Many of the observers of Bangladesh knew that sooner or later, the secularists would be in a collision course with the ever growing Islamists. I think we are just seeing the initial confrontation between the two opposing forces. Bangladesh has so many fundamentalist political groups that one would be lost to correctly list them. One such group took the name “Hefazat-e-Islam.” The southeastern part of Bangladesh where Chittagong is located is the stronghold of this tiny Islamist group. This group was relatively obscure in Bangladesh, but lately, the members of this group have drawn attention from various media inside Bangladesh for their incendiary remarks against bloggers and cyber writers. Many other Islamist forces now are joining the Hefazat group because their movement is gaining momentum.
First the meaning of the organization needs to be clarified. This extremist group of Mullahs calls their group “Hefazat-e-Islam,” which means “Safeguarding Islam.” They erroneously think that Islam, the predominant religion of Bangladesh, is in dire straits in Bangladesh. Therefore, Islam needs safeguarding. Quite to the contrary, the fundamentalist brand of Islam is flourishing in four corners of this tiny country. Not a single day goes by that Bangladeshis do not see some kind of religious activities. In the rural towns, the marathon preaching session which is lovingly called “waaz mehfil” or “waaz” is ubiquitous. In small bazaars dotted allover Bangladesh, the mosques’ PA system gives prayer calls 5 times a day, religiously. Some of the mullahs of these mosques recite scriptures and translates them into local dialect. Anyone visiting Bangladesh will not be spared from these amplified preaching season. Therefore, to say that Islam is in danger and needs safeguarding is utterly false.
The members of this fundamentalist group have decided to embark on a “Long March” to reach Dhaka from Chittagong, a distance of about 210 kilometers. These folks are not going to walk all this distance but simply hop into trucks or buses to come to Dhaka for protestation against a handful of cyber writers and bloggers who they claim to have defamed Islam and its prophet, Muhammad.
The government of Sheikh Hasina is playing a very dubious role in the entire episode of “Long March.” The government has given the permission to this group to assimilate in the southeastern section of Dhaka city by the name “Shapla Chattar” on April 6, 2013. Many observers in Bangladesh think that this “Long march” is not going to be a peaceful march as the “Hefazat-e-Islam” claims. To our knowledge, this will be the first confrontation that an Islamic fundamentalist group will encounter with the secularists. The spokesperson for the secularist group “Gono Jagoron Moncho” (The Mass Awakening Platform”) has mentioned to the press that on April 3, 2013 that they will combat the long marchers of “Hefazat-e-Islam” when they reach Dhaka; they also called for a general strike to protest the arrests of 4 bloggers.
Now, why these two groups are at loggerheads in Bangladesh? When Bangladesh came into existence in 1971, it was formed as a secularist nation. But due to some vile conspiracy, the founder, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was gunned down with his entire family in 1975. The nation was ruled by two successive military regimes from 1971 through 1990. During this period, the military-led government altered the constitution to efface the emblem of secularism and instead brought religion into the constitution. One of the dominant political parties, Bangladesh Nationalist Party or BNP sided with the dominant Islamist party, the Jamaat, and they did the most damage to weaken the religious harmony that had existed in the country between Muslims and other religious minorities such as Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians. Since 1975, the nation started to shift right towards religion and slowly but surely the secularism and its spirit was made infirm in Bangladesh. Nonetheless, we have seen the resurgence of secularism in recent days in the college campuses and thanks to the Internet for this re-awakening.
The political party, Awami League, had always straddled between secularists and Allah-fearing citizens of Bangladesh. They once ruled Bangladesh from 1996 through 2001 and they are now ruling the country since 2008. One of the mandates of Awami League in the last election was to try some Islamists who helped Pakistani military to kill tens and thousands of Bengalis during the fight for independence in 1971. To this effect, many political leaders of Jamaat-i-Islami were arrested few years earlier and they were put into trial by the state. In February 2013, the court started to mete out justice to the war criminals and a section of the civil society thought that the court was being too lenient handing out the justice to the war criminals. The bloggers of Bangladesh took the lead to organize a mass movement in Dhaka. This movement is still continuing. The bloggers-led movement staged continuous demonstration in Shahbag area of Dhaka starting from February 5 through March 31, 2013. Thus, a new movement was engendered and named “Shahbag Movement.”
