In that last few days Bangladesh has seen some very worrying developments in the battle between fundamentalist Islamic groups such as the Jamaat e Islami and the Blogger-led Shahbhag youth movement. I have great misgivings about what is happening.
At the time of writing, four bloggers have been arrested and, according to Bangladesh’s Daily Star, a large number of blogs have shut down in protest over the arrests. Many other blogs have been forcibly shut down for alleged ‘atheist’ writing. By the time you read this, figures will have undoubtedly changed and not for the better.
Accusations of blogs being ‘doctored’ so the writers can be accused of promoting atheism and insulting the Prophet (PBUH) are rife to the extent that I’m nervous about even this blog despite the fact I deliberately keep religion out of these pages.
The politics driving this continues to be very complex. I’ll try and break it down to a short summary but I apologise to those who know more about these things than I do for the inadequacy of my findings.
After the Shahbhag movement arose in February – the first significant non-political party affiliated youth movement in the history of Bangladesh and one that protests peacefully with no violence – the Jamaat e Islami party became scared. They were the main target of the Shahbhag movement (also known as Gonojagoron movement) which sees the Jamaat as a “party of war criminals” and considers them to have no place in modern Bangladesh “built upon the values of the Liberation War”.
But the Jamaat were clever. They picked up on this youth movement’s Achilles heel. Because it was organised by bloggers who, by nature, tend to be free-thinkers, they highlighted the few who were overt atheists and made that the subject of their attack.
And it is working.
I wrote, in previous posts how Bangladesh has an identity complex which has become a crisis while the war criminal trials have been going on: Are you a Muslim first and only who happens to live in Bangladesh? Or are you a Bangladeshi who happens to be a Muslim (if you are one of the 140 million + who are Muslims)?
But now the Jamaat and BNP (the main opposition party and chief ally of the Jamaat) have successfully shifted the focus to: Are you a Muslim or are you an atheist blogger?
In fact, those two words – ‘atheist’ and ‘blogger’ – seem so well joined now in the press that they are virtually inseparable. The implication is clear:
If you blog and are not one of the Jamaat then you are an atheist.
The Awami League – the ruling party – with an eye on the elections due at the end of the year cannot afford to be seen as the ‘atheist’ party and are quickly going back on their reputation as the party that defends the secular nature of the state of Bangladesh. This means that Shahbhag – which they had supported for its innocence, its peaceful nature and its support of the war trials going on – has now become the Government’s enemy too.
Sites deemed to offend the Prophet (PBUH) or encourage atheistic thinking are being shut down and bloggers connected to the Shahbhag movement are arrested. Violence continues.
It only takes a handful of violent bullies to intimidate and terrify hundreds of the weak and helpless. This is now happen around the country.
A few days ago, a train to Chittagong was derailed when activists pulled up the lines sending, I believe, seven coaches and the engine crashing off the line. The daughter of one of our friends was on the train at the time and though, fortunately, she was not in a coach that came off, she was left stranded in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night. It was a terrifying moment.
Violence has stayed largely away from where we live though there has been plenty in our nearest city – Dinajpur. But just this week one man was killed in a village very close to us. Hindus are being attacked and their homes destroyed but by whom exactly is harder to ascertain. Guilt and innocence in Bangladesh is almost impossible to work out as no one comes out clean. All I know is, our local friends and neighbours are nervous. I’m not worried about the safety of myself or my family – I think we’re some time off seeing trouble here – but I do worry for my Santal, Hindu and Christian friends.
Meanwhile, all the International Press see is Police brutality against ‘peaceful’ BNP and Jamaat demonstrators (see the link to the Economist below for a different interpretation on this ‘brutality’) and a focus on the fact that the ‘bloodthirsty’ shahbhag youth are demanding the death penalty for war criminals. In international eyes this makes the movement the enemy too despite the fact that this youth movement is really crying out for justice. It knows that if life imprisonment is given then these criminals – who raped, tortured and murdered thousands between them – will be released as soon as the BNP come to power and be back in positions of high authority to abuse their ‘enemies’ all over again. The international press is missing this completely.
Who will support the Shahbhag movement now? No wonder I’m reading posts of utter frustration, anger and desperation by many Bangladeshi friends in the blogging community.
Today (Saturday), a big rally is being held to demand the ‘highest punishment’ for atheist bloggers (meaning the death penalty). The Shahbhag movement has responded by announcing a nationwide hartal (strike) to prevent them from rallying in Dhaka. The Hefajat-e Islam group organising the rally have promised an indefinite hartal if they are prevented from marching. The country is already being crippled by the sheer number of these hartals which bring everything to a halt. Economically, it’s a disaster for the poor.
I wrote some time ago that I feared the country was descending into civil war. Although it is still, in some ways, small-scale, I see no evidence yet that the country is heading anywhere else.
I pray I’m wrong. I really, really do.
The Economist: Bangladesh Legal Process
For deeper opinion read this blog post.