Saturday, July 28, 2007
The Spirit of Liberté
In an interview His Excellency Monsieur Jacques-André Costilhes, Ambassador of France in Dhaka talks about Franco-Bangla relationship
Monsieur Costilhes thinks when a far away country with little direct contacts is concerned, the public usually takes its cue from the media either directly, if and when it gives a direct opinion about the country, or, more often, from the overall tonality of the reports. " Image is always multi faceted: just as beauty," he says, "It resides mostly in the eye of the beholder. Therefore, when you talk about 'the' image of Bangladesh, you refer to a composite object, made of many different images as seen, to simplify a little, by politicians, businessmen and medias."
The exhibition of Bangladeshi artefacts that is going to be held in Paris from October the 23rd 2007, to March 2008 is surely going to help boost the country's fledgling image abroad. " As you are aware, France and Bangladesh have been engaged in a cooperation in Archaeology for the last 12 years under a governmental agreement. As a tribute to this work, and to give Bangladeshi culture it's due recognition in the international scene, the Guimet Museum in Paris is organising, entirely on its' own funds, the first ever significant international exhibition of stone sculptures, terracotta and other treasures of Bangladeshi cultural heritage," he says. Monsieur Costilhes elaborates further: "Now, you must realise the Guimet Museum is one of the very few museums in Paris to have a global reputation and a corresponding reach in terms of public relations and media impact: an exhibition in such a setting will undoubtedly give Bangladeshi art the widest possible exposure and renown on both the Parisian and the international scene. So, for the fist time in the western world since the Independence war and the favourable exposure it got from people like André Malraux, the name of Bangladesh will be widely, the emphasis being on widely, associated with a positive event."
This message is going to be reinforced by the Dhaka-Paris events that the French Embassy is organising with different partners: a painting exhibition in association with the Bengal Foundation, a traditional boat exhibition in association with the NGO Friendship, a film festival, a photo exhibition, concerts, these are some, but not all, of the surrounding cultural events meant to bring Bangladesh to the front of the cultural scene in Paris this fall. "Of course, this alone will not modify yet the image of Bangladesh, but it is a significant step in the right direction, and France is both proud and happy to have initiated it," he continues.
But how can France, a modern advanced democracy help Bangladesh build its own democratic institutions? Monsieur Costilhes answers, " If, by 'giving help', you mean 'giving lessons', the answer is clearly none. There is, of course, always room for improvement, both in France and Bangladesh, but improvements have to be brought by the citizens, not by outsiders. We may remember here a saying from the French revolution: 'Freedom cannot be given away, it has to be conquered', well, democracy too.
Now, France has indeed reinvented modern democracy in Europe in 1789, long after the original idea of ancient Greece had been consigned to dusty books. You may know that in the process, it has also made grievous mistakes: democracy is a difficult path. By studying those mistakes and the solutions France has found, and then by adapting those to its' own case, Bangladesh may find shortcuts and save itself from comparable waste of time, money and blood. France's history is on record and we stand ready to give technical details on any subject of interest, but Bangladeshis will have to decide what is relevant to Bangladesh."
About the trend of rising religious extremism, Monsieur Costilhes says, " France is a secular republic, which means it considers religion to be strictly a personal matter where the State has no jurisdiction. For instance, it is illegal in France to officially ask, note, or make use of someone's religious affiliation. Therefore, religious extremism is viewed in France strictly on the basis of its' criminal and terrorists aspects.
"The terrorism threat has never been so great in the world. It has also undergone profound transformations. Like most of its international partners, France has adapted its counter-terrorism toolbox accordingly with the law dated 26 January 2006. A White paper called, “prevailing against terrorism” has also been published (120 pages, available on request at the French Embassy) to explain these efforts."
He explains that in France, the law forbids strictly any type of racism, incitation to violence or to violate French law, insult to religions and, in very limited cases within the civil service and public schools, display of ostentatious religious symbols. Needless to say, the law applies to all, irrespective of religion.
"France believes in a twofold approach to fight religious extremism: to strictly apply our law based on the core values of democracy and humanism, including freedom of religion, and to alleviate the reasons that may fool normal well-meaning religious persons into such a distorted mind frame," he says.
This article was first published in the Daily Star on Junly 6, 2007