Bangladesh warned over Islamist backlash

August 13, 2013

By Victor Mallet in New Delhi

For Sheikh Hasina’s government and her backers in India, the greatest danger facing Bangladesh today is ostensibly a surge of Islamist extremism financed by Saudi money and abetted by Pakistani spies.

Islamism, says Gowher Rizvi, Ms Hasina’s international adviser, “is a serious worry. One of the achievements of this government was putting an end to domestic terrorism – it was often spilling over into the neighbourhood.” Another senior official adds: “This country could become a Pakistan or Afghanistan.”

Ms Hasina’s opponents, however, say a government campaign against Islamists risks fomenting exactly the kind of fanaticism it says it wants to avoid in this densely populated country of over 150m people.

For men such as Mir Ahmad Binquasem, an amiable barrister and member of Jamaat-e-Islami, Ms Hasina’s Awami League is demonising and persecuting JI and other opposition groups because it fears losing power in the next election.

JI, he says over toasted sandwiches in the law library at his office, is a “moderate” organisation. “Whoever is supporting Jamaat are not supporting it because they want sharia law or Islam to be the founding principle of government. They find [JI leaders] to be religious, to be non-corrupt.”

A few days later, at a JI-hosted Iftar – an evening meal to break the fast during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan – at which it welcomes foreign ambassadors and thanks them for criticising the imprisonment and the war crimes trials of JI leaders. “They [the JI leaders] have fallen prey to nasty political victimisation,” says JI official AKM Nazir.

There is no doubt the authorities are targeting JI, which is a small but important ally of the Bangladesh Nationalist party, the opposition led by Khaleda Zia, as well as any other activists perceived as enemies. Adilur Rahman Khan, a human rights lawyer, was seized from his home by plainclothes police on Saturday. Government officials warn darkly of Islamist attempts to stage a repeat of the Tahrir Square uprising that brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power in Egypt last year.

Established in British India in 1941, 30 years before the war that split Bangladesh from West Pakistan, JI was earlier in August barred by a court from elections on the grounds that its charter violated Bangladesh’s secular constitution. Party activists angered by the ban launched a two-day general strike and street protest on Tuesday.

Of JI’s 21 central leaders, 15 – including Mir Ahmad’s father – have been charged with war crimes dating back to 1971, when JI supported Pakistan’s brutal and ultimately futile attempt to retain control of the eastern side of the country that is now Bangladesh. Hundreds of thousands were killed in the war won, with Indian help, by Bengali nationalists loyal to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Ms Hasina’s father.

Few Bangladeshis want to spare JI’s older generation a judicial reckoning for their actions in the war. Nor do they think the party’s younger members are angels. Like other political organisations it has a thuggish young wing, which was enforcing the two-day stoppage on Tuesday with firebombs and wooden clubs.

But the Awami League’s campaign of repression against its Islamic opponents could fuel religious militancy and drive Bangladeshis into the arms of a more shadowy movement called Hefazat-e-Islam (Protectors of Islam), according to Bangladeshi and foreign observers.

“The government in its miscalculation has created or sharpened the division between the forces of Bengali nationalism and the forces of Islamic radicalism,” says Ahsan Mansur, executive director of Bangladesh’s Policy Research Institute. One aim, he says, is to elicit support from western powers worried about Islamist terrorism, but “it will only polarise the society”.

Toby Cadman, a British barrister hired as an international adviser by JI, calls the organisation a mainstream Islamic political party that is “effectively a firewall between secularism and more fundamentalist groups”.

Like other international observers, he is critical of the proceedings of the International Crimes Tribunal, a domestic court established for the war crimes trials, and says carrying out death sentences – there have been two handed down so far – would destabilise Bangladesh.

“If they actually try and hang one of these individuals you’re probably looking at a complete radicalisation on the streets,” he says.

A curious chain of events means that Hefazat’s reputation has already been one of the main beneficiaries of the tribunal.

The previously obscure movement sprung to prominence in May when tens of thousands of its white-clad supporters converged on Dhaka to protest against a supposed threat to Islam from young, secular Bangladeshis. At least 58 people were killed when security forces drove the Hefazat demonstrators from the capital.

Hefazat’s targets – the students and others occupying Dhaka’s Shahbag Square – included some atheists whose blogs had enraged Hefazat devotees. In fact, the secularists had it in for Jamaat, not the little-known Hefazat, and their main demand was for the death penalty to be imposed on JI leaders convicted by the tribunal.

Hefazat’s leaders and supporters are based in the madrasas (Koranic schools) that have proliferated across Bangladesh, often supported by migrant workers returning from Saudi Arabia, and they really do have a Saudi-style, puritanical and anti-western agenda akin to that of the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

They oppose the mixing of men and women in public and want capital punishment for those who blaspheme against Islam. And the madrasas where the movement arose continue to multiply.

“In my village, 10 years ago there was only one madrasa,” says Syeed Ahmad, a blogger and social activist who describes himself as a liberal agnostic. “Now there are 19.”

Source: Financial Times