Radical Islamisation of Bangladesh
Bangladesh was born when the Awami League took a secular stand in their fight for independence from Pakistan. When Pakistan fought to suppress the bid for independence of the Bengali people led by the non fundamentalist Awami League, the Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh and related extremist religious groups opposed the bid for independence of the secular Awami League. The fundamentalist organisations in East Bengal like the Jamaat-e-Islami and related groups stoutly supported Pakistan and refuted the claim for independence of the main East Bengali Muslims and Hindus.. The seeds of extremism were regrettably laid right from the freedom movement and it has now again surfaced in Bangladesh with hard core right extremist groups targeting free thinkers and moderate Muslims of Bangladesh.
After independence there was a movement to oppose fundamentalism in Bangladesh, but there were several, protagonists for the extremists. Of the two main political parties the Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), the former was moderate, but the BNP patronised the Jamaat-e-Islami and later a new group called the Hifazat-e-Islam. The Awami League ruled for one term in the first decade of government after the death of Mujibur Rehman, but could not do much to reverse the trend towards extremism, while the BNP backed the extremist groups. It was only in its second tenure that the Awami League stepped up its fight against Islamic extremism. During the liberation struggle, the fundamentalist groups had committed several atrocious acts, killing innocent Hindus and Bengali Muslims supporting the Awami League. The extremist Islamic groups had committed horrifying acts of brutality against unarmed Hindu and Muslim supporters of the Awami League in their fight for independence. It is only in the second tenure of the Awami League that Sheikh Hasina constituted a special court called the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) to try marked fundamentalists including many in the Muslim clergy who had committed horrifying atrocities against unarmed Hindu and Muslim civilians during the war of liberation in 1971. These groups agitated to prevent the ICT from functioning and regrettably the Western countries also opposed the setting up of this tribunal. Sheikh Hasina, the Prime Minister however persisted and several fundamentalist supporters who had committed horrifying crimes like rape, murder were tried and punished with several sent to the gallows.
Interestingly the western press was critical of the ICT saying that the ICT was partial and did not meet international standards. When this criticism was at its peak, this author had published a paper referring to the case of Adolf Eichman who had committed horrible crimes against the Jews in Germany before the Second World war and after Germany was defeated escaped to Argentina and was hiding there. When Israel was created after the Second World war, the Mossad an Intelligence Agency of Israel traced Adolf Eichmann hiding in Argentina, and sent a team secretly there who kidnapped him and brought him to Israel to stand trial. He was tried in a fair trial and given the death penalty for the horrifying crimes he committed against the Jews in Germany, well before the state of Israel was born, more than two decades after he committed those crimes. This author had concluded that if Israel could kidnap and try Adolf Eichman for crimes he committed against the Jews in Germany, when the State of Israel was not even born, the Bangladesh government could very well try their citizens for committing similar crimes against their innocent civilians in a fair trial.
There has been one fallout of these trials carried out by the International Crimes Tribunal in Bangladesh. This has given birth to a Muslim fundamentalist group called the Hifazat-e-Islam and the Jammat-e-Islami has also reacted strongly against the Awami League Government after each execution of persons who had committed horrifying crimes against innocent people during the Bangladesh war of liberation.
Parallel to this, a movement was also born in Bangladesh of educated people from different walks of life coming out openly against religious fundamentalism, questioning basic assumptions in the Quran, the religious book of Islam. Their utterances are being called blogs and the authors are called bloggers. The publications of bloggers are taken very seriously by the fundamentalists and many bloggers have been violently killed very often by attacking them with machetes. Very obviously the persons who have attacked the bloggers with machetes have been directed by theoretician Muslim clergy belonging to fundamental organisations like the Jamaat-e-Islami, or the Hifazat-e-Islam.
Asif Mohiuddin was a leading member of Bangladesh’s Free Thinkers Movement. He grew up in a Muslim family in Dacca, son of a middle ranking civil servant. He studied religion after school in a mosque. He later said that he learnt several ridiculous things, that he could get virgins in heaven, or that he would suffer the ultimate punishment in hell for eternity. At the age of thirteen, he declared that he was an atheist. After taking a degree in Computer Science, he turned to blogging. He began advocating women’s rights and secular education, questioning the infallibility of the Prophet. This enraged the country’s Islamists. Late one night in January 2013, four men surprised Mohiuddin as he stepped out of a rickshaw and assaulted him with iron rods and stabbed him with a kitchen knife and then fled. Luckily he was found lying wounded and bleeding and taken to a hospital and stitched up. He had lost a lot of blood, but luckily recovered.
Months later, the extremist group Hifazat-e-Islam, that had taken birth meanwhile, threatened the Bangladesh Government to arrest Mohiuddin and three other bloggers. Mohiuddin was arrested but came out on bail. The bloggers then founded a website called Mukta Mona (Free Thinkers), set up by another blogger called Avijit Roy, a Bangladeshi United States citizen. The members of Mukta Mona opposed discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities. Bangladesh was born despite fundamentalist opposition. It was after the assassination of Mujibur Rehman, the leader of the Awami League that the fundamentalists took an upper hand as madrassas spread across Bangladesh. This trend was reversed only after Sheikh Hasina won her second election and again became the Prime Minister. It was only during this tenure that she set up the International Crimes Tribunal to try rightist elements in Bangladesh who had committed a series of communal incidents against Hindus and also against the Awami League supporters and non communal elements.
