• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Iconoclasts and Iconoblasts

May 2017


In a matter of a few days, a prominent courthouse in an obscure nation has made headlines. In Bangladesh, there stands a courthouse in the capital city crafted in a refreshingly Western style. In much the same way that other legal centers the world over decorate their grounds, Dhaka (Bangladesh’s capital) had erected a statue of “Lady Justice”. You’ll know her well. The power of her femininity seconds only that of her ubiquity. She can be found everywhere from Canada to the Czech Republic, Italy to Iran, and Australia, Japan, Germany, and Tennessee. In all incarnations, she carries with her the same accoutrements—mainly saber, scale, and blindfold, for justice is in all places sharp, just, and unseeing.


For the past five months in Dhaka, Lady Justice stood, but not without controversy. She became the flashpoint in a debate between those looking to conserve and those to progress; a debate that has its roots in pre-history and one that long precedes statuary in its modern or ancient forms. She soon discovered she was merely a tenuous edifice straddling two worlds. Out of one eye, she looked west (philosophically, that is) at liberalism and equality. Out of the other, she looked back, at mysticism, sectarianism, and intellectual poverty.


In the religious malaise from which she was born, she was laid to rest. At the inexhaustible urgings of religious clerics and zealots, the statue was razed to the ground. Now—in pieces—Lady Justice and Bangladesh look to re-establish themselves in the eyes of a curious world. They’re faced with problems endemic in Southern Asia. Namely, they’re faced with a vice grip of Islamic fundamentalist influence. While Bangladesh tries to wriggle itself free, Lady Justice will be forced to lie in wait.


For any country looking to symbolize its commitment to justice, decency, and legitimacy—and in doing so, make a substantial leap into the 21st century—a statue like Lady Justice is indispensable. But, not everyone wants these things that are so cherished here at home. Islamists in Bangladesh think their country better off with her services. They call for effigy, not liberty; for their provincial past and not what could be a fledgling future. Hefazat-e-Islam, a homegrown Bangladeshi Islamist group, is leading this conservative rally.


Since the statue was erected, Hefazat-e-Islam has endlessly pressured the Bangladeshi government to take it down. The group responded apoplectically upon seeing none other than a woman, an abomination to its creed, mounted on the government’s soil. They appealed to government officials and to the public at-large and demanded this profanation be brought own. In this, Hefazat-e-Islam succeeded. A demolition crew was sent in the wee-midnight hours to lower the statue down. The government, wise to the fact that Bangladesh’s small group of liberals and secularists wouldn’t receive Lady Justice’s absence warmly, tried to perform this task as inconspicuously as possible in the dead of night. But in time, all awaken, and it didn’t take long before the backlash began. The two sides continued their dispute in the morning and—in a metaphorical sense—that’s exactly where this debate is; it’s still in its earliest stages.


It must be said that Bangladesh is not formally an Islamic or theocratic state. Theirs is a government based on parliament, whose officials are chosen via a representative democracy. As in our own case, secularism is supposed to be sewn in the constitutional DNA. It seems, however, that this pastiche of American liberalism is nothing but a ruse. Bangladesh seems only to preach an enlightened form of governance, not to practice it. This necessarily becomes the case when a state is dominated by a Muslim population whose majority exceeds 90%. Bangladesh, to many people’s surprise, is the third largest Muslim-majority country in the world. The statistic is staggering, considering its size. But being Muslim alone is no reason for concern, so long as he or she is a reformist or forward-thinking. The problem is that most aren’t. Based on Pew Research findings, 82% of Muslims polled in Bangladesh are in favor of making Sharia law the official law of the land.


This is striking. How can it be that a country whose constitution is ostensibly rooted in the liberal ideal is able to think in such a way? It seems as though the constitution and the people’s imperatives don’t align. In light of this statistic, it also becomes clear that Hefazat-e-Islam is no fringe-traipsing ideology. It’s a movement with teeth. A few years ago, the group submitted to the Bangladeshi government a list of suggestions that it considered to be humble improvements. Among the group’s recommendations were harsher punishments for atheists and dissident writers, a greater emphasis on Allah in the constitution, a cessation of “alien culture” penetrating the country, and mandatory Islamic education in public schooling.


To note, in the Draconian scope of Sharia law, these proposed “ameliorations” seem rather tame (at its worst, Sharia advocates the subjection of women, stoning, mutilation, dismemberment, and lex talionis). Nevertheless, it’s no stretch to imagine an impending Sharia overhaul if these illiberal concessions gain favor. This, for all who hope for liberty, justice, and peace, would be an inconsolable shame. Sharia is but a Medieval codex, one far removed from anything Lady Justice would recognize.


At the heart of Hefazat-e-Islam’s qualm in this case is the anthropomorphization of art. Islamic law originally discouraged and later forbade human likeness in sculptures, frescoes, and as was to be later discover, Danish cartoons. The thinking goes that Allah alone gives form to his creation, and much like his words inscribed in the Quran, that form is perfect. Personified art, therefore, is an attempt to compete with Allah’s creative perfection. This is the religious case for why Lady Justice shouldn’t exist.


Based on that doctrinal reading, Hefazat-e-Islam and like-minded Islamists succeeded in bringing the statue down. It seemed like a win for parochialism and a loss for progression. But the victory was partial and fleeting. After two days, Lady Justice has been erected again. This time around, however, she inhabits a much less visible location.


Neither side is satisfied. As it must, the perpetual shoving match between Islamists and progressive ideologues will persist. The former has numbers on its side—overwhelmingly so—while the latter has dreams of liberty. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Bangladesh must decide its future. On one side, the rock pulls with the strength of a Kaaba-sized stone toward fundamentalism. On the other, the hard place builds a wall, which will serve as a high barrier of separation between secularism and its ugly opposite. The path forward is Bangladesh’s to decide.

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