By Rashed Chowdhury
When Belarusian journalist and editor Aliaksandr Zdvizhkou reprinted the Danish Muhammad cartoons in the opposition newspaper Zhoda he was sentenced to three years imprisonment for inciting religious hatred. Allegedly acting in the interests of the 30 000 strong Muslim population, the authorities were clearly attempting to intimidate what little remains of an independent media in
This past January, the Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC) aired an episode of the sitcom "Little Mosque on the Prairie" under the curious title "Wheat Week". "Little Mosque", which depicts "small-town Canada with a Muslim twist", is currently, by some measure, the most popular Canadian sitcom, and has jumped across the Atlantic to hit TV screens in France and Finland.
In one episode, entitled "Wheat Week", Ann Popowicz, the mayor of the fictional town of
Popowicz quickly announces that the Muslim community of Mercy has expressed its opposition to Wheat Week, and that the festival must therefore be cancelled. The town is hit with a wave of comic Islamophobia: a demonstration in front of the mosque calls on Muslims to recant; the imam is pelted with wheat products; the hairdresser gives Muslim women a piece of her mind. The Muslims of Mercy are quickly transformed into a public enemy due to their alleged opposition to that great cultural institution, Wheat Week. Obviously, though, a comedy would not be a comedy were it not to have a happy conclusion. And so Hamoudi blows the whistle on the goings-on in town hall, and those who were fanning the flames of hatred against Muslims are forced to apologise. A Vietnamese company steps in to sponsor the festival. Wheat Week is saved.
Today's Belarusian reality has more in common with this comedy than you'd think. The story involves a level of high-handed manipulation on the part of the authorities, followed by righteous indignation on the part of would-be defenders of liberty, not matched by the witty Canadian sitcom. And even though the episode has seemingly come to an end, it has left in its wake several important questions, not least among them the nature of the Belarusian nation and the role of the tiny Muslim minority within it.
The episode I am referring to began when the deputy editor of the former newspaper Zhoda (
One need not dig deep to find that the verdict was not the result of some conspiracy between the Muslims and the government, for the simple reason that the Belarusian Muslim community, while being quite vibrant in recent years, is not, in any sense, an independent centre of power. In Mufti Varanovich's version of the story, he did not see the offending cartoons until they were shown to him by the same committee to which he later submitted the complaint that served as grounds for the case against Zdvizhkou. And he would not have seen them were it not for the authorities, because the whole print run of the issue containing the caricatures had already been confiscated. Were it not the government's express desire that a complaint against Zdvizhkou should come from a Muslim scholar, no such complaint would have arisen. So it happened like in the fictional town of
There are so few Muslims in Belarus (about 30 000) that the authorities did not stand to gain much in the way of social support by giving them what might seem like special treatment in this case. So if the authorities are not motivated by the principle of "divide and rule", what explains the well thought out game they played, with Zdvizhkou as its target? Why did Lukashenka personally promise to close the newspaper, and then follow through by means of the court?
There are two main theories current in
Over the course of the last 13 years, Belarusians have managed to get used to Lukashenka and the antics of his regime. But this whole episode has raised a further question: to what extent do Belarusian Muslims belong to Belarusian society in general? I find that the answer to this question coming from certain representatives of the anti-Lukashenka intelligentsia to be saddening and, quite honestly, frightening.
If Belarusian Muslims are foreigners who came unbidden to "our"
The earliest recorded date at which Tatar Muslims started immigrating into and settling in what is now
After the sentence against Aliaksandr Zdvizhkou was passed, Iury Drakachrust, a journalist with the Belarusian service of Radio Liberty, started warning on his blog that Belarusian Muslims wanted to take the country over and turn it into "Belarusistan", adding that non-Muslim Belarusians had to defend themselves from this alleged danger. They had to defend themselves, according to him, from a minority which makes up less than one per cent of the population of Belarus and has lived on its territory for centuries, in harmony with the majority. A member of the Rights Defence Alliance denigrated Islamic prayers and the traditional clothing of Muslim women. The deputy head of the Belarusian Popular Front Party, Ales Michalevich, said that Zdvizhkou had been sentenced for "expressing his Christian beliefs", and that the Minsk City Court had sentenced him "on the basis of the norms of Islamic morality", rather than existing Belarusian laws.
