The Long March to Another Contested Bangladeshi Narrative

Long Marchers from around Bangladesh congregate in Motijheel at the heart of Dhaka to support Hefazot-e-Islams 13 points. Source: EPA

Early April saw yet another transformation in Bangladesh’s tumultuous pre-election year. Some 200,000 to 1 million protestors (depending on who you speak to) converged upon Dhaka’s Motijheel business district around the iconic Shapla (Water Lily) roundabout.

They arrived in the capital on Saturday 6 April, following what the organisers described as, a Long March from Bangladesh’s urban and rural centers. Organised by the Hefazot-e-Islam (Protection of Islam) group, the occasion—and the events since—pose a serious challenge to the ways in which Bangladesh’s middle class look at themselves, and the way Bangladesh accommodates religiosity and secularism in the public space.

Why the Long March?

On the lips of many a Long March protestor was the desire, to ‘Save Islam in Bangladesh’. They came to see off a perceived threat to their faith, posed by the few of the protestors of Shahbag who denigrated Islam and who had in generality pursued a policy that would prevent their freedom to embody their faith on political levels. Shahbag protestors were accused, with varying delimitation, of being atheists and defaming Islam and its Prophet.

This was not a mass demonstration from the opposition of Jamaat-e-Islami, though some would have been in attendance, nor was this necessarily a protest to free the leaders were subject to the Shahbag’s non-progressive demands for the execution of political leaders accused in the internationally discredited war crimes tribunals.

The Long Marchers were attesting their faith against the perceived apostasy and atheism of Shahbag, but also against their government supporters (or controllers) in the Awami League. They also protested against the police who fired live rounds against worshippers at mosques and rounded up religious looking people.  The post-Juma (Friday prayer) shootings that took place nationwide on 22nd February, ironically a day after the much fabled Bangla Language Day, angered the entire religious establishment, as bullets, probably intended for Jamaat supporters, ripped through the flesh of religious scholars and students. In nonsensical and self-defeating fashion, the country’s secular liberal, and sometimes red, press spun the story to be about Jamaat attacks on themselves.

The Long March has befuddled many in the ruling Awami League, their highly placed ‘secular’ supporters and others closer to home. For months, they described Shahbag as ‘Shahbag Square’, comparing themselves to Tahrir Square, even though the protestors of Tahrir Square were in fact against the state, did not call for the banning of the political parties they disagreed with and the media outlets that critiqued them, or demand the judicial murder of political opponents. While state resources were used to give sentry and protection for Shahbag protestors, the same resources were used to prevent Long Marchers from converging on Dhaka.

Happily, unlike previous demonstrations that had led to the brutal crackdown of perhaps provoked opposition protestors, this event largely went off trouble free. This was thanks in part to the training of the protestors to resist provocation by staying calm and saying the names of God. On the Saturday of the march, social media was filled with images of men with long beards hugging, sharing water melons and tea with their would-be police tormentors. The general discipline of the Marchers was interrupted by a few incidents,attacks on their activists, the repulsion of an attack by the Awami League and an unfortunate incident with a TV journalist and cameraman, for which the leadership apologised.

13 Illiberal Points?

A view of the mass signature campaign from inside the march. Source: TalukdarShaheb

Unable to point to the usual trope of Islamist violence, the secular establishment looked to the demands of the Long March. In it they found plenty to excite and rally already jumpy progressives everywhere, to ridicule the barbaric Islamic bogeyman and miss the point entirely.

A month prior to the 6 April event, a fortnight after the 22nd Feburary Juma killings, Maulana Shah Ahmed Shafi, the leader of Hefazot-e-Islam established a 13-point demand at a conference of religious scholars.

The Hefazot demands are certainly not a menu for a hearty progressive breakfast. Progressive liberals will get indigestion as they read calls ranging from death penalties for insulting Islam, resistance to lewdness and  ‘free mixing’ of men and women in public, a state rejection of the Ahmedi faith tradition being part of Islam and distaste at the installation of statues. Wax candle merchants will also be livid at the anti-candle burning sentiment of the 13-points, but no doubt be heartened by the government’s continuing mishandling of the electricity shortage.

