Bangladeshi Publisher Faces Death Threats Over Translation of Controversial Iranian Writer's Book

The cover of the Bengali Translation of  Iranian Muslim scholar and politician Ali Dashti's book. Image courtesy Haseeb Mahmud.

The cover of the Bengali translation of Iranian Muslim scholar and politician Ali Dashti's book. Image courtesy Haseeb Mahmud.

The publisher of a Bangla translation of a controversial book by 20th-century Iranian rationalist and politician Ali Dashti about the Prophet Muhammad's life has received death threats after displaying the work at Bangladesh's national book fair.

Hardline religious groups, mainly Hefazat-e-Islam, have called on authorities to prosecute publishing house Rodela Prokashoni over the translation of “23 Years: A Study of the Prophetic Career of Muhammad.” Rodela Prokashoni's website appeared to be hacked on February 14, 2015, and their office in Banglabazar was attacked on Sunday, according to a report in the Bangla Tribune. No one was injured. 

Following the uproar, the publishing house pulled the book from the shelves at the Ekushey Book Fair and from their website, and publisher Riaz Khan reportedly apologized, saying he wasn't aware that the book was considered offensive. 


Screenshot of the defaced Rodela Prokashoni website which says among other things: The website has been hacked in protest of disrespecting the prophet. [..] Say no to Rodela Prokashoni

Despite that decision, authorities from the Bangla Academy, the country's national language authority, which organizes the book fair, shut down Rodela Prokashoni's stall on February 16, alleging that the publishing house was “selling books that hurt religious sentiments.” The fair committee defended the move, saying that “According to article 13.13 of Fair Regulations 2015, none is allowed to sell books at the fair that can hurt religious sentiments.”

Haseeb Mahmud at Sachalayatan community blog summed up the outrage against the book:

এই বই প্রকাশের জের ধরে ধর্মীয় মৌলবাদি গোষ্ঠি বিভিন্ন তৎপরতা চালাচ্ছে। গতকাল গণমাধ্যমগুলো প্রেস বিজ্ঞপ্তি পাঠিয়ে হেফাজতে ইসলামের জুনাইদ বাবুনগরী ও সাংগঠনিক সম্পাদক আজিজুল হক “মানবতার মুক্তির দূত বিশ্বনবী হযরত মুহাম্মদ সাল্লাল্লাহু আলাইহি ওয়াসাল্লামের প্রতি চরম অবমাননাকর ও ঔদ্ধত্যপূর্ণ ‘নবি মুহাম্মদের ২৩ বছর’ শীর্ষক বইটি বাজেয়াপ্ত ও ‘রোদেলা’ প্রকাশনীকে নিষিদ্ধ” করার দাবি জানিয়েছে।” তারা আরোও বলেন, দেশের ক্ষুদ্র একটি ইসলামবিদ্বেষী নাস্তিক্যবাদী গোষ্ঠী কর্তৃক পৃষ্ঠপোষিত [..] এই বইটির পরতে পরতে মহান আল্লাহ তা’আলা, হযরত মুহাম্মদ সাল্লাল্লাহু আলাইহি ওয়াসাল্লাম ও তাঁর পবিত্র জীবন সম্পর্কে অসত্য, বিভ্রান্তিকর ও ধৃষ্টতাপূর্ণ মিথ্যাচার করা হয়েছে। বইটির লেখক কুখ্যাত ইসলামবিদ্বেষী নাস্তিক আলী দস্তি। [..]

এই বই প্রকাশের নেপথ্য ইসলামবিদ্বেষী নাস্তিক্যবাদী দুষ্টচক্রকে তদন্তের মাধ্যমে গ্রেফতার করে আইনের আওতায় এনে দৃষ্টান্তমূলক কঠোর শাস্তির দিতে হবে। অন্যথায় হেফাজতে ইসলাম বাংলাদেশ ইসলামবিদ্বেষী নাস্তিক্যবাদী গোষ্ঠীকে প্রতিহত করতে বাংলার তৌহিদি জনতাকে সঙ্গে নিয়ে রাজপথে কঠোর কর্মসূচী দিয়ে মাঠে নামতে বাধ্য হবে।

A number of religious fundamentalists are trying to create a controversy regarding the publication. Yesterday Hefazat-e-Islam, an Islamist fundamentalist group in Bangladesh, sent a press release to different media organisations demanding that the book “23 Years of the Prophet Muhammad,” which is demeaning and disrespectful to the savior of humanity, the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), should be confiscated and Rodela Prokashoni should be banned.

They also said that [the book is] sponsored by a small minority of atheists in this country […] this book spreads false, untrue and confusing facts about the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and his life. The writer of this book is the notorious anti-Islamic atheist Ali Dashti.

“We demand [to the government] that the anti-Islamic atheists in this country, who are behind publishing this book, should be investigated and arrested and be punished severely. If not, Hefazat-e-Islam will take to the streets with common people to stop these anti-Islamic atheists and be obliged to announce hardline street protests.”

Other organisations like Islamist Movement have also made similar statements.

