In the restless Rajshahi district of Bangladesh, a five-year experiment built a community warning system for religious freedom violations.
Mahmuda Sultana (00:03):
When you were starting with this project in Rajshahi, the grassroot level people are not knowing about the religious freedom rights.
John Rieger (00:09):
You mean even the rights that are specified in the constitution?
Mahmuda Sultana (00:12):
Yeah, yeah. They are not knowing about their rights. They are not even heard about the term of religious freedom and they are not knowing what they are actually not getting.
John Rieger (00:24):
Protecting religious freedom in Bangladesh, today on InAsia from the Asia Foundation. I'm John Rieger. Tracie Yang is on assignment. There are worries emanating from many places in Asia today that the ideals of tolerance and pluralism are in retreat, whether from governments seeking to limit public expression or from citizens and groups that oppose the freedoms of others. In South Asia, with its great tapestry of religions, cultures, and ethnicities, the last two decades have too often witnessed intolerance that descends into violence against religious minorities and other disfavored groups.
Joining me today are the Asia Foundation's Mahmuda Sultana and Sadat Shibli. She's senior program officer and he's the director of an intriguing five-year experiment to build peaceful coexistence. It's called Community Driven Early Warning Systems to Reduce Religious Freedom Violations in Bangladesh. EWS for short. Shibli and Mahmuda, welcome to InAsia.
Mahmuda Sultana (01:20):
Thank you, John.
Sadat Sadruddin Shibli (01:21):
Yeah, thank you John. I really appreciate joining here.
John Rieger (01:23):
Thank you both. In your program documents, you've written that Bangladesh is experiencing a downward trend in the protection of religious freedom. Tell me a bit about the Early Warning System project's origin. Where did it come from?
Sadat Sadruddin Shibli (01:40):
Yeah. Before starting this project, there were a lot of things happening in the country that we thought we need to address. You know about the Holey Artisan incident that happened back in 2016, right?
John Rieger (01:49):
That was the much loved Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka that was attacked by Islamic militants, killing more than two dozen people.
Sadat Sadruddin Shibli (01:57):
Before that, we have seen in 2013, we have seen the Ramu incident where a Buddhist temple is being burned down, houses were burned down.
John Rieger (02:04):
Right. That was a series of attacks in Ramu that eventually involved 25,000 people triggered by a fake Quran desecration.
Sadat Sadruddin Shibli (02:12):
Yeah, yeah. And there were other incidents also happening and that's why basically we thought that, okay. Is there a way to actually counter that? What are the issues? Why these things are happening in the communities? Like you said before, we've seen that the religious practices and the right to practice the religious beliefs have been targeted by some part of the religious majority in Bangladesh. So what we thought is that if we can identify the nuances that basically lead to broader violences or discrimination in the communities, then that will be a very good way to respond to and reduce religious freedom violations.
John Rieger (02:49):
Mahmuda Sultana (02:49):
The Asia Foundation overall project strategy based on the idea that religious freedom violations can be mitigated or even prevented if the right information is delivered to the right stakeholder at the right time to take the right actions and that helps to prevent or mediate religious violations.
John Rieger (03:11):
Does Bangladesh have a history of religious tolerance or intolerance, would you say?
Sadat Sadruddin Shibli (03:17):
So Bangladesh has a real history of religious tolerance, I would say. Before independence as well as after independence, we have seen this coexistence of all religious beliefs working together. We see that the rise of extremism, it started somewhere around 10 to 15 years back. It's not that always. It's not against other religions in those Buddhist Christians. Even within Muslim, Islam, they have anonymity amongst themselves. Shias are being targeted, Ahmadiyyas are being targeted.
If they would have found a way to actually talk about their grievances, talk about the issues, then I don't think that these sort of things would have happened. And one of the reason that we did the EWS project is that bringing all these groups together and talking about different issues, different ideologies, what is tolerance, how, why tolerance is needed, this sort of thing is very important.
John Rieger (04:09):
Before you launched your project, did Bangladesh have existing mechanisms to protect religious freedom?
Sadat Sadruddin Shibli (04:15):
The Bangladesh constitution is specifically granted the equal right to, for all religion and minor minority groups. They have equal rights to their religious practices, religious ideologies, everything. So that's there on paper.
John Rieger (04:30):
Sadat Sadruddin Shibli (04:31):
But in reality, those laws are not always being implemented. So [inaudible 00:04:35] are very important for tolerance.
Mahmuda Sultana (04:36):
When you were starting with this project in Rajshahi, the grassroots level people are not knowing about the religious freedom rights. This is totally new concept for them.
John Rieger (04:45):
You mean, even the rights that are specified in the constitution?
Mahmuda Sultana (04:48):
Yeah, yeah. But they are not knowing about their rights. They are not even heard about the term of religious freedom and they are not knowing what they are actually not getting. But after we are introducing this project, they are now very much ever about their religious rights and they are raising their voice through that interfaith dialogues and shared their problems and find out the ways to sort out those problems.
