Bangladesh’s leadership faces a stark choice—it can try to appease religious groups. Or it can assert its authority
On Saturday my friends in Bangladesh called me or sent me email messages, saying I had to see the mass of men who had taken over the Motijheel area of Dhaka. Their tone was concerned and disturbed. The men had gathered to listen to religious leaders of a movement called Hefazat-e-Islam, which wanted Bangladesh to return to a medieval time. After a series of strikes and violent incidents, fundamentalist Islam was displaying its collective strength in response to the Shahbag movement.
Hefazat was everything Shahbag isn’t. Their march was planned and organized, unlike the spontaneous protests at Shahbag, where for nearly two months thousands have demanded justice at the Bangladesh International Crimes Tribunal, which is trying those accused of war crimes during the Liberation War of 1971.
The debate is slowly shifting: from one seeking to establish criminality and justice to a wider existential debate about the role of Islam in a society where a large number of people don’t want religion to dictate how their country should be run.
The weekend images were sobering, with people in white as far as the eye could see. At least one leader appeared to speak part of the time in Urdu, which sounded eerie to Bangladeshis who know their history well: the country asserted its Bangla identity because Pakistan, of which it was once part, imposed Urdu. The faithful at Motijheel didn’t mind that: almost all were men and all had beards; most wore skullcaps. They resoundingly repeated rousing slogans, even raising their shoes in the air, when their leaders asked them to smack Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed.
In painting the ruling Awami League as secular and the protesters at Shahbag as atheists, Hefazat-e-Islam and other Islamic groups, including the youth wing of the opposition party Jamaat-e-Islami, are reinforcing the idea that the current fight in Bangladeshis is between the faithful and the godless. The reality is more mundane: it pits those who seek justice against those who want to pretend that nothing horrible happened 40 years ago. It is a fight to restore memory, to reclaim the country’s soul.
Many of Hefazat’s followers attacked Awami League posters, because to them the party symbolizes secularism, which for them is anathema. But Awami League would seem secular only to the truly devout, given that when the party had the opportunity to amend the constitution to bring Bangladesh closer to its ideals at independence, it held on with one hand what it appeared to be discarding with the other. The inherently untenable compromise of Bangladesh’s 15th constitutional amendment, passed in 2011, is that while it restored the four fundamental principles of the original constitution of 1972—nationalism, socialism, democracy, and secularism—it kept Islam as the state religion. That’s certainly a choice for Bangladeshis to make, but it is a bit odd to call a country secular republic when it has a state religion.
But for Islamic groups like Hefazat that concession wasn’t enough. They fear the loss of influence they have gained in the past quarter century—of attempting to make the country more Islamic even though Islamic parties have historically done poorly in elections. The Hefazat’s 13 demands range from the principled (even if discriminatory) to the incomprehensible. Incensed by the verve with which some bloggers have criticized them and their practices, they want the government to punish “atheist bloggers”. The government has arrested four—Asif Mohiuddin, Subrata Adhikary Shuvo, Russell Parvez, and Mashihur Rahman Biplob—and the police paraded them with their laptops and computer equipment, remanding three of them for a week for questioning.
The Hefazat also wants to reinstate the phrase “Absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah” in the constitution and seeks the death penalty for those who defame Islam. It wants “atheist” leaders of the Shahbag movement punished and it seeks freedom for all madrasa students and scholars who have been detained. And inevitably, they want a ban on the mixing of men and women and on candlelight vigils. They would also like an end to sculptures in public areas, to scrap women’s rights, and to impose restrictions on the activities of international non-government organizations and missionaries. As the late Tareque Masud’s film, Runway (2010) showed, gullible, jobless young men abound, who such movements prey upon.
Tempers and tension are rising, as more verdicts are awaited from the tribunal. Bangladesh’s leadership faces a stark choice—it can try to appease the religious groups by prosecuting the bloggers. Or it can assert its authority and remind the religious groups that while they have the right to practice their faith, they cannot impose their practices on others, Muslim or not. The government should remember that the Hefazat and its allies have no monopoly on what Muslims think. Among the protesters at Shahbag are veiled women and bearded men, proudly revealing their belief, praying at the appointed hour and then rejoining the demonstrations against those who claim to speak and act on behalf of their faith. Indian Muslims in Kolkata who marched in sympathy with the Jamaat better realize who they are backing.