Intolerance hurts all

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 August, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 August, 1994, 12:00am

BANGLADESH is one of those countries that seem to invite compassion fatigue. If there isn't a cyclone, there's a flood, and if there isn't a natural disaster, a man-made one will come along. From the country's bloody birth as it was from Pakistan's womb ''untimely ripped'' in December 1971, through the assassination of two leaders, the country seems to have been constantly racked by bloodshed and violence, poverty and despair.

Amid such problems, the case of Taslima Nasrin - the writer who offended Muslims by being quoted as saying the Koran was out of date and in need of revision - might have seemed nothing extraordinary. It is difficult for those who live in the relative peace and prosperity of Hong Kong to understand the power that ideas and beliefs can exercise in very different societies.

However, the exploitation of people's beliefs as a tool of political power, the persecution of those labelled as dissidents in an attempt to provide cohesion to a disparate and widespread sense of discontent, is not unique to Bangladesh. Such forces were at work in China during the Cultural Revolution, and such tendencies can be discerned in many countries today, most notably in Algeria, where dissatisfaction with a brutal and corrupt junta is channelled into attacks on foreigners.

Exploitation for political ends is not unique to Islam, and Muslims should not be made scapegoats for problems that afflict many countries. Neither is the persecution of writers and philosophers unique to Islam. In the case of Nasrin, the Bangladeshi Government, while charging her with blasphemy, actually appears to have tried to protect her from physical harm as its political opponents attempt to exploit her problems for their own ends.

While people in Hong Kong may find it difficult to identify with Nasrin's problems, they should be aware of the dangers of intolerance and hatred. Dangers can emerge in various guises. In the 1950s, while Stalinism afflicted the Soviet Union, the lesser evil of McCarthyism damaged the US; in the 1960s China was hit by Maoism, and in the 1970s and '80s, the Red Army Faction and other gangs terrorised Europe. Now it is the time of Muslim extremists to inflict suffering, and, as is the way in such matters, most of the immediate victims are fellow Muslims. But threats to the freedom of expression and belief are threats to everyone.