Political and cultural organizations in Bangladesh are demanding the unconditional release of a prominent Sufi singer who was arrested under the Digital Security Act after a Muslim cleric complained that the performer had defamed Islam and its prophet at a concert.
Shariat Sarker, 40, who has been remanded to police custody following his Jan. 10 arrest, during a concert in late December had allegedly criticized mullahs who oppose singing. The footage was posted to YouTube, and Sarker had since offered a 5 million taka (U.S. $50,000) challenge to anyone who could prove that Islam forbids singing.
“We arrested him on Friday after receiving a complaint filed over his remarks about cap wearing maulanas (Islamic clerics) as well as the Prophet Muhammad. We questioned him in custody and found the allegations to be true,” said Sayedur Rahman, the officer in charge at the Mirzapur police station in Tangail district, near Dhaka.
If convicted, Sarker could face 10 years in prison, according to media reports.
The former president of the Bangladesh Students Union said Sarker’s arrest muzzled free speech and differences of opinion.
“It is a violation of people’s rights to free expression,” Baki Billah told BenarNews. “The situation of Bangladesh has been worsening day by day as the government is sticking to power by compromising with the hardline Islamists.”
Sarker belongs to the Bauls of Bengal, an order of wandering folk singers who, for centuries, have conveyed a message of love, harmony and peace through their songs.
Cleric Maulana Faridul Islam filed the case alleging that the singer’s comments hurt the religious sentiment of Muslims. Hundreds of Muslims organized protests in Mirzapur and Tangail, branding the singer an apostate.
“Sarker has made many filthy remarks about our prophet and the clerics. I have filed the case on behalf of those who are seriously hurt,” the cleric told BenarNews. “We want tougher punishment for the apostate so that none can dare comment about anything defaming Islam in the future.”
Former Information Minister Hasanul Huq Inu, who serves as president of the Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal political party, and party general secretary Shirin Akhter condemned the singer’s arrest.
In a statement, they described it and previous arrests of other singers as unforgivable offenses. The two demanded the removal of officials and police who undertake such actions in alliance with extremists and fundamentalist forces.
Since 2014 when six bauls were attacked, the group’s members have faced attacks by extremists and militants, members said.
Sarker made his remarks while responding to another singer during the performance, according to Peer Pagol Majed Chan Al Chisti, a prominent baul. The nearly one-hour video has since been removed.
“Sarker has become a victim of the conflicts between Sufis and Wahhabi Islamists. The followers of Wahhabi Islam have filed a case against him, misinterpreting his statement,” Majed Chan told BenarNews.
“There is nothing mentioned specifically in the Quran to forbid music. There are some musical instruments which are still being used in Saudi Arabia,” he said, adding that he and other bauls would take to the streets in protest if the singer was not released.