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A view from Bangladesh

Please do not ban books — not even the ugliest

by Mahfuzur Rahman, 12 September 2010

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The Daily Star, September 9, 2010

Banning books is banning knowledge.

The news item barely made it to the print media. Several weeks ago The Daily Star reported that the government "has removed all books written by alleged war criminals and people involved in preaching [the] ideology of Maududi … from all countrywide libraries based in mosques and others run by the Islamic Foundation", the government sponsored organisation. The news report was brief, crowded by a throng of other matters. Indeed there was a lot to report on. There was the just announced government budget, a spike in crime rates, the war crimes trial, turmoil in the garments industry, falling buildings and blazing fires, murderous feuding in the Chhatra League, and the endless antics of national political leaders.

The Jamaat-e-Islami protested the government’s decision. The BBC carried the news. As usual nowadays, exchanges over the issue on the internet probably far outnumbered those in the print media. Yet, on the whole, reaction to the news, as far as it could be gauged, was mute.

There could be a number of reasons why the news was received with relative silence. This was not a total ’ban’ on books written by Abul A’la Maududi or those inspired by his writings. A ’ban’ normally means prohibition on the production, sale, and possession of the targeted book, which apparently was not the case here. Not that a total ban would have caused a commotion. We as a nation are quite attuned to book banning. A second reason might have been the way the government’s decision to remove the books was made public: the state minister for religious affairs announced it in reply to a question in parliament during question hour. Given the unenviable esteem in which parliament is held by the public and politicians alike, it was no surprise that the information provided by the minister in parliament received so little attention.

All was not quiet, however. There was some debate, especially on the internet. But the little noise that broke the silence is almost as disturbing as the silence itself. Voices were raised in support of the ban. And they came from secularists and liberals, among them individuals whose views on the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism I mostly share.

Much of the support for the ban seemed to come from the argument that Maududi’s books preach fundamentalist Islam, call for establishment of an Islamic state based on the Sharia, and incite violence against the secular order to achieve their objective. Maududi’s stance on the Islamic state is well known. His Islamic scholarship has been questioned, but his books are read, and his writings have stirred minds, especially in Pakistan and lately in Bangladesh. There is also little doubt about the brand of Islam he and his political party, the Jamaat-e-Islami, preached in Pakistan. There is no ambiguity about his goal: the setting up of an Islamic state based on the Sharia. The extremism of his ideology was exemplified in his violent opposition to the Ahmadiyyas. He was instrumental in bringing about the 1953 uprising in Lahore that led to a massacre of the Ahmadiyyas of the city. The political regime at the time was still untainted by fundamentalist Islam. It imposed martial law and suppressed the anti-Ahmadiyya uprising with iron hand. Maududi was put on trial and sentenced to death but the sentence was not carried out.

There is also support for banning books written by Islamist who opposed the creation of Bangladesh among them those who are said to have committed war crimes during the country’s liberation struggle. Many of those who were opposed to the emergence of Bangladesh are said to belong to Jamaat-e-Islami. But the ideology of the Jamaat has helped spawn a host of Islamist activism under different umbrellas. I am not familiar with the kind of writings these groups might be indulging in, but do not rule out the existence of considerable literature of low quality and high potency.

It is, however, one thing to decry an ideology and wish it were not there; it is quite another to try to shut it out. In a truly secular nation it is tempting to ban books that advocate the setting up of a fundamentalist Islamic state. It is doubly tempting if such a state is sought to be established by violence. In both cases the urge should be tempered.

To support ban on books - any book - is to support the idea that governments can decide which book people should or should not read. That idea impinges on the fundamental right of the individual to read whatever he or she might like to read. This is part of the freedom of thought that lies at the very heart of secular democracy that the present proponents of the ban claim to uphold. To abridge that right is to kill it.

A truly secular and democratic government would be acting from a position of strength and not weakness if it refused to ban books that fall foul of its ideology. Equally important, such refusal would strengthen its hands when it came to defending works that uphold secularism and democratic rights and are critical of religious fundamentalism of all kinds. A tradition of refusal to ban books could be the strongest citadel of defence against the very books that threaten secularism and whose ban is being supported by some secularists today.

Am I perhaps asking for the moon? There is precious little evidence that healthy traditions are taking root in the country. Here, political parties, when not in power, routinely boycott parliament instead of sitting in it in active opposition; in this country leaders of major political parties find it excruciatingly difficult to swallow private spite to promote public good; here no minister of government ever resigns for being incompetent, or hardly ever gets sacked for it. Far from good traditions being nurtured in these and other critical areas, they are being destroyed elsewhere - in education for one. The question of banning books would seem to lie at the bottom of priorities for beleaguered governments that have ruled the country since its inception. This is evident in the manner in which the recent announcement about the banning in question was made. It was perfunctory, vague, and seemed motivated by short-term political expedience. A clear policy that says we shall not ban any books is nowhere on the horizon. Yet we can further delay a clear declaration on such policy only at our peril as a secular nation.

The argument that these books incite violence and hence should be banned would appear specious on close inspection. The history of suppression of books by official fiat is instructive here. Banning of communist literature has a long history. To refresh our memory, much of that literature in first half of the last century called for violent overthrow of the capitalist system and its replacement by the dictatorship of the proletariat. And much of it was duly suppressed by governments considered by the communists as mere lackeys of the bourgeois. Liberals and communists alike were strongly opposed to such suppression. If there was no justification for banning of books of this genre because they incited violence, there should in fairness be none in the present case.

To refuse to ban books that incite violence is not to condone violence. The threat of violence should rather be confronted directly. The full force of law should be used to prosecute and punish those who want to establish a fundamentalist Islamic state through violence. A mere ban would seem like prescription for inaction.

Finally, banning of books is easy; it is also far less effective as a weapon for combating ideologies. Books prohibited simply go underground. The history of communist movement throughout the world provides ample proof of the futility of prohibition of ideas, as does the spread of Samizdat literature in the Soviet Union.

Let us not ban books.

Mahfuzur Rahman is a former United Nations economist and an occasional contributor to The Daily Star.