Recently, the government of Bangladesh dropped the infamous phrase "this passport is valid for all countries of the world except Israel" from its new passports. Now it has become a national issue of debate. (Image source: Tusharkb2)
Recently, the government of Bangladesh dropped the infamous phrase "this passport is valid for all countries of the world except Israel" from its new passports. Those words had been prominently inscribed since the country's independence from Pakistan in 1971. Six months ago, when Bangladeshi government introduced a new machine-readable passport with an electronic chip, the "except Israel" clause was quietly erased with no public announcement. The change was, in a sense, classified.
In early May, a man went to the passport department headquarters to collect the passports of his mother and brother, when he noticed that the clause had been omitted. Through social media, the news went viral. Now it has become a national issue of debate.
Having been informed of the news, the deputy Director-General for Asia and the Pacific with the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Gilad Cohen, joyfully tweeted: "Great news! #Bangladesh has removed travel ban to Israel. This is a welcome step & I call on the Bangladeshi government to move forward and establish diplomatic ties with #Israel so both our peoples could benefit & prosper." The reactionary comments to his tweet from Muslims are notable.
The Jerusalem Post wrote: "Bangladesh has reportedly lifted its travel ban in an unexpected move...." In Bangladesh, however, several cabinet members, especially the home minister and the foreign minister, apparently felt pressure. The reaction had been enormous.
On May 30, the Islamic Movement Bangladesh, a religious party, demanded reinstatement of the clause and a judicial investigation against "the culprits involved in the misdeed". The leftist parties' alliance of Bangladesh insisted on revoking the decision. The Palestinian Authority's ambassador to Dhaka, Yousef Ramadan, told local media that he was "saddened" by Bangladesh's move not to single out Israel in its passport.
In response, Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Abul Kalam Abdul Momen stated that a passport is just an identity document and does not reflect the foreign policy of a country. The foreign policy of the country, he stated, remains the same as it was during the time of the "father of the nation," Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. "No one from Bangladesh can visit Israel, and if anyone does, legal action will be taken against the person", he told the journalists at a media briefing. Bangladesh was liberated on March 26, 1971 from Pakistan, and the newly formed government under his leadership, rejected the recognition of Israel on February 4, 1972, even though Israel was one of the first countries officially to recognize the new nation.
There were two more countries that citizens of Bangladesh were barred from visiting: Taiwan and South Africa, but those bans were long ago withdrawn. South Africa was removed after the South African general election in 1994, which was won by the African National Congress; and Taiwan was removed from the list of prohibited countries in 2004 -- also unannounced.
The question now is: Why is the Bangladeshi populace so obstinate about not having an international relationship with Israel? The answer is that Bangladesh is the third largest Muslim country in the world, comprising about 90% Sunni Muslims. The fact is that the people of Bangladesh absorb an extreme version of Islam that is highly influenced by Deobandi school of thought. Instead of modernizing its interpretation of Islam, this school has become intolerant towards anyone not a Muslim. A Financial Times report, from October 30, 2015, states:
"Wave after wave of Deobandi graduates have gone on to found their own institutions across the region, with a centenary report in 1967 recording the foundation of 8,934 Deobandi madrassas and maktabs (primary schools) in the first 100 years.
"In Pakistan the number has risen from 244 in 1956 to about 24,000 today, most of them Deobandi. In Bangladesh too, they are multiplying rapidly...
"From Somali al-Shabaab militants slaughtering Christians in Kenya to the Bangladeshis who murder liberal bloggers with machetes on the streets of Dhaka, the perpetrators of Islamist terror attacks are often said by police to have been the teachers or pupils of Sunni Muslim madrassas."
Whatever the public perception and the explanations by cabinet members are regarding the passport issue, the government of Bangladesh has taken a big step forward by removing the clause. At least, from now on, the state will not be able to prosecute someone for visiting Israel. As an extra benefit, the country's declared foreign policy of "friendship to all and malice towards none" will be more meaningful as well.