Before going to prison, Zdvizhkou made comments that could be interpreted as anti-Islamic, such as "with us is God and the power of the Cross". However, upon his release in February, Zdvizhkou declared that he would rescind his Belarusian citizenship, not because he was afraid of Belarusian Muslims or angry at them, but rather because, "I am ashamed right now to be a citizen of this country, which is headed by a personality known to everyone, a country with these kinds of courts, this kind of prosecution, and these kinds of prisons". Thus, it seems that Zdvizhkou has come to understand that his fight is actually with the regime, and not with the imagined threat of Muslim terrorists he had been shadow-boxing with before.
The three-year prison term handed to Zdvizhkou was clearly excessive. Once the Supreme Court of Belarus reviewed the case, the sentence was reduced to three months, which was the amount of time he had already served in prison. While it is possible that the reduction in the sentence was a result of EU pressure on
For me, the main conclusion of this whole affair is that Belarusians must not forget that they are one people. What Tariq Ramadan describes as "the new racism", that is, a refusal to acknowledge Muslims as part of one's society, has no place in a country like Belarus, with a centuries-old tradition of inclusivity. All native inhabitants of Belarus, but also those who have come to Belarus from abroad and are helping build the country with their labour, their taxes or their ideas: in other words, anyone who loves our country either by birth or by virtue of his or her choice – anyone who fits this definition is part of the Belarusian people. Let me conclude by citing Zianon Pazniak, leader of the opposition party Conservative-Christian Belarusian Popular Front:
Belarusians never persecuted the ethnic groups that lived on our land, and will not persecute anyone... All of us are the Nation; let us not forget about that. Ethnic Russians, Jews, ethnic Poles, Tatars – all of us. Never forget that!
*  Heidi McKenzie, "Little Mosque's Sitara Hewitt head home – to the GTA – for the holidays", Toronto Star,
*  See: Margot Buff, "
*  "Ismail Varanovic pra spravu Zdzvizkova: 'Mianie prymusili napisac hety list'" [Ismail Varanovich on the Zdvizhkou case: 'I was forced to write that letter'], Nasa niva,
*  Aleksandr Klaskovskii, "Gipertekst: Sekir-bashka" (Hypertext: Off with His Head), Belorusskie novosti,
*  BBC, "
*  "Belarus-Poland dispute escalates", BBC News,
*  Aleksei Zolotnitskii, "
*  S.U. Dumin and I.B. Kanapacki, Bielaruskija tatary: minulaje i suchasnasc [Belarusian Tatars: Past and Present] (Minsk: Polymia, 1993).
*  Iury Drakachrust, "Sprava Zdzvizkova, abo niama Boha, akramia..." [The Zdvizhkou case, or there is no god except...], Radio Liberty,
*  Vladimir Gutkovskii, "Allakh akbar! Chego? Akbar govoriu!" [Allahu Akbar! What? Akbar, I tell you], Pravozashchitnyi al'ians,
*  Sergei Pul'sha, "Vladyku Filareta prosiat zastupit'sia za Sdvizhkova" [Filaret is being asked to intervene on Zdvizhkou's behalf], Belorusskie novosti,
*  Siarhiej Bohdan, "Faraonavy sud, farysejstva i ulada" [Pharaoh's Trial, Pharisaism and Power], ARCHE, January-February 2008, 12.
*  Sergei Pul'sha, "Aleksandr Sdvizhkov: v Belarusi ia ne chuvstvuiu sebia v bezopasnosti" [Aliaksandr Zdvizhkou: I do not feel safe in
*  See: George Dura, "The EU's limited response to Belarus' pseudo 'New Foreign Policy', Centre for European Policy Studies, http://www.ceps.eu
*  Zianon Pazniak, Zianon Pazniak: Sapraudnaje ablichcha [Zianon Pazniak: His True Face] (Minsk: Palifakt, 1992).
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© Rashed Chowdhury