During the rule of the Bangladesh Nationalist party, Islamic fundamentalists were encouraged by the BNP. It was during the second tenure of Sheikh Hasina that she was able to stem the tide of Islamic fundamentalism. When she felt that she had a backing of rationalists in Bangladesh, she went ahead to stem the tide of fundamentalism by constituting the International Crimes Tribunal to try several violent Islamic fundamentalists who during the war of liberation had supported the Pakistan army and had committed horrible crimes against Bengali Muslims and Hindus who had supported the Awami League and the Liberation struggle. The first person to be tried for violent crimes against the Bengali Hindus and Muslims who has supported the Awami League was one Khader Mulla. He was convicted in the first trial of the ICT and given a life sentence. Many observers, well wishers of Bangladesh were keenly watching the trial. Apparantly thousands of Bangladeshis were also keenly following the trial. Suddenly, after the verdict of life imprisonment was given hundreds of people began gathering at a major crossroads in Dacca called the Shahbagh Square. Within days the crowds gathering at the Shahbagh Square had swelled to thousands and they were chanting- “Khader Mullah Phansi Chai” in Bangla. Within days the crowd was more than a lakh and growing. Sheikh Hasina noting the public sentiment got the act of constituting the ICT amended and included a clause that the government could appeal for a higher sentence if merited. Accordingly the ICT act was amended and a clause added that in the event of a lesser punishment the Prosecution could appeal for a higher punishment. After the act was amended the Prosecution appealed for a higher punishment and Khader Mullah was sentenced to death. He was accordingly hanged shortly thereafter. This naturally infuriated the fundamentalists and they stepped up their activity.
Regrettably just ten days after the Shabagh agitation a young blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider was attacked by machete wielding assailants and cut to death on a street near his home in Dacca. Then in February 2015, Avijit Roy was returning with his wife Rafida Ahmed from a book fair, when he was attacked by machete wielding men and badly cut. He died in hospital. He had come to Bangladesh to promote his book The Virus of Faith.
The attacks on Ahmed Rajib Haider and Avijit Roy marked the start of a war against the bloggers. Weeks after Roy’s killing, two men armed with meat cleavers attacked the satirical blogger Oyasiqur Rehman. Then, in May masked men murdered a prominent blogger Ananta Bijoy Das. In August attackers slashed the blogger Niladhari Chatterjee to death with machetes after forcing their way into his house in Dacca.
The Dacca Commissioner of Police reacted strongly to these terrorist incidents and arrested a dozen young madrassa students involved in the attacks. All readily admitted their roles and laid out the inner working of an extremist cell that was created with the objective of murdering secular bloggers. The killers were associated with a shadowy terrorist group called the Ansarullah Bangla team. Senior leaders of the group included Jasimuddin Rehmani a preacher at a mosque in central Dacca. On the 30th of December 2015 a court sentenced Rehmani and five others to prison terms for their roles in Haidar’s killing. Two others were sentenced to death. Rehmani had two assistants at his mosque who scoured secular web sites and identified potential targets. He also set up safe houses in Dacca, where his students learned to kill. The police eventually arrested fifteen suspects in the murders of Roy, Rehman and Niladhari. However, securing convictions in such cases is difficult as the Judiciary is filled with Islamist sympathizers. Government officials, when contacted said that they were powerless to stop such violence.
Most bloggers interviewed, believed that they were up against a hidden hand, most probably the Jamaat-e-Islami. The Government had banned the Jamaat-e-Islami in participating in elections in 2013. Many of its members then went underground. The bloggers believe that the Jamaat is now working with the other fundamentalist group, the Hifazat-e-Islam.
The Shabagh leadership had tried to reach out to the hardliners. During a TV appearance in the summer of 2013, they proposed a public debate with the leaders of Hifazat-e-Islam. They spoke to the extremist group and said that they were not irreligious, but just wanted a good Bangladesh. Their reply was-“You only deserve to be hanged. ”Later the Shabagh leaders suggested that they would come to Chittagong, the HQ’s of the Hifazat-e-Islam. They were threatened that if they came they would be cut up with swords into a hundred pieces!
The Hathazari madrassa, Bangladesh’s oldest Koranic school is now under the control of the Hifazat-e-Islam. It is an enormous complex of mosques, classrooms and dormitories that house about five thousand students. The Hifazat-e-Islam secretary general, Junaid Bahunagari is a highly divisive figure in Bangladesh. It is reported that under interrogation he had confessed to plotting to
overthrow the government, by creating chaos in the streets of Dacca in 2013. After discussions it became clear that Hifazat-e-Islam was not a peaceful organisation. In 2012, hundreds of young men, believed to be Hathazari madrassa students vandalised several Hindu temples in Bangladesh. Last year the Bangladesh Police had raided another affiliated madrassa and seized several weapons and a stock of explosives.
The Awami League Government of Sheikh Hasina has a difficult but not impossible task before them-to nip in the bud the slowly expanding Islamist right represented by the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Hifazat-e-Islam and of course backed by a well spread out extreme right Islamist clergy. She has to plan a well spread strategy to curb this growing demon that will threaten a healthy Bangladesh. She has a well meaning team of bureaucrats and a strong party behind her. We in India can only assure her that we will be behind her in combating the menace of fundamentalism.
By E N RAmmohan
(The writer is former Director General, BSF.)