What constitutes hurting religious sentiments?

How does one determine "hurt"? It is so personal and subjective. What may be a legitimate and innocent question may end up hurting another.

Mahfuz Anam

Mahfuz Anam

The Daily Star


Representative illustration of people being incarcerated for hurting religious sentiments. PHOTO: THE DAILY STAR

May 17, 2024

DHAKA – Respect for others’ religious beliefs is one of the fundamental pillars of our present day civilisation. Learning from history, from the incessant religious wars in many parts of the world, especially in Europe, people realised and internalised in their collective consciousness that unless mutual tolerance became the norm, violence and war would never cease and human prosperity could never be achieved. This practice of tolerance began with accepting the norms and practices of the religions of others.

This writer and this newspaper are firmly opposed to anyone hurting religious sentiments. We are, in principle and in practice, totally against anyone, however remotely or indirectly, denigrating the religious feelings of others.

In history, one of the most brutal and protracted religious wars was the First Crusade, initiated by Pope Urban II in 1095 when he called upon the Christians to unite and recapture the city of Jerusalem from the Muslims. The reason I mention this is because it is important to know that the first victims of the First Crusade were not Muslims but the European Jews at the hands of the Roman Catholic Christian army. Thus, from the very beginning, it showed that wars in the name of religion often victimise those who are not the original target. Many vested interest groups enter into play and use the heightened emotion and blind devotion—characteristics of faith-based wars—to achieve their own narrow ends. A lesson that has been proven over and over again throughout history.

The question of “hurting religious sentiments” is hardly comparable to wars. However, one has to be fully aware of where these things can lead to, the examples of which we saw in Bosnia-Herzegovina and in many riots that took place, and still does, in South Asia, each of which contains the seed of greater conflagration.

There are two ways of achieving the goal of inculcating religious tolerance: social and legal.

The social measures come through the family, social values and education. Family is where learning of all sorts begins. This is where values about not hurting others’ religious sentiments must be taught. The parents and the larger family have a sacred obligation to create an environment that will instil in every child the obligation to respect their own religion and that of others. In Bangladesh, where the vast majority are Muslims and we are proud of our faith, we need to ensure that the followers of other religions are allowed to feel the same. Every Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, members of ethnic groups and followers of other religions are proud of their own faiths and, as the majority community, it is our responsibility to ensure an atmosphere of tolerance that allows the followers of all faiths to practise their religions in total freedom and ease. That is the premise on which the whole notion of religious tolerance is based, and one that everyone in society must respect. That is a fundamental principle of our Liberation War, our constitution, and of course democracy. This must start at the family level.

Then comes society, where the above values of religious tolerance must be made the norm. We must be fully aware of the fact that religious pride and religious chauvinism are far from being the same. Pride about one’s own religion is natural and should be allowed full play. But when that pride transforms into a belief, which subconsciously leads to looking down upon the religion of others, that is when religious pride becomes religious chauvinism. This is how, without being conscious of it, we become intolerant.

The third element in building a society of religious tolerance is education. Here, our latest national curriculum framework of 2021 made some significant contributions. In the chapter “Religion Studies,” it states that every student must study his/her religion in order to become a faithful follower and understand the true meaning of what is stated in his/her religion. Simultaneous to learning about their own religion, students must also develop tolerance about the religion of others in order to show respect and to build a harmonious society where everyone can live in peace. The education policy further states that true knowledge about one’s own religion is vitally important so that no one can misguide them with inappropriate or false interpretation.

The issue of tolerance in general and religious tolerance in particular have become a matter of great concern as we see a global rise in narrow-mindedness, prejudice and hatred based on race, colour, ethnicity, and religion. Ultranationalism is, on occasion, blended with religious beliefs that essentially incorporate hatred for other religions, causing a great disruption to social harmony and creating conditions for future tension, if not outright conflict.

Our final point is the legal construct to prevent “hurting” the religious sentiments of others. Whenever we try to make a law to prevent such occurrences, we must ensure that the law is clear and unambiguous. This brings us to the discussion of the old Digital Security Act (DSA), about which we have had so many reservations. Yes, journalists have been given some respite in its new incarnation—Cyber Security Act (CSA)—but the vague formulation dealing with hurting religious sentiments still haunts us as it affects journalism directly. It is very broad, too encompassing, and without clear definition as to what constitutes “hurting religious sentiments.”

For a law to be meaningful, it has to be clear and its violations must be specific. A citizen must know where the line is drawn beyond which he/she stands in breach of the law. A vague law can be misused and even weaponised. The CSA says, “If any individual or group, for the purpose of deliberately or knowingly hurting religious values or feelings, or for the purpose of instigating, propagates or broadcasts something through a website or any other electronic device that hurts religious beliefs or values, then that act will be considered a crime” (translation ours). How does one determine “hurt”? It is so personal and subjective. What may be a legitimate and innocent question may end up hurting another. Will criticising a “Pir” or an imam or a religious scholar or a religious teacher constitute “hurting” religious sentiments? Their ardent followers may feel “hurt” and thus lodge a case. There are many instances of corrupt practices within religious institutions. Will revealing those constitute hurting religious sentiments? If a newspaper exposes the wrong-doings in the management of a mosque, madrasa or any religious body, will the paper face a case under CSA? The law is so vague that it can be used for the purpose that it is not meant for.

While we don’t want to see anybody’s religious sentiment hurt, we also don’t want to see this becoming a way of stifling research, legitimate criticism, critical thinking and definitely not a cap on the exposure of wrong-doings.

I want to end with one thought of caution in the whole exercise of preventing hurting of religious sentiments. It is usually the sentiments of the majority that gets priority. Hurting the religious sentiments of the minority is not dealt with as much seriousness, urgency or severity as that of the majority. For us to understand it clearly, let us look at present day India. How seriously is hurting Muslim religious sentiments or values likely to see justice vis-a-vis hurting Hindu religious sentiments? This should help us see the play of state power in the reverse and prevent its occurrence here.

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