John Rieger (05:15):
All right. You developed your early warning system and tried it out in Rajshahi district. Tell us about Rajshahi. What are the circumstances there that made you choose this district for your project?
Sadat Sadruddin Shibli (05:29):
Rajshahi is basically a religiously conservative area. Almost like 93 to 94% Muslim majority population. But we have seen the rise of extremism there through Bangla Bhai, and he was basically the leader of JMB, Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh.
John Rieger (05:45):
That as an Al-Qaeda affiliate, and Bangla Bhai himself was eventually captured and hanged for a series of bombings.
Sadat Sadruddin Shibli (05:52):
Yeah. So that was one reason that we thought that might be a good area to work for this project because it has that root of religious intolerance, religious extremism, so a good area where we can work and see whether our early warning system works or not.
John Rieger (06:07):
When you're confronting a complex social problem, like religious intolerance, how do you find the pressure points where you can apply some leverage for change?
Sadat Sadruddin Shibli (06:20):
Okay, that's a good question. So we first went to Rajshahi and we started talking with people, like how they feel, what they think about religious tolerance, religious equality, religious freedom in their community. Not only with religious leaders, but also business community people, the chamber of commerce, news editors, journalists, government officials, Bangladesh police, police officials. And we talked with all of them to find out whether this is a good idea or not, or whether they also think that it is indeed needed for their communities.
John Rieger (06:57):
So you started out getting the lay of the land?
Sadat Sadruddin Shibli (07:00):
Yeah, yeah, yeah. So we did that and then we found that, okay, everyone basically were talking about this. They are saying that, okay, this is a very good idea and we should actually work on that and try to focus on how we can increase tolerance among the communities, all sort of communities, and also how to make the community peaceful. Rajshahi in general is a peaceful community, but it's still, like I said, that Bangla Bhai was there and then other incidents.
Because we have seen that political violences, were also pretty crazy in Rajshahi as well. So we have seen that people beating up police, beating up people. So all sort of things were happening in Rajshahi. So we got the support from the community people, all level of community people, and that's how we actually established the early warning system. We had 120 volunteers who were collecting all this information about the grievances of religious freedom violations, and then those were actually tried out. And our early warning response unit that would develop, they basically work to curb those problems, to reduce those problems.
John Rieger (08:08):
By calling this an early warning system you make me think of surveillance cameras and telephone hotlines, but this project was something else.
Sadat Sadruddin Shibli (08:18):
John Rieger (08:18):
This was not a policing project, it was a community building project. So let's talk about the nuts and bolts of the project.
Sadat Sadruddin Shibli (08:27):
Okay, sure. So we decided to have three groups. One is community peacekeepers, then there is lead peacekeepers, and there is early response units.
John Rieger (08:36):
Early response units, which you refer to as ERUs.
Sadat Sadruddin Shibli (08:39):
The role of these three groups are different. We have this lead peacekeeper group, a group of 20 to 25 people who are religious leaders and we train them. What is religious belief, what is the freedom of religious belief, what is tolerance? How to actually maintain peace in the communities, how to bring all groups together to sit and discuss about different issues. We train them on those.
So then they train another 80 community peacekeepers, and their role is to collect information grievances. They can identify violence issues or they think some incident that can lead to some sort of violence that can lead to some sort of grievances. They were collecting those informations and each month they send those reports to the early warning system. And those reports are basically checked by Mahmuda and our colleagues. And then the lead peacekeeper group, they basically go through all these reports in a month and they prioritize the incidents which needs to be dealt immediately or that can be a long term initiative.So those sort of things.
And then these issues will go to the early response unit. They're like police officers from the district police and from the metropolitan police, journalists, editors from the newspapers. We have business committee people, we have influential leaders. So we give these issues to this ERU member group and they basically develop subgroups. Like the police is there, so if any initiative needs immediate police support, the police would go in. So this is how we started working in the community. Initially, for first three years we did that and then we focused a lot more on creating mass awareness among the communities, mass
John Rieger (10:21):
Sadat Sadruddin Shibli (10:22):
So we included 40 more community peacekeepers. They are basically from imams, religious leaders and their wives, religious leaders' wives, like from Hindu communities, Christian communities. We included sisters. So that's how we basically did that. And then we trained another 300 community religious leaders and their wives, and we started organizing courtyard meetings throughout Rajshahi.
John Rieger (10:47):
Sadat Sadruddin Shibli (10:48):
Yeah. So the wives would bring all the women together and talk about peace tolerance, coexistence, these sort of issues. And so initial three years, we tried to identify grievances, information, what is happening in the community, how we can actually stop those from creating greater, broader violences. And then the last two years we focused a lot more on giving the message of tolerance, peace building, community building, coexistence throughout the communities as well.
John Rieger (11:17):
So Mahmuda, what are some of the communities you work with in Rajshahi?
Mahmuda Sultana (11:20):
We are working with many types of minorities in Rajshahi. We are working with indigenous peoples, we work with the Dalit and [inaudible 00:11:30] communities and different faith believers such as Baha'i, Hindu, Christians, Shraddha. And we also work with the subsets of different religions such as Shia, Sunni, Roman Catholic, Baptist, and Brahmans.
