Shelter City Interview: Parvez Alam
By Noah Wanebo
Photo: Daniella van Bergen [website]
This interview series is a part of the Shelter City five-year anniversary. The Shelter City network has grown to include 11 Dutch cities and two international hubs. Since 2012, Shelter City has relocated 56 human rights defenders, offering them temporary relocation, a chance to re-energise, expand their network, and gain vital resilience training.
Parvez Alam is a writer and activist from Bangladesh, and former Shelter City guest. He has published four books on the interconnection between history, religion and politics in Bangladesh, and works with several non-governmental organisations and activist groups in Bangladesh. Read to learn more about Parvez.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
How did you originally get involved in writing and human rights activism?
I was writing for a long time, even though I was involved in other kinds of work, like IT-related businesses. I was also working with a grassroots library in Bangladesh, and because of my writing and through my involvement with the grassroots library, I started to get connected with many other kinds of activities and different personal experiences. This all led to human rights activism.
I am also part of a movement to protect the Sundarbans, it’s a mangrove forest in Bangladesh, the largest one in the world. This moment there is a coal plant built over there.
How would you characterise the subjects that you write about?
I would call it history of knowledge, the history of ideas, though I mostly focus on political Islamist ideas. My personal goal now is writing the history of ideas and the power relations that shape them, across all types of levels. It can be class relations, gender relations, it could be ethnic relations… If you look at the history of Islam you will see many ideas that were shaped by this power relations that existed in different eras. I have a lot of readership in Bangladesh like liberal and secular Muslims who get influenced by these types of writings. They have their own interpretations, of course, but I don’t mind that. I personally think I don’t write anything that is very controversial, but the political atmosphere in Bangladesh now, which has developed since 2012 and 2013, makes things difficult.
What are your current goals through writing and activism?
One of my main goals over the last few years was to really get into the nerve of the Islamist, and also the millions of madrasa students that we have in Bangladesh. Bangladeshi secular writers have a very limited scope—they are mainly interested in writing for secular people.
My focus was that even if I’m criticizing, I wanted Islamists to read [my work], which I think has succeeded; there are new young Islamist intellectuals coming from Madrasa backgrounds who are reading what I write.
I’m pretty sure that’s not going to change them totally—that’s impossible—but I want to put some theological challenge in front of them so that they are forced to interpret Islam in a different way, so that they invent the kind of theology that goes well with the liberal, secular kind of Bangladesh. I’m sure that the Islamists are going to be very influential in Bangladeshi politics for a long time and they are instrumental in any change there, so that’s my focus rather than just focusing on what secular people can do. My recent writings focus on the history of human dignity and how the idea developed from Abrahamic religious discourses, like the idea of the soul, or the idea in Islam of man as the greatest creation of God. In the Koran, the idea of human dignity developed when Mohammed himself was being persecuted and had to flee from Mecca to Medina. It doesn’t matter if you are secular or an Islamist, you share the same value of human dignity.
What were the final straws for you when you decided to leave your country?
In 2015, there was a time when almost every month one of the Bangladeshi bloggers and writers were getting killed, and I knew all of them. A couple of them were even my friends. Just before I left, another blogger was killed in his house and that was the point I decided that I just had to leave the country as soon as possible. Someone suggested and gave me information about the Shelter City Programme. So, I got out of the country, and just after I left, a month later, another blogger was also attacked.
How does the Shelter City programme help human rights defenders like yourself?
Shelter City first helps people who are at risk—in some cases the risk could be worse in a few months and in some cases it gets better. It provides a huge network and many other kinds of workshop-like activities, lobbying, and the activists get to rest and have a secure life in a time of risk. [Human rights defenders] then go back with more connections and resources—they can go back much stronger. I have a much better network and much more possibilities to continue my work—I never had to totally stop writing. Without Shelter City, that couldn’t have happened.
I think another interesting aspect about Shelter City is that it brings together a whole group of HRDs from around the world. Have you gained some knowledge from other activists?
I’ve learned information about what’s going on in a very international group of friends. Now I know so many great human rights defenders from different parts of the world, and I think that is a great asset for the future, and great knowledge that you can gain. Justice and Peace Netherlands also has a very nice Human Rights training programme, and there are a lot of different kinds of activities. Not only can you learn a lot of different human rights activist skills, but there’s also some security-related workshops, including digital security. I didn’t know a lot before about different useful apps and other skills that can be very helpful for human rights work— avoiding surveillance, protecting e-mails, all different kinds of instant messaging apps that are much more secure…
Can you describe the current situation in Bangladesh regarding human rights?
I tend to see countries like Bangladesh as kind of exceptions when you think from a global point of view. Many norms and values that the modern world shares don’t apply to the people of that country. You can even perhaps call it kind of big concentration camp: we don’t have much freedom of movement, it’s very difficult to get a visa to most countries in the world, Indians kill Bangladeshis at the border every year, the number of people Bangladeshi police and security forces kill every year is huge… Nobody cares.