Such demands have already been seized upon by people like the Guardian’sJason Burke. His recent report on the Long March describes the Shahbag protestors as ‘young moderates’, moderates who call for death penalties and banning of political parties, contrasting them favourably to the Long Marchers. Mr Burke, who has covered Afghanistan and Pakistan with some nuance in the past, also fails to mention the controversy and scandal that Bangladesh’s International Crimes Tribunal is embroiled in.

While secular liberals will no doubt seize upon the reactionary demands of the Hefazot-e-Islam, they will misread the more nuanced agenda put forward by this conservative movement. These include that ‘the rights of the minorities must be protected. Measures must be taken to maintain communal harmony and peace’ (revised point 13). They also call for an end to the endless cultural derision by Bangladesh’s secular elite against Bangladeshis who display signs of religiosity (original point 9, revised point 7).  Anybody who knows anybody who covers their hair or wears a beard in professional life will have felt this directly or indirectly. The denigration is widespread in corporate media also, with this video of ‘strip the razakar’ providing vivid evidence.

In any case, as observer Farhad Mazhar has pointed out, ‘the significance of the [Long March] rally is not in its 13-point demand, but in the organisational success of bringing together this vast number of people.’

Misunderstanding the Islamic constellations of Bangladesh

The rise to prominence of Hefazot-e-Islam is a surprise to many observers. It also places in sharp relief the landscape of political Islam, and Islamic practices in general in Bangladesh. Despite appearances and representations, Jamaat-e-Islami do not have a monopoly on the religion, interpretations of the political imperatives of the religion or political agency with the religion, in fact they never have.

Hefazot-e-Islam draws on a longer, traditional and intellectual lineage than the Jamaat. Their leaders are scholars and students hailing from South Asia’s rich and varied Deoband tradition, which like Alighar was established as a Muslim educational response to British colonialism in the aftermath of the failed Indian Uprising of 1857.  Deobandi scholars established the Hathazari Institute near Chittagong in 1896 and have contributed to All India Congress politics, as well as Pakistan and Afghanistan. This is also the tradition whose graduates formed the politically quietist Tablighi Jamaat, a movement whose annual gathering draws millions of people to Bangladesh, with special appearances and participation from left-wing and right-wing leaders.

However, most amongst the secular liberal establishment in Bangladesh wouldn’t even know the difference between the Deobandi Maulana Madani, who established hadith studies in Sylhet opposed the Muslim League’s Two Nation Theory with scholarly dignity, with the proposal of Composite Nationalism, and Maulana Maududi, the founder of Jamaat.

This explains to a degree the limitations of many native informants with minds and eyes clouded by the divisive fog of war. They in fact know very little, and care to know very little about the nature of Islamic culture in Bangladesh beyond the quaint ‘syncretic Islam’ thesis and the patrionising classification of the entire Islamic educational sector as an orphanage service.

‘Extremisms’ Beget ‘Extremisms’

Shahbag’s secular liberal admirers are keen to portray Hefazot’s intervention as a fight between secular progressives and religious reactionaries, whilst Hefazot’s exploiters will be keen to assert their own traditional religious credentials. Like Deoband’s multifaceted contributions to South Asia’s Muslim identity, it would be wrong to simplistically stir Hefazot into these narratives.

While it is equally problematic for Hefazot to call for draconian and frankly unworkable policies, the movement’s demands have been better explained and slightlyrecast since the Long March and require societal dialogue, not dismissal and ignorance.  We must remember that the movement is a reaction to denigration and killings from ‘moderates’ of the late Shahbag and their government backers and that ‘Extremisms’ beget ‘extremisms’.

I am acutely aware that any intervention in this subject is likely to polarize opinion. Bangladesh’s politics is exploitative of our different ignorances, toxic and binary. I hope readers will not consider this to be the last word on the subject. It surely is not, and The Khichurishould hopefully publish multiple perspectives on this in future as there is a pressing need for a creative intra-faith|politics dialogue amongst Bangladeshis.  We benefit from contributions from informed observers in Bangladesh such as Farhad Mazhar and, at times, the blog Alal O Dulal, who try their best to look beyond the binary shortcomings of Bangladesh’s politics. When we get to a stage where one side does not view the others as evil personified, making communication possible, we might be getting somewhere.

Source: The Khichuri