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An Interview with German Philosopher Rainer Ebert

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An Interview with German philosopher Rainer Ebert

Mahmudul Hoque

Rainer Ebert grew up in a German small town, and he is now studying for his Ph.D. in Moral Philosophy at Rice University in Texas. For the last few years, he has been writing on various legal, moral and social issues in Bangladeshi newspapers. His articles, especially those on homosexuality, have drawn significant interest here in this country. He is one of those rare people who have shown courage to dig into rather sensitive, yet important issues such as the rights of sexual minorities and the rights of non-human animals. He is only 27 years old, and he is a vegan. He has visited Bangladesh several times, and he has delivered public lectures at leading universities in Bangladesh, such as the University of Dhaka and Jahangirnagar University. This is how, through his scholarly presence, his opinions and his activism, he has created a unique identity for himself in Bangladesh. His ideas have challenged some of the social practices here and have raised important questions.

This interview attempts to discover how Mr. Ebert got interested in Bangladesh, andto identify the logics behind his activism.

1. You are a Ph.D. student specializing in moral philosophy. What is moral philosophy?

If you ask ten philosophers this question, you will likely get ten different answers. I would say that moral philosophy is the sub-discipline of philosophy dealing with the question of how we should live our lives. For example, we may ask ourselves: What is good, what is bad? When is an action morally right, when is it wrong? Or, more specifically: Is it always wrong to lie? How much, if anything, do I owe to the poor? Should I go visit my elderly and lonely neighbor today?

We all face questions like these every day. In trying to answer them, we are all engaging in moral philosophy, to some extent, even though many wouldn't use this term to describe what they are doing. Now, different societies, different cultures, and different religions have all offered different answers to moral questions. Philosophers, however, take a critical stance toward these answers, and moral philosophy hence must be distinguished carefully from those customary standards of right and wrong conduct that are commonly called morality. Moral philosophy invites us to question socio-cultural and religious assumptions, and to think for ourselves in a factual and logical manner, free from prejudice.

2. Over the last few years you have visited Bangladesh several times, and you have written on moral, socio-cultural and legal issues of Bangladesh. How did you get interested in Bangladesh?

My first interest in Bangladesh was entirely personal. In 2008, while I was working on my Master's thesis in Theoretical Physics at Heidelberg University in Germany, I met a Bangladeshi Ph.D. student there, and we started dating. I knew that Bangladesh was located in South Asia, and that Peter Singer, a famous Australian philosopher, wrote about the famine that occurred there in 1971. But, apart from that, I didn't know much about the country. Wikipedia quickly changed that. And, a few months later, my now-wife took me along to Dhaka - my first trip to Bangladesh. Since then, I have been to Bangladesh many times, and I have been able to gain some insight into the country's society and culture. I got involved in a number of social causes, including the fight against poverty and the struggle against the discrimination against sexual minorities.

3. In several of your opinion pieces for Bangladeshi newspapers, you called for the repeal of Section 377 of the Bangladesh Penal Code. Your activism has added significant value to the gay rights movement in Bangladesh. How did you get involved in this issue and why, in your opinion, should Bangladesh legalize homosexuality?

During my first trip to Bangladesh in July 2009, a court in New Delhi effectively decriminalized homosexual intercourse in India by repealing Section 377 of the Indian Criminal Code. I read about this decision in the newspapers, and then found myself wondering about the legal status of homosexuality in Bangladesh. I did some research and learned that the Bangladesh Penal Code still contains the very same section that is now regarded as unconstitutional in India. Section 377, left behind by the British Empire, refers to consensual oral and anal sex as "carnal intercourse against the order of nature" and makes it a crime punishable with imprisonment for life.

Now, take a moment and let it sink in: Life imprisonment for consensual sex between adults... This is absurd! To begin with, homosexuality has been part of every society and every culture, at every point in human history, and has also been found in a wide range of non-human animal species. So much for being "against the order of nature"! And even assuming, for the sake of the argument, that homosexuality is unnatural - so what? Mobile phones are unnatural, too! But more importantly, making consensual sex between adults a crime is a violation of fundamental human rights. The state - any state - simply has no right to intrude into people's bedrooms. Homosexual relationships, just like relationships between men and women, are natural and healthy forms of human bonding. A person's sexual orientation is part of who that person is, and everybody deserves to be respected for who they are.

The right to a fulfilling sex life is currently denied to an estimated 15 lakh people in Bangladesh who are homosexual or bisexual. Wanting to know about their lives, I started looking for members of this invisible minority. It took me about a year until I finally met Sam, a Bangladeshi musician of then 25 years who describes himself as a bisexual man. He told me about his romantic relationship with another man, the obstacles their love faces in Bangladesh andhis life in secrecy. This conversation culminated in my first article on homosexuality in Bangladesh. Since then I've been following the gay rights movement in Bangladesh, and I wrote another article, in which I called more loudly for the legalization of homosexuality.

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