AN IMAM, a person who leads a prayer in congregation, of a local mosque in Feni coming to be laid off from his job on Friday for conducting a prayer session seeking blessings for Covid-infected Bangladesh Nationalist Party chairperson and former prime minister Khaleda Zia, points to a worrying penetration of parochial party politics in all spheres of life. The imam conducted, as new Age reported on Monday, the prayer session on April 12 at the behest of a local BNP leader. The imam was, as the mosque committee president says, then laid off at the suggestions of ‘respected persons of the locality’. Asking for prayer sessions for sick relatives and others is a common practice across the country. It is customary that people, regardless of their political affiliations and social standings, often ask the imams to conduct prayer sessions to seek divine blessings for the sick, the troubled and the deceased. Such prayer sessions for people in the ruling party are also customary. While this has always been an Islamic way of seeking blessings, the layoff of an imam for conducting a prayer session appears to be a bad precedent and has far-reaching social and political ramifications.
The incident shows how nakedly parochial the political spectrum has grown to be in the country, where even conducting prayer sessions for people belonging to the opposition has come to be seen as an offence and an act of dissent. The incident also starkly shows how polarised society has become along the political lines. What comes as further worrying is that the incident is not isolated from the growing intolerance of the government to any dissent, which the government has repeatedly and mistakenly construed as an affront to the state. Even the most genuine criticism of any government action or decision has been seen as an anti-state act and as an attempt to tarnish the image of the country. The growing use of the Digital Security Act 2018 in the recent past reeks, as rights activists say, of the government high-handedness in muzzling dissenting voices. The government, presided over by the Awami League, also appears to have used the law enforcement agencies and party cadres to silence political dissent. Incidents of intimidation, harassment and prosecution of opposition leaders and activists and political dissidents are plenty and such incidents betray a weakening of democracy. The government’s harsh treatment of even highly pro-people, and largely apolitical, movements led by students and general people reveals the extent to which the space for freedom of expression and association has shrunk.
The government must, under the circumstances, show tolerance of, and be accommodative of, political dissent to make democracy fully-functional. The authorities concerned must look into the issue of the layoff of the imam and must restore him in his position. If praying for anyone, whoever the person is, is interpreted as a crime, it will set a bad precedent that can eventually destroy the social fabric.
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