, for their own political purposes, were remarkably successful in bringing their followers onto the streets and gaining international attention.

The difference is in how we perceive them. We know that the French anti-gay protesters, for all their impressive mobilisation, are not representative of the country as a whole. Yet when it comes to less familiar, less developed and (especially) Muslim countries, we too easily tar the whole population with the extremist brush.

In fact, Bangladesh is not at all a fundamentalist nation. Jamaat-e-Islami won only 4.6% of the vote at the last election, and the four-party alliance of which it was a part was decisively beaten. Unfortunately, it’s standard practice in the west to give Muslim fundamentalism a prominence that we would never extend to the Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist or Baptist variety.

Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, has rejected the demand for a new blasphemy law. (Sadly enough, existing laws are already very strict.) And the French Senate is expected to pass the same-sex marriage legislation later this week. That’s none out of two for fundamentalism.

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