You become a form of life that can be killed. It’s not really considered a crime. You can be an atheist, you can be an Islamist, you can be the political opposition… Some people, for many different reasons, can become an exception within Bangladeshi society, while the country itself is also a kind of exception on a global scale. The world at the end of the day considers this region as a kind of exception of the modern world that coexists with the security and well-protected human rights of the West.
Why is the rise of political Islam happening now in the Bangladeshi context, why are those in political power, and are you optimistic about it changing course?
There are several reasons you see like from Egypt to Bangladesh to many Middle Eastern countries like in Libya, Iraq, Syria… the secular governments that existed in those countries, they were—in the West in Europe secularism has a long history, like hundreds of years of development, it grew from the ground up, from people. That didn’t happen in those parts of the world, secularism was copied or enforced from the top, and it developed during the colonial period along with many other things. So there were some secular movements in those countries in the past, also reformist movements that wanted to have more secular modern countries, but those developments are very much limited to the educated elite group of people, and that group actually failed.
They are not in power anymore, the historical secular party is in power but the party is now dominated by a more right-wing Muslim majority. It used to be a centrist party and now it’s more right wing. Another thing that happened was the fall of radical left during the 80s and 90s, even in countries like Bangladesh. So I think all these things contributed to the situation.
It almost sounds like there was an ideological vacuum a bit that others came to fill?
Many of the ideas that they promote are not intrinsically Islamic – like for example, let’s say patriarchy. You’ll find even in the US, with right-wing groups, they are very patriarchal, and it doesn’t matter in the name of which ideology they are preaching their belief, what they are trying to do is trying to protect patriarchy.
But think about the killing of the bloggers. The law that we were talking about, the de facto blasphemy law, Act 57. It has a clause that says it’s a crime to hurt someone’s religious sentiment. This concept is actually not new. It has been there since 1860 in the Indian subcontinent, it was originally an English law, a British law. So this whole idea that law can protect sentiment is a very British thing that we adopted. It has less to do with Islam and more to do with a kind of modernist idea of protecting sentiment.
It’s a legacy of colonialism.
There were laws in Islam that deals with apostasy and blasphemy, but they were fundamentally different. There are no laws in Islam that actually protect people’s sentiment. So what you are seeing is Islamist’s protecting early modernist ideas, protecting sentiment… but they decided to define that with Islam.That’s one of my main focuses, though I do have other focuses that have to do with human rights too. Recently I’ve been focusing on the form of life. It means like, let’s think about the Rohingya people who are right now being persecuted in Myanmar and traveling to Bangladesh. They have become a kind of life that can be killed–they are an exception in society. Or think of the bloggers that had to flee our country. It became accepted that they can be killed, through different kinds of political and social discourses. Maybe not legally.
This is also very much influenced by Foucault and mostly by Georgio Agamben, so my recent writings focuses on how Mohammed became a form of life that could be killed and that’s why he had to leave Mecca. So basically, like how in the current world, the whole Western Society, the whole world cherishes human rights and most of them are part of several human rights conventions around the world, but at the end of the day whose human rights should be upheld and who will not have the right to human rights is being decided by the sovereign states. It’s the whole society and politics of society that is deciding that.
In terms of sea-level rise and preparedness, Bangladesh is always at the top of the list of countries most likely to be affected. I’m wondering how you think that interacts with human rights and free flowing information, identity, and all these things you’re studying?
It’s very difficult to explain, actually. We have a slogan in Bangladesh where our groups, the political group that I told you about, the political movement that many Bangladeshi movements are connected with, there is a slogan where we say that… actually one of the words is difficult to translate, but three things: life, nature, and society—not quite, but let’s say society. These three things is part of a slogan, how you combine the whole thing… It’s more about how you see this from the Bangladeshi point of view, this whole thing politically. There’s a connection in my language that people believe in that part of the world, living in this type of existential danger in terms of global warming and on the other hand living in a country where your life can become an exception at any time. I think it becomes, at the end of the day, a bit crude, because you have to see yourself as a nation facing so many things.
We are in a political moment where we have to invent that language, at the moment I have is a bit crude, not very international at all. It’s very much a kind of language that connects a people against all the obstacles that you have at this moment…. This is a problem, to tell you the truth that the Bangladeshi people themselves have to solve for themselves at the moment. I mean, who cares about Bangladesh, nobody cares about Bangladesh. Although they should because the crisis isn’t limited to Bangladesh, but since nobody does, you have to adopt a kind of political language that is not really international… it’s a kind of language where… even if the language is liberal, the struggle can only be explained in a language which is very local, so that the Bangladeshi people can see their ancestors threatened in so many different ways against so many things against which they have to struggle… so I don’t really have any other language at this moment to deal with all these things together where you don’t see yourself or your own nation as a concentration camp in the world. It becomes a bit religious I would say, like where you have to see yourself as a nation that is in the desert, like the ancient Jewish people, or like Noah before the flood, you need to build the boat… I still don’t know how to bring these things together to face the crisis. Because what’s going to happen, either you’re going to have to save your country or it will drown, and so many people will die and so many others will have to migrate out of the country…
I am very international, I’m liberal and everything. But when I think about really really fighting against these crises in Bangladesh, you have no other way to see yourself as a nation within the world..
