Extremism poses a New Threat to Sheikh Hasina Government in Bangladesh
By Manzoor Ahmed
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government in Bangladesh has come under severe threat from Islamist political parties and their extremist frontal organizations that have taken to the streets on various issues, with ‘tacit’ support from main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
A nationwide hartal (strike) on April 4, 2011, called by a conglomerate of Islamist groups, witnessed, for the first time, activists carrying copies of holy Quoran, either in their hands or wearing them round their necks or hiding them behind their shirts.
The ostensible purpose, media reports said, was to see that the holy book could be desecrated in some way in clash with the law-enforcing forces and this could be used as propaganda against the government terming it “anti-Islam.”
When The Daily Star newspaper decried this the next day, pointing to the seriousness of this ploy to work on the religious sentiments of the people (Bangladesh is an Islamic Republic, 90 percent of whose population is Muslim), some Islamist leaders justified it, even while calling it “a crime.”
Jamaat-e-Islami acting Secretary General ATM Azharul Islam said staging demonstrations holding the Quran in hands, and attacks (by the police) on demonstrators “are similar crimes.”
Rezaul Karim, Ameer of Islami Andolan Bangladesh, one of the sponsors of the strike, said it was not proper to demonstrate on streets with the Quran in hands during hartal.
They made the remarks in response to questions at separate press conferences at their party offices in the city yesterday.
Rezaul Karim also said his party is opposed to use of children for picketing during hartal.
But Azharul Islam avoided a direct reply when asked if his party supports engaging children in picketing for hartal. “If Awami League can use children in picketing, then why not others,” he said.
The strike was against the National Women’s Policy 2011 announced by the government that seeks to give “equal rights” to women” in the society, but is silent on the law or inheritance.
The government deliberately kept silence on inheritance of women, as Islamic theology is weighed against them and favours men.
But the Islamistgs in Bangladesh have chosen to term the policy itself “anti-Islam.” Fazlul Haq Aminee, who heads the Islami Okiya Jote (IOJ), a conglomerate of Islamist parties that are aligned to the JeI, that itself is an ally of the BNP, has gone on record that “islam does not allow equal status to women.”
Sheikh Hasina has denied her women’s policy, or any of her government’s policies are anti-Islam. She rhetorically asked: Who is supreme, Almighty Allah or Aminee?
Although couched in religious phrases and tones, the opposition is essentially political.
On the women development policy, the Jamaat leader said if they (Jamaat is a component of the BNP-led four-party alliance) come to power again, they will cancel the policy,
Rezaul Karim said some provisions of the women development policy contradict Islamic laws, and the Muslims of the country will not accept this policy.
The party announced its programmes to “save Islam and the country”.
Actually, the confrontation is building up for long and has reached a threshold. The government has completed two years in January this year and is nearing half-way through its parliament tenure.
It is speeding up its plans and programmes in a way that they fructify in time for the net parliamentary election and allow it to get re-elected.
The opposition – both BNP and Jamaat – that was routed in the December 2009 poll, also sees this time as opportune to step up its activities to frustrate the government’s plans as the elections arrive.
Chief among the government’s plans is the trial of “war criminals” – those who targeted unarmed civilians during the 1971 freedom war against Pakistan. Charged with “war crimes”, the top five leaders of the Jamaat are in jail awaiting trial by an “International Tribunal.”
Also jailed for the same purpose and awaiting trial are two senior leaders of the BNP, Abdul Alim, who was a minister under Gen. Ziaur Rahman, husband of Begum Zia, and one of her close aides, Salahuddin Qader Chowdhury.
A member of the BNP Standing Committee, Chowdhury, a rich businessman and MP, leads the strong Islamist faction within the BNP.
Zia herself has indirectly blessed the islamists in that she says she is not against the war crimes trial, but wants them ‘fair’ and not targeted against the political opposition.
The Hasina Government and her Awami League, the war crimes trial are a major ploy top garner support among the people, who are religious, but do not support extremism, and among the world community.
The importance of the trial can be judged best by those who have witnessed the 1971 liberation movement and how the course of independent Bangladesh was reversed with the assassination of founding leader and president, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and most of his family members.
The Hasina government, however, has been beset with a judiciary and bureaucracy that is afraid to cooperate – afraid that the BNP and the Jamaat could get elect4ed to power again.
The trial is yet to begin and the processes involved are slow, tentative and time consuming.
The street demonstrations by Islamists, to be selectively joined in by the BNP, are a pointer to the ripening of the time for the confrontation as Bangladesh Parliament reaches its mid-term and begins tgo move into the second half.
What is important and at stake is the larger fight against religious extremism.
Writing in his front-page editorial, The Daily Star Editor in Chief, Mahfuz Anam urged the people and the political parties to see “what is happening in Pakistan.”
Pakistan, of which Bangladesh was part for 24 years, was witnessing the religious extremism, fomented and nurtured by the State now confronting that very State and threatening to consume it.
The editor said:
“We strongly feel that this government, and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina must be given our unstinting support in fighting this retrogressive element. We must remember that extremism has done no good to any people any where in the world. The Muslims all over the world must get their due recognition and respect from other nations and countries. Demonising Islam and discrimination against the Muslims must stop. The Palestinian people must be given their rights. But extremism will get us none of that. Pakistan serves as a good example as to what happens if extremism is not tackled with a firm hand and in good time. We must also acknowledge, other than Sheikh Hasina’s government none dared to take the bull by the horn, and fight extremism with courage, determination, and a lot of political and personal risk.
”The terror created by extremist leader Bangla Bhai and outlawed JMB (Jama’atul Mujahideen, Bangladesh) are still very fresh in our memories, and all that happened during the rule of BNP-led four-party coalition government. The synchronised bomb blasts across the country, suicide bombings, and all grenade attacks had evident extremist links, but investigations were clueless then as BNP chose not to see the consequences of dating dangerous elements. The opposition must study what has happened in Pakistan, and stop flirting with extremism just because it gives an additional number of cadres to harass the government with.
”The government, on its part, must initiate a mass contact programme to go, if necessary, door to door, and speak to each and every rural and urban household, and explain to them the false and motivated use that is being made of religion. Here the Grand Alliance must bring all its workers and local leaders together. It is a battle for the hearts and minds of the people, and cannot be won either by police action, or by forces or rhetorical exhortations.
”This is a battle we cannot afford to lose.”
You are absolutely correct sir. This is a battle we cannot afford to lose. Women have always been deprived in the name of religion. And the perpetrators of this crime, those who religiously preach that women are lower to men, hide themselves behind the veil of religion. They know that if given a chance, women have the power to overtake this men regime because she has always been more capable and more much stable than man.