Bangladesh Being Pushed to the Edge by Ever-Rising Islamism
Secular credentials of the Sheikh Hasina government in Bangladesh come under the scanner with recent killings.
Xulhaz Mannan and Tonoy Mahbub were hacked to death in the former’s home in the capital of Bangladesh on 25 April 2016. Xulhaz was the editor of Roopbaan, the country’s first and only gay magazine. The publication, and related LGBTQ rights projects he ran, operated with the help of dedicated volunteers. Tonoy, a friend, was one such volunteer. An Al-Qaeda affiliate claimed responsibility for the double murder of “the pioneers of practicing (sic) and promoting homosexuality in Bangladesh”.
Rezaul Karim Siddique, a Muslim professor of English at Rajshahi University, was killed in a similar attack in broad daylight while he was on his way to work on 23 April 2016. He founded cultural organisations, a music school, and published Komolgandhar, a literary magazine. ISIS claimed responsibility for killing him for “calling to atheism”.
The government maintains that these are isolated incidents carried out by domestic extremists with the aim of destabilising the country. There are two issues with this assertion. Firstly, an admission that there are home-grown Islamists operating with impunity is a far graver problem than specious links to foreign terrorist organisations can ever be. Secondly, the government is more interested in pointing fingers at political opponents than addressing the targeted killings and deteriorating law and order situation.
On 9 April 2016, another evening attack carried out by fundamentalists in the capital claimed the life of Nazimuddin Samad, a secular activist who wrote about removing Islam from the Constitution. His name appeared on hit lists released by Islamists, like those of the six writers and publishers who were butchered throughout 2015. Bangladesh has seen such Islamist attacks on freethinkers sporadically since the 1990s, but they have become a regular occurrence in recent years.
A nation that witnessed over a thousand people die due to violence perpetrated in the name of politics by the opposition coalition of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Jamat-e-Islami in 2013, risks normalising these killings by being desensitised to brutal deaths.
Bangladesh had been led to independence by Awami League in 1971, with secularism as one of its founding principles. This was removed from the Constitution in 1977 and replaced with Islam entering the political arena under Ziaur Rahman, the first of two military dictators and founder of the BNP. He revived Jamaat, a party comprised of Pakistani agents who had actively fought to prevent independence. This far right coalition exists to this day.
The second military dictator, HM Ershad, inserted Islam into the Constitution in 1988. When presented with the opportunity to reverse this after a High Court judgement in 2010 that voided constitutional amendments under military regimes, the Awami League government opted to reinstate secularism but retain Islam. This political compromise, to appeal to diametrically opposite ideologies, is symptomatic of how Awami League has governed, more interested in extending its rule than protecting its citizens and serving the best interests of the country.
Pandering to the Islamists
When one of the first verdicts of the war crimes trials, initiated by Awami League in 2009, was seen as being “soft