Is the Bangladeshi Spring morphing into a national Islamophobia?


Almost 42 years since Bangladesh won independence from Pakistan, the ghosts of the bloody 1971 liberation war still haunt the nation. The bloodletting, rape and torture inflicted by Pakistani militias prevent many Bengalis to this day from treating the country’s road to freedom as just a tragic tale of the past.

Today, a mass movement of young revolutionaries spurred on by the Awami League-led government have reopened this closed chapter in the country’s history. Hundreds of thousands have assembled at Dhaka’s Shabagh Square, angered  by the life imprisonment of Abdul Quader Molla, a senior leader of the much despised opposition party Jamaat-e-Islami (JI)  who many accuse of collaborating with Pakistani soldiers in war crimes. Sparking what some commentators predict will be a political upheaval on the scale of the Arab Spring, a considerable number of Bangladeshis can no longer rest until the government’s International Crimes Tribunal declares capital punishment for every single JI leader indicted for crimes against humanity.

Dubbing the Shabagh protest a ‘Bangladeshi Spring’ may be premature, but it’s certainly shone the spotlight on the country’s secular-religious divide. For millions of Bangladeshis, JI and their offshoots are nothing but a stain on the national pride. Founded in 1941 by Islamist ideologue Abul Ala Maududi, its members opposed the independence of Bangladesh in 1971 (then East Pakistan), fearing secession would jeopardise the prospect of a strong Islamic government. Since then, they have remained as Bangladesh’s foremost conservative Islamic party, boasting strong support across financial, educational and media institutions.  Their alliance with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)[vi] in the 2008 general election was not received well by most Bengalis who viewed the coalition as an opening for treacherous war criminals to extend greater influence in the country. Now, the country’s youth are calling for Islamists to be removed from the political process and their representation at grassroots levels to be quelled altogether.

And thousands of miles away at a community centre in Tower Hamlets, local Bengalis were singing from the same hymn sheet as those convened in Shabagh.

The chairman opening the proceedings pulled no punches when he claimed that Bangladeshis were itching to do away with Islam from the public sphere. For one of the activists, the fact that the ‘razakaars’ (traitors) during the liberation war were affiliated with the Islamist organisation Jamaat-e-Islami was no coincidence: “I’m not surprised,” he told me.

“It’s their criminal ideology which is the biggest threat to our country.”

Among other headline speakers was an aspiring councillor who rallied the audience to journey back home just to get a whiff of revolution: “We owe it to ourselves to join our people against these religious criminals and make sure they are hanged or exiled from our beloved Bangladesh”.

I wasn’t sure what to make of it to be honest. I’ve always stood aloof from my country’s domestic politics and this gathering was a bit too gung-ho and countrified for my liking. But it was clear that many felt Islam was part of the circumstances which made the war crimes possible.

Following the meeting, I caught up with a research fellow for the Bangladeshi government who travelled to London a day after clashes between authorities and Islamists which left several activists dead. After speaking on his participation in the Shabagh rally, he said nothing would be gained from bringing the nation’s “ultra-religious crazies” to heel.

“The public consensus is that Islamist groups like Jamaat-e-Islami sold our country down the river. Islam has its place in the mosque. Why is it being promoted at government levels?  This is a democracy, not theocracy,” he said.

A similar theme echoed in my discussion with a political commentator for a Dhaka-based journal. Fearing reprisals from Islamists back home for his liberal vision of Bangladesh’s future, he insisted on anonymity.

“In all my years as a journalist, I have never feared for my life until these Islamists started rearing their heads,” he said.

“Islam must not enter the political realm. It has nothing to offer except corrupting our bureaucracy further”.

When I pressed him on whether he would acknowledge the philanthropic contributions of numerous Islamic relief organisations operating across Bangladesh, it barely made a ripple in his conversation. From there, the meeting took an ugly turn and he demanded I wrap up the interview earlier than scheduled.

It didn’t take long for me to realise that what started off as a protest demanding death sentences for war criminals was quickly morphing into a collective national fear of Islamism. To confirm my suspicions, I asked contacts back home for their version of events, and it was clear something more sinister was brewing.

A cleric in my village Moulvi Bazaar lamented how lower caste villagers were railing against the Islamisation of Bangladesh just to strike a chord with secular landlords.

“Some of these people are becoming more anti-Islamic,” he said.

“Why? For retention of landholding rights. For social advantage. They say they don’t want more mosques but they want more secular schools. More modern schools. As if Islam makes them backwards”.

I would never have guessed that ditching Islam would qualify as a shortcut to cool. Not in Bangladesh, and especially not in the villages. But it’s true. Many Bangladeshis are growing hateful of Islamist ambitions and this is translating into an aversion to religion in general. This isn’t just a naive population falling prey to the government’s manufactured fear of Islamists in the run up to next year’s election. Rather, the very mention of Islamic mobilisation provokes howls of disapproval as my brief encounter with the journalist taught me.

Everyone from urban professionals to rural farmers are queuing up to take the axe to sacred cows. In the Mullah’s words, “They are leading the march against religion and holding Islam responsible for everything that’s wrong with our country. Just because of JI’s wrongdoings, it doesn’t mean every Islamic-minded group is bad for the country. Our people are split down the middle. Half want the future of Bangladesh to involve Islam every step of the way. Others think religion has no part to play in society except in Eid”.

He went on berating how traditional Islamic schools- madrassas- had lost their appeal and how secular education was the litmus test for proud progressives willing to take the iron fist to any party, person or project romanticising about an Islamic society.

According to one madrassa student, even those who observe religious rituals have tabled a motion of no-confidence in Islamic organisations, telling  me:  “Many of our countrymen are viewing Islam like an epidemic, like a disease.

“I have friends who go to state schools and they laugh at me because I’m in the madrassa. They laugh at me for wearing thobes and reading Islamic books. But they still pray”.

Students reserved special criticism for the social media in allowing religious satire to flourish to an unparalleled high. Outraged by the increasing number of anti-Islamic blogposts in heavy rotation on the internet, they claimed it was giving voice to a generation of Bengalis whose contempt for Islam dripped from every word: “It’s like we have so many Salman Rushdies now. Look at these blogs and Facebook accounts.

“So many people are cursing Allah and Prophet Muhammad. And many Shabagh protesters agree with this. We can never support them now. Condemning some JI members for war crimes is fine, I also condemn it. But why wage war on religion. It doesn’t make sense. ”

For these madrassa students, the Bangladeshi blogosphere had well and truly re-invented the language of dissent by delivering verbal taser-barbs at the Islamic faith. As their religious sensitivities run amok, poking fun at Islam has only added insult to injury and become inextricably tied with the language of revolution. Sarcastic puns and swipes against religion are no longer off-limits and the view on the street is that mosques could do with a sense of humour.

And after all my discussions the past week, I couldn’t help but feel Bangladesh’s religious conscience had evaporated overnight. Those rewriting the rules on public conversation are also laying the blueprint for a future where Islam barely registers a presence. And they are chortling with delight in the process. But not everyone is laughing.