In a poor country called Bangladesh, recently there has been a surge in heated talk and violent lawlessness. The principal driving forces behind these are the Islamist political parties, including Jamaat-e-Islami, Hifazat-e-Islami and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
What caused this discontent? It began with the ongoing trials of ten Islamists on charges of crimes against humanity that they had committed in 1971 during the independence war of Bangladesh. The first verdict was a death sentence against Abul Kalam Azad, who is a member of the Jamaat-e-Islami party and a well-known Muslim cleric. The second verdict was a life in prison for Abdul Quader Mollah, Assistant Secretary, Jamaat-e-Islami. The crimes for which these two were convicted are similar, yet the punishments were different. Interestingly, the difference between the two is that the former is suspected to be hiding in Pakistan, and practically safe from the reach of the Bangladeshi authorities, and the latter is in custody in Bangladesh, and his sentence could actually be carried out.
This discrepancy in the verdicts started what is known as the Shahbag Movement by some young bloggers on February 5, 2013. While that movement has found wide acceptance in Bangladesh, the powerful Islamists have maintained their vehement opposition to it.
On that backdrop came the third verdict, a death sentence, for Delwar Hossain Sayeedi,Vice-President, Jamaat-e-Islami. That was too much for the Islamists to tolerate, and they started sharpening their most powerful weapon against the bloggers; blaming them of being anti-Islam and of hurting the religious sentiments of the Muslims, and demanding the harshest possible punishments for them.
There is no question about the involvement of Jamaat-e-Islami in committing the most heinous crimes against humanity in Bangladesh in 1971. The failure of the country to prosecute any of the criminals for so long is also a reality. It is also clear that the honorable souls among the youth want a respectable closure for the brutalization and murder of the innocent victims of the 1971 Bangladesh.
However, very little details are available in the news media on what actually were written by the bloggers that could be called anti-Islam. In fact, most of the prominent bloggers and organizers of the Shahbag movement have made clear statements that they are not against Islam, and that they are against war criminals.
Obviously, people who have a sense of reasoning could not be too religious. They are likely to question religious beliefs with at least a degree of free thinking. In a country where the Muslim calls to pray can be heard loudly five times a day every day and everywhere, most people have been growing up with a restricted capacity of thinking freely about their religion of Islam. Most of the bloggers and Shahbag activists, even with their better education, are probably moderately religious Muslims; they are certainly not anti-Islam.
The branding of ‘anti-Islam’ and ‘hurting Muslim sentiments’ is a tool for committing injustice and atrocities in many parts of the world. In Bangladesh, however, the Islamists are clearly trying to stop the war-crime trials by creating anarchy. Their recent deeds include atrocities against absolutely innocent Hindus, unprovoked and savage brutality on the police, vandalizing public properties, damaging and blocking roads, and uprooting rail lines. Most of the victims of these acts of anarchy are ordinary people who have nothing to do with the Shahbag movement, and are not accused to be anti-Islam even by the Islamists.
The half-hearted secular governing political party of Bangladesh, Awami League, is feeling deeply in trouble. Thus, they are acting against the free-thinking bloggers. Their first concrete act was the arrest of three bloggers yesterday. Most strikingly, they are contemplating laws to punish people who hurt religious sentiments.
A major headline in a widely circulated Bangla daily newspaper reads: ধর্মীয় অনুভূতিতে আঘাতের সর্বোচ্চ শাস্তি মৃত্যুদণ্ড (the punishment for hurting religious sentiments is sentencing to death) (The Daily Ittefaq, April 3, 2013). According to this report, the State Minister for Law, Kamrul Islam, is considering the death sentence for people who hurt religious sentiments.
Awami League has clearly not learned from its past mistakes of being soft on pan-Islamic hate-mongers. That softness did not save Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975. Today, instead of controlling religious fanaticism, instead of being truly secular, Awami League is appeasing the Islamists, and harassing the youth who envision a better Bangladesh for all people. While the international political and military environment now is different from that in 1975, which Sheikh Hasina has not hesitated to tell her opposition, and while an assassination of the present leadership is not as likely, the softness on the religious fanatics is likely to set the clock backward for Bangladesh as a country, as it did in 1975.
It is indeed alarming and frustrating for Bangladesh.
About the Writer: Sukhamaya Bain is a US citizen who was born in a place that is a part of today’s Bangladesh. He earned a Ph.D. degree in Chemistry in 1987, and currently works for the US federal government, evaluating chemistry. While being a scientist by profession, he believes that societal justice is vital for the well-being of mankind. Thus, he occasionally writes on sociopolitical issues.