Hundreds of Islamic hardliners and activists from Hizbut Tahir and other various organizations descended to the streets of Bangladesh to protest the publication of a cartoon that allegedly ridicules the Prophet Muhammad. The cartoon in question was published in the September 17, 2007, issue of Prothom Alo’s magazine Aalpin. Protesters claimed that the cartoon was a deliberate attempt to ridicule and poke fun at the Prophet Muhammad.
By September 21, 2007, Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka erupted in violence as protesters targeted buildings and cars to express their anger over the publication. Thousands of protesters joined the rally in the center of Dhaka, defying the government’s ban on protests.
Bangladesh has been under a state of emergency since January 2007 when an army-backed interim government took over following months of political turmoil and violence. Despite the ban, Islamic leaders urged followers to take to the streets, where many of them were met with batons and heavily armed police.
Muhammad the Cat
The cartoon that sparked the protests involved a small boy who referred to his cat as “Mohammed cat.” The boy was having a conversation with an elderly cleric. It goes as follows:
Boy, what’s your name? My name is Abu.
It is customary to put Mohammed in front of the name.
What is your father’s name? Mohammed Abu.
What is that on your lap? Mohammed cat.
Because the name Mohammed is highly revered in Islam, critics objected to the use of his name for a cat.
Backlash Against Prothom Alo
The newspaper editor immediately apologized for the publication and urged the demonstrators to, “forgive the mistake.” Clerics have called for the death of the cartoonist Arifur Rahman. Mr. Rahman was arrested by Bangladeshi authorities and jailed for a month, as government officials claim his drawings insulted Muslims. The move by the Bangladesh government to arrest Rahman is likely an attempt to appease the protesters, which has been unsuccessful as the violence and protests continue.
Prothom Alo has apologized on several occasions as the editor and other staff members appealed for forgiveness. Police have set barricades around the offices of Prothom Alo as activists tried to break through. Demonstrators chanted “hang the cartoonist” and “death to the Prothom Alo editor” as they battled with police in multiple attempts to reach the office building.
The Bangladeshi government is accusing Prothom Alo of hurting the sentiment of devoted Muslims and upsetting law and order. The government is giving the publishers two weeks to explain why the newspaper should not be banned and legal action should not be taken against the publishers. Right wing fundamentalist groups in Bangladesh are still not satisfied, as they are demanding the newspaper be banned and the editor arrested.
Cartoon Violence A Growing Occurrence
A series of controversial cartoons published by European newspapers has also created tensions between Muslims and European nations. On August 19, the Swedish daily Nerikes Allehanda published a cartoon with Mohammad’s head on the body of a dog. While this has not yet led to massive street demonstrations, it has caused a stir as both Iranian and Pakistani diplomats summoned their Swedish counterparts to explain the publications and lodge formal complaints.
The cartoons in Bangladesh and Sweden are yet to compare to the Danish cartoon crisis in 2006, where boycotts were led against European goods, massive riots rocked Muslim countries, and multiple attacks were recorded against European embassies and consulates in the Middle East. Radical Muslim leaders played a vital role in the Danish crisis as they urged their constituents to express anger against Europeans.
Bangladesh is the latest country to be hit by cartoon violence. The publication of controversial cartoons, especially in the West, is strictly seen as a freedom of speech. However, this same freedom is not shared in the Muslim world when it comes to religion, especially when it involves drawings of the prophet Mohammad.
Islam is the state religion of Bangladesh and past governments have banned certain publications deemed as insulting to Muslims. It is likely that this situation will simmer, but as more individuals and publications in the West and even within Muslim countries continue the trend of religious publications, the situation most likely will worsen.