Again, that connection between the global and the local.
The fight is local, it’s real. It should be universal, but it’s local… how you remain both local and transcend your movement in a more universal way is something of a challenge always.
Justice and Peace is very international. I am an international person and I myself have values that I consider very international and universal , but the local thing that I’ve said is when you asked me the question like what to do—how do we face all these different kinds of crises together, how to fight all those things. In that case I said that I don’t have a language which is not very local. At the end of the day the real fight is in Bangladesh and that’s where you have to adopt a more local language.
…beyond Bangladesh or even within Bangladesh, I do see many movements as a part of a global movement. I try to, I tell people how important it is to fight for the mangrove forest in Bangladesh, how important it is for international people to engage with this, because this is not a problem of Bangladesh, this is a problem of the whole world.
Are you optimistic about the future of Bangladesh, in terms of politics, extremism, climate change, and other issues its facing?
I am never an optimistic person. I would say at my core I’m a pessimistic person, but in terms of political activism or human rights activism, I see no reason not to adopt an optimistic position, because if you are not optimistic there is no point in doing anything. Maybe, rationally or if you see from a practical point of view, there is no hope. Many people in this world are doomed. There is no justice. There is this state of exception—like Bangladesh.
The current world, I mean we live in a capitalist world, and at the end of the day it’s the interest of the neoliberal power structure, the status quo that is served… even Saudi Arabia can become an important country in the human rights regime, despite not following too many human rights norms and regulations in their country. Or countries like Bangladesh, or India, where the current prime minister was once—he’s still connected with the rise of right-wing Hinduism in India, and he even has his name connected with the ethnic genocide, which is called the Gujarat killing. In Myanmar, you have Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel prize winner, yet she is not standing against the genocide that is going on, but rather giving moral support. You see India, and China, they’re all shaking hands with the Myanmar government because they have interests. That’s how they want to protect the interest… The interest of the capitalist economy is much more important than human rights. The promotion of liberal views… but… a liberal economy or capitalist economy doesn’t depend on those values, they can very easily survive without those values. Saudi Arabia is doing it, China, Russia, Bangladesh, Myanmar, India… and still keep so many ancient, archaic, patriarchal values, or modern fascistic values, but you can also be very successful in a capitalist way.
Pivoting toward the future, where do you see yourself or your work in the next five or ten years?
It’s difficult to say, I just want to continue writing. I have a readership in Bangladesh that’s quite diverse, which gives me a kind of hope. I know that some people are reading what I’m writing, and thinking about it, some are getting influenced, some are getting challenged. I don’t know how much impact I’ll be able to really have in Bangladeshi society in the next five or ten years, but there will be some. I would say there is some already.
Given that you note a lot of international indifference toward Bangladesh and its current struggles, how would you convince the world to care, or work toward that end? Is there a particular message you would deliver?
I don’t think I can exactly give a message to the world. For me what I try to do is just find like-minded people, people who share similar values, who are interested in similar kinds of activism. The only thing I can hope for is trying to connect more people with the struggle of Bangladeshi people. In that way I myself will have to become more international, which I try to do. This is part of the work. I can’t actually give a clear message—to whom am I going to give the message? The whole world doesn’t share the same political values. In every country you have a different group of people and there are people who share my similar interests and the only way I can make them more interested about Bangladesh is by working with them, with shared political goals.
The Shelter City programme is helpful in that regard. I’ve known a lot of local political activists here, and I’ve been in several movements. When I was in Amsterdam I got connected to the European activist groups, for example. I think this is all part of the work. At the end of the day I don’t want human rights movements to turn into a humanitarian response alone, because for me human rights are intrinsically connected with politics. If you don’t recognize that, then the whole human rights movement becomes quite docile—just a humanitarian response. I don’t want that.
The situation in the country, have the other bloggers who were in this similar situation, have most of them fled as well at this point, or shut down their blogs?
In terms of the murder of blogging writers, that sort of stopped recently because most of the people who were at risk were either killed or left the country. So that kind of stopped. Also, after the attack some ISIS followers killed a lot of foreigners. After that the government became very active and started to actually kill ISIS supporters, but Al Qaeda activists used to kill the writers and bloggers, they’re kind of in a dormant situation at the moment.