Unfortunately, the Islamists who are in custody now and undergoing trial have a full support of the Islamists. The main opposition, BNP, also joined the Islamists to combat the “Shahbag Movement” and in the process started a disinformation campaign to label the bloggers atheists. This was done to evoke hatred among hardcore Islamists against the bloggers who organized the “Shahbag Movement” and to thwart the trial effort by the government to take the leaders of the Islamists to task.
In Islam, the errant Muslims who lost faith are called Murtaad. In general, there is tremendous amount of hatred against Murtaad among god-fearing Muslims. Some religious leaders would go so far as to declare the ex-Muslim a fair target for assassination. In Islamic society, Murtaads are reviled. Thus, the Islamists in Bangladesh reacted very sharply when they learned that some of the bloggers were atheists. The government of Sheikh Hasina did not react that much when this news of the Islamists calling the bloggers atheists came out, but to appease the mullah, the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, uttered some unsavory words against the atheist bloggers. Under her direction, the police arrested four bloggers in early April 2013. Sadly, the arrestees were treated like a garden variety thieves.
This news did not sit well with the secular segment of Bangladesh society (Read my previous essay – Muzzling the voice of freethinking bloggers: An alarming development in Bangladesh!) . The bloggers of Bangladesh were unified and they called for a countrywide strike on April 4-5, 2013. This call of general strike by the bloggers has another purpose. This is to put a road block to the “Long March” participating Islamists to enter the city of Dhaka, which is a stronghold of secularist blog writers.
It remains to be seen how the encounter turns out on Saturday, April 6, 2013. Would the police support one group over the other? The bloggers have requested the transport services not to ply their vehicles from other district to Dhaka. If the trains, buses and trucks do not run their services, we will not see any long marchers coming to the capital; consequently, there will not be any civil unrest in the country. But if the transport companies run their services on Friday, April 5, 2013, then lookout for trouble all across Bangladesh. The group “Gono Jagoron Moncho” (The Mass Awakening Platform”) has also requested the government to block the long march program on April 4-5, 2013.
In summary, the secularists in Dhaka and elsewhere in the nation are united for a showdown with the Islamists. This confrontation was long overdue. After April 6, 2013 Bangladesh society is going to enter a new phase of confrontation. The ruling party, Awami League, has no choice but to join with the secularist forces. Even though, Hasina’s fawning attitude towards Islamists to appease them would garner any vote, the Mullahs and their supporters would lineup with BNP, the main opposition party. This confrontation between bloggers and the mullahs will have several unintended consequence in Bangladesh. The society is already polarized and anything is possible now. Therefore, stay tuned for further development. The game just got started.
After penning my article on Hefazat-e-Islam’s ‘Long March’ I came across an article in Bangla -‘হেফাজতী ইসলামের লংমার্চঃ নেপথ্যের এক ভয়াবহ কাহিনী‘ . As per this article, the entire ‘Long March’ program would be bankrolled by Salahuddin Chowdhury (AKA Saka Chowdhury)’s family and Jamaat-e-Islami to create chaos and mayhem in and around Dhaka. The blueprint of the ‘Long March’ was conceived in Chittagong and in Dhaka by Saka Chowdhury’s family. The family and Jamaat would spend about 100 Crores of Taka to execute their plan. The Hefazat-e-Islam will be given 45 Crores of Taka and other dozen of Islamic party and their Huzurs would share the rest of the money. The main purpose of the ‘Long March’ is to create anarchy in the capital, killing some detainees inside Dhaka’s central jail, and possibly kidnapping a few politicians who are facing charges of crime against humanity done during the 9 month period in1971. Noteworthy is Saka Chowdhury, who is now waiting for verdict for his nefarious activities done during Bangladesh’s independent movement in 1971. The Hefazot-e Mullahs are not driven by any ideology; rather, they are motivated by the large sum of money to be handed out by Saka Chowdhury’s family. This is the last ditch effort by Saka Chowdhury’s family to kidnap the patriarch of the family from the central jail. The entire episode of the Long March beats the plot of the next James Bond movie. Let us see how this scheme plays out in Dhaka on April 5 and 6, 2013.
A.H. Jaffor Ullah, a researcher and scientist, writes from New Orleans, USA