Liberty in Peril in Bangladesh
By Tufail Ahmad
30th July 2013
From Indonesia to Egypt, Islamists are out to enforce their ideology on the rest of the society in which they breathe. In Bangladesh, they are led by Hefazat-e-Islam, a coalition of a dozen Islamic organisations supported by over 25,000 madrasas. Hefazat-e-Islam, or saving Islam, did not exist before 2010 but in an illustration of how quickly Islamist forces can organise, it has grown substantially over three and a half years, establishing branches in major towns, enjoying support from the Bangladesh Nationalist Party or BNP, and notwithstanding ideological differences, attracting organisational backing from the Jamaat-e-Islami whose central leaders have been convicted of the 1971 war crimes.
Hefazat-e-Islam burst on the scene in February against the Shahbagh movement led by liberal bloggers demanding death penalty for the convicts, especially Jamaat-e-Islami leader Abdul Kader Mollah whose life sentence was seen as too soft. Since then, Hefazat-e-Islam supporters have attacked liberal bloggers and journalists, made Taliban-style demands for women, organised protests and violence and laid siege to Dhaka, thereby challenging liberal groups and weakening the secular government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
As Bangladesh goes to polls no later than January 24, the Awami League-led government faces defeat, having failed to meet people’s expectations. The BNP, unable to find a foothold a few years ago, is energised by the new anti-government impetus created by Hefazat-e-Islam. BNP-led leaders, some supported by Hefazat-e-Islam activists, have registered huge victories in recent mayoral elections. The BNP-led alliance appears set to form the next government.
During 2001-2006, when the BNP was in power, the Jamaat-e-Islami-led Islamists and militants of Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh prospered, at least until August 17, 2005, when the militants exploded 300 bombs throughout Bangladesh. If the BNP captures power, the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Hefazat-e-Islam will find a hospitable environment for the next five years. But the war in the streets of Bangladesh is not merely an electoral war.
In 1971, Bangladeshis fought a war of liberation, but the war raging now is of a different kind: it involves ideas and values, mixes religion and politics, aims to convert people to Islamism; it will shape the ideas of how Bangladeshi society look like in the minds of youth. Some of these ideas are contained in 13 demands unveiled by Hefazat-e-Islam: retaining the phrase “absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah” in the constitution, a blasphemy law stipulating death penalty for anyone who smears Allah and Prophet Muhammad, punishment for “atheist” bloggers and anti-Islamists, Pakistan-like law declaring Ahmadis as non-Muslims, ban on foreign culture and mixing of men and women, disallowing sculptures at public places, ban on “anti-Islam activities” by NGOs, Ahmadis and Christian missionaries, et al.
These Taliban-like demands militate against the principles of democracy. If these were to be implemented, Bangladesh will look like Pakistan. Liberty is in peril, threatened by these heretics of modern civilisation.
Let’s look at ideas being propagated by Hefazat-e-Islam leader Shah Ahmad Shafi, who graduated from the Darul Uloom Deoband in India. In a video, he tells a religious congregation in Chittagong: educate girls only till 4-5 grade so that they can do bookkeeping for their husbands; women should remain within the four walls of home, should not go shopping or mix with men; girls using mobile phones and sitting in front benches in a classroom are giving different messages to male students; women are like a tamarind causing men’s mouth and heart to secrete saliva; elderly men who say they don’t lust after seeing women are impotent; birth control is making men infertile and stitching up wombs; Prophet Muhammad said that on the Day of Judgement he will be proud that his followers will be double than those of Jesus and therefore Muslims should marry a second, third and fourth woman. Bangladesh affairs expert Taj Hashmi warned recently: “People must realise that the Hefazat and Jamaat are the two sides of the same coin. Despite their mutual differences, these undemocratic, fascistic, pre-modern forces can unite to the detriment of freedom, democracy, and rights of women, minorities and liberal Muslims.”
Democracies are systems that secure liberty for all. Recent history suggests that democracies too need defending and wars play an essential role in shaping civilisation. At the end of World War II, if the West had lost against Hitler, Nazis, fascists and Islamists would be today’s big powers. At the end of Cold War, if the Soviet Union were not thrashed, especially in Afghanistan, communism and associated forms of authoritarianism would be the global order of the day. Over a decade into the 21st century, which was hailed at its onset as modern civilisation, democracies still need defending, this time from Islamists who are extending their influence and censorship in several parts of the world, affecting the ability of 1.6 billion Muslims to think and live their life in the manner they desire.
At this stage in the history of civilisation, Islamists are nursing a presupposition that humans are without rights and rational thinking, with god having already defined all spheres of their life. This presupposition is a threat to civilisation.
Unlike Pakistan, where the lack of a cultural substance to its nationalism lends strength to Islamism and jihadism, Bangladesh is an ethnically homogenous nation where Islamism will find it difficult to usurp the role of language and culture in redefining its national identity and cannot play a sustainable role in setting its political agenda. For now, it is comforting that across South Asia, Islamist parties have not shown success in winning elections. It indicates that South Asian Muslims view Islam as a personal affair. Hefazat-e-Islam will begin to face an uncertain future and its moral standing will erode, says Bangladeshi journalist Shakeel Anwar, as soon as its supporters in the countryside begin to explicitly see its political collaboration with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party.
Tufail Ahmad is director of South Asia Studies Project at the Middle East Media Research Institute, Washington DC