One night in February, Rajib Haider was set upon near his Dhaka home by five knife-wielding youths. His face was so lacerated that a relative who found the body wasn’t sure it was him until he called Haider’s cellphone and heard it ring inside a pocket.
Haider was a blogger, one of hundreds in Bangladesh demanding the death penalty for Islamist leaders accused of wartime atrocities, whose grisly murder swelled the crowds at student-led rallies many hailed as a “Bangladesh Spring”.
But now, a radical pro-Islam movement has emerged to counter the students it sneers at as “atheist bloggers”.
Known as Hefajat-e-Islam, it has given the government until May 5 to introduce a new blasphemy law, reinstate pledges to Allah in the constitution, ban women from mixing freely with men and make Islamic education mandatory – an agenda critics say would amount to the ‘Talibanisation’ of Bangladesh.
The clash of ideologies could plunge Bangladesh into a cycle of violence as the two main political parties, locked in decades of mutual distrust, exploit the tension between secularists and Islamists ahead of elections that are due by next January.
“This is a confrontation between secular and conservative orthodox interpretations of religion,” said Muhammad Zamir, a former career diplomat and now a newspaper columnist.