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In Bangladesh, deadly protests raise questions about strength of secular government

Thousands of hardline Islamists in Bangladesh demanded anti-blasphemy laws and more restrictions on women, clashing with security forces and leaving at least 30 people dead this week.

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Protesters chase police during a protest, in Dhaka, Bangladesh Monday. The Islamic activists have been holding protests to demand that the government implement an anti-blasphemy law.

AP

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UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for an end to the anti-government violence that has racked the capital for the past two days, as riot police lined the streets of Dhaka today. 

Reports indicated that more than 30 people were killed and hundreds more injured as markets, banks, and vehicles were set ablaze after two days of clashes between hundreds of thousands of anti-government protesters and police. The government today shut down two private television channels, one tied to the opposition party and the other to its principal ally, Jamaat-e-Islami, both supporters of the Islamic group believed responsible for instigating the clashes.

The current government has said it will no longer allow the Islamist group Hefazat-e-Islam to organize protests because of the violence that ensued. The right wing political opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), however, has extended its support to Hefazat and encouraged citizens to take to the streets nationwide in a general strike later this week to protest the crackdown on the group. The violence comes just two months after massive protests highlighted the country’s desire for democracy and secularism. 

Though most analysts and observers don’t believe the religious organizations are ultimately stronger than the secular movement, some worry their extremism could lead to more bloodshed.

Bangladesh, a country about the area of New York state and with a population of about 150 million, has a Muslim majority and a constitution defining the nation as a secular democratic republic.

Though the country was founded on secularism, it has swung between banning political activities of religious organizations and encouraging Islamization of Bangladesh. Jamaat-e-Islami, which was against Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971, and which has several leaders on trial for war crimes, still has strong influence among rural Bangladeshis.

Hefazat-e-Islam – which is not a political party but a rather new religious organization – has also shown its strength over the past month, finding support with the political opposition. But religious forces have tried to organize themselves for years, say political observers, only for secularism to win out. In a recent Pew survey of Muslims worldwide, 70 percent of people in Bangladesh indicated they were pro-democracy when it came to governance.

The recent deadly clashes began after Hefazat-e-Islam (which translates to “Protectorate of Islam”) organized a mass protest in Dhaka to push its 13-point list of demands for the government to become more Islamist. The demands include a provision to abolish the women development policy, a ban on men and women mixing freely together, and capital punishment for those deemed to malign Islam or the prophet. Senior members of the opposition BNP have expressed solidarity. 

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“Some of [Hefazat’s] demands converge with our viewpoints,” says Shamsher M. Chowdhury, senior vice president of BNP, citing the example of the group’s request to restore pledges to Allah in the Constitution. He also told the Monitor that it was reasonable to “hold Muslims accountable” and make it illegal to attack Islam and the prophet. 

“One cannot deny Hefazat’s right to make their point of view. Our position is in the right of every citizen to express himself,” Mr. Chowdhury says.

Political analysts in the country, however, argue that many Bangladeshis don’t feel that way.

“Bangladeshi people are religious but at the same time they are democratic, tolerant, and respectful to other opinions,” says Mahmudur Rahman Manna, a political analyst in Bangladesh.   

The protests are part of a backlash against protests that took place almost daily in February in the Dhaka suburb of Shahbag, following the International War Crimes Tribunal sentencing of Abdul Quader Mollah. Demonstrators, mostly students, took to the streets to protest what they saw as too lenient a sentencing. 

Analysts say the Shahbag protests highlighted both a rising pride among youth regarding the country’s progress as well as a disenchantment with politics. The protests riled hardline Islamists, however, when they moved away from the organizers’ original intent and began criticizing Islam. Hefazat quickly organized and began calling the demonstrators and bloggers who supported the Shahbag protetsts “atheists,” saying the calls for more secularism in government were offensive.  

“The Hefazat movement has to be linked with what is happening in Shahbag,” says a senior politician in the BNP. “Shahbag was a direct assault on the religious values and sentiments of the majority of the people in this country. The Hefazat movement is basically a reaction to that,” he adds.

By Monday night according to reports, violence had spread south to a suburb of the second largest city in Bangladesh, Chittagong. Politicians in Bangladesh are worried that Hefazat could spread unrest and extremism further through local imams. “In the villages they have an inherent allegiance or respect for the imam,” says one senior politician. He adds that although the movement may not have the strength to take over the government, it could create further unrest to ultimately affect the election slated for the end of this year or early 2014. 

The country's left-wing information minister, Hasanul Haq Inu, who was also a guerrilla leader during Bangladesh’s war of independence, described Hefazat to Al Jazeera English as "a fundamentalist force, it is anti-democratic, it is anti-women. It is against everything Bangladesh stands for." 


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