John Rieger (11:46):
So your project encompasses not just religious communities, but caste and ethnicity.
Mahmuda Sultana (11:52):
Yeah. Actually we're also focusing on the gender inclusivity and include the third gender. And in Bangladesh it is the first time when any project are focusing on the religious rights of the third gender.
Sadat Sadruddin Shibli (12:03):
It's focused mainly on religious belief, but we included all the ethnic groups, caste, and others, and focused on their religious belief, on their religious right. The transgender community we are working, nobody in Bangladesh has ever worked with them on religion, like what their belief is. So when we went to there, they were in tears, almost in tears like, "Oh, nobody even thought about our religion, whether we have a religion or not." So that's there. So we focused-
John Rieger (12:33):
Sadat Sadruddin Shibli (12:33):
With all these groups, we focused on their religion and religious practice and then religious rights.
John Rieger (12:38):
I see, I see. What does an early warning system success story look like?
Mahmuda Sultana (12:42):
Input here, community peace keepers in their monthly report reported to us that this Hindu family has been tortured by the Muslim members of their communities.
John Rieger (12:53):
When you say tortured, do you mean-
Mahmuda Sultana (12:55):
John Rieger (12:56):
Mahmuda Sultana (12:57):
The community peace keepers who are in that area was getting the news and providing us the informations. The lead peace keepers investigate the issues, and then we are passing this information to our ERU member and the law enforcement agencies take preparations and make this problem resolve.
Another example is that one of the third gender community name [foreign language 00:13:23] try to practice this prayers in the [foreign language 00:13:26], but the authority of the [foreign language 00:13:28] and the other community people not give him the permissions to attend his prayer in there because of his gender identity. These issues is reported by community peacekeeper in our project, and finally the third gender get access to the [foreign language 00:13:44] temple in their areas.
John Rieger (13:47):
It seems like a very promising project. It also seems incredibly difficult. The scale of the problem is so much bigger than one five year project with a grant from the US State Department can really-
Sadat Sadruddin Shibli (14:00):
John Rieger (14:02):
So do you ever look at what you're confronting and go and lose hope?
Sadat Sadruddin Shibli (14:06):
No, we can't lose hope. So it's like one district at a time is not bad as well.
Mahmuda Sultana (14:14):
From my personal experience, I want to share that the project has changing the perceptions, increasing the tolerance level, increasing the level of understanding and mutual respect toward the other religion people. When we started working with the 300 different religion people to train up on religious freedom and religious harmony, religious peace building, they are not like to sit together. They not like to share their food or share the same table eating food.
But after getting training, their attitude has been changed and they are sharing their problems and they are sharing their helping hand towards each other's. The successful work with the imam and imam wives or other religious leader wives. This is creative opportunity for the women to work for peace building in the society, making us a lead role in the society. It also give them the sense that women can play a vital role in peace building process.
John Rieger (15:12):
So what you're telling me is now that the formal project is complete, there is an infrastructure of community engagement with these issues that it's left behind. And would you say that, and would you say that it's working? Is it continuing to work? Yeah.
Sadat Sadruddin Shibli (15:29):
Yes. They have initially launched this... What is the name? Now they have changed the name. They're not calling it EWS anymore. Mahmuda, can you please-
Mahmuda Sultana (15:37):
[foreign language 00:15:39].
John Rieger (15:39):
What does that mean?
Mahmuda Sultana (15:41):
That is Harmony and Peace Committee.
Sadat Sadruddin Shibli (15:43):
Harmony and Peace committee. So that's how they're still working. They formally launched it. It came in the newspaper and everything. So yeah, they really overtook the project from us.
John Rieger (15:54):
Well, maybe in this small corner of Bangladesh you've created a model for overcoming intolerance much more broadly.
Mahmuda Sultana (16:04):
Yeah. No major incidents related in religious freedom violation occurred during this project period in Rajshahi from 2017 to 2022. And the community people also accept this process. They also accept every people have the rise of their own release and belief or non-belief. Bangladesh is a cultural sensitive and a religious sensitive area, So it sound small, but it is a big chance.
Sadat Sadruddin Shibli (16:32):
The Asia Foundation is working in Bangladesh for the last almost 70 years now. So wherever we go, we try to bring all sort of people together. So inclusivity in terms of gender, in terms of religion, in terms of class, and in terms of system, we always focus on inclusivity, pluralism. So we actually try to always give that message that coexistence is very important, tolerance is very important. So we do that and we never lose hope. We keep on this striving and for the betterment of Bangladesh as well.
John Rieger (17:04):
Sadat Shibli and Mahmuda Sultana, thank you so much for joining me.
Sadat Sadruddin Shibli (17:08):
Thank you, John. It was really wonderful talking to you.
Mahmuda Sultana (17:08):
Thank you, John.
John Rieger (17:12):
And that's our show for today. Tracy's in New York, but I promise that her dulcet voice will be back with us next week. Until then, for all of us here at InAsia, I'm John Rieger. Thanks for listening.