“23 Years: A Study of the Prophetic Career of Muhammad,” which was first published in the early 1970s, questions the miracles ascribed to the Prophet Muhammad. The author, the late Ali Dashti, was a former senator and ambassador to Lebanon for Iran. After the Islamic revolution in 1979 when Ruhollah Khomeini came to power, Dashti was jailed, and anyone who was discovered to have the book in his or her possession was taken to court for questioning.

We asked an Iranian blogger who attended high school in Iran during the 1990s about the book. The blogger, who wishes to remain anonymous, said:

I believe I read his book called 23 years when I was a teenager. Most of the Shiism custom he criticized in the book had disappeared by the time I read it. And I think no Shiite Muslim would defend the things he criticized in his book today. So he was not anti-Islam but against weird customs in Shiite Islam….I don't know how I got it. It is unlikely that you can buy it from bookstores.

A group of Bangladeshi publishers have demanded that Rodela Prokahson be evicted from their current office and that publisher Khan be arrested and face the death penalty. They have also vowed to take legal action against the him. Khan says he has been receiving death threats to his mobile phone.

Screenshot of a threatening message posted against the publisher on Facebook. Image courtesy Haseeb Mahmud.

“ will have 48 hours to comply. If they do not stop publicising the book '23 Years of the Prophet Muhammad’ they will pay the price. […] If the site is hacked after 48 hours, will be responsible.”
Screenshot of a threatening message posted on Facebook against an online e-commerce site selling the book. The site took down the book from their listing. Screenshot courtesy Haseeb Mahmud.

Accusations of blasphemy and atheism have had serious and occasionally deadly consequences in Bangladesh in recent years. Two years ago, blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider was brutally killed outside his home in Dhaka because of his writings against war criminals and Islamic fundamentalists in Bangladesh. Haider, among many other bloggers, was labeled an atheist. Islamist groups like Hefazat have publicly identified writers and bloggers they deem to be atheists or blasphemous and called for them to face the death penalty. 

Bangladesh is a non-religious parliamentary democracy, so there is no sharia or blasphemy law. If anybody claims to be an atheist, he or she has the same rights as other citizens. However, under Section 295A of Bangladesh's Penal Code (1860), any person who has a “deliberate” or “malicious” intention of “hurting religious sentiments” is liable to imprisonment.

Writer Swakrito Noman questioned the indignation surrounding the translation of “23 Years: A Study of the Prophetic Career of Muhammad” in a Facebook post:

প্রশ্ন হচ্ছে, আলি দস্তির এই বইটি কি আন্তর্জাতিকভাবে নিষিদ্ধ? যদি নিষিদ্ধ না হয় তাহলে বাংলাদেশে বইটি প্রকাশিত হলে অসুবিধা কী? বইটি বাংলা অনুবাদ হওয়ার আগে অনুভূতিপ্রবণরা কোথায় ছিলেন? এতদিন কেন অনুভূতিতে আঘাত লাগল না? নাকি আপনারা পার্সি বা ইংরেজি জানেন না বলে আপনাদের অনুভূতিতে আঘাত লাগেনি?

The question is, is this book banned internationally [or Bangladesh for that matter]? If not, then why is there a problem in publishing it? Where were you before it was translated in Bangla? Why were your religious sentiments not hurt then? Or were they not hurt because you do not know English or Farsi?

Noman continued:

জানি, এই দেশের মানুষ হয়ত এখন রোদেলা প্রকাশনীর প্রকাশক রিয়াজ খানের পক্ষে কথা বলবে না। অধিকাংশ মানুষ এখন হেফাজতের পক্ষে তালি বাজাবে। সরকারও হয়ত হেফাজতের পক্ষ অবলম্বন করবে। আমি বাংলা ভাষার ক্ষুদ্র এক লেখক, আমি হেফাজতে ইসলামির এই অযৌক্তিক কর্মকাণ্ডের প্রতিবাদ করছি। জানি এই প্রতিবাদের কারণে হয়ত আমিও আক্রান্ত হতে পারি। তবুও প্রতিবাদ করছি। কারণ, এভাবে ইসলাম প্রতিষ্ঠিত হয় না। জ্ঞানের পথকে এভাবে রুদ্ধ করা যায় না। এই বইয়ের বিরুদ্ধে যদি হেফাজত বা ইসলাম ধর্মের কেউ পাল্টা আরেকটি বই লিখত, সেটিই হতো প্রকৃত প্রতিবাদ। জ্ঞানের প্রতিবাদ জ্ঞান দিয়ে করতে হয়। যুক্তির প্রতিবাদ যুক্তি দিয়ে করতে হয়। প্রকাশনা প্রতিষ্ঠানে হামলা, প্রকাশকের ফাঁসি দাবিকে কোনোভাবেই সমর্থন করা যায় না।

I know many people in this country will not support publisher Riaz Khan. Many will join the Hefazat bandwagon. Even the government can support them. I am a petty writer in the Bangla language. I protest this illogical stand of Hefazat-e-Islam. I know I can also be attacked for taking this stance, but I insist. Because, you cannot establish (or spread) Islam like this. You cannot deter knowledge like this. If Hefazat would write another book countering this with all their logic, that would be the perfect protest for them. You need to protest logic with logic, knowledge with knowledge. Attacking a publishing house, attacking the publisher is equal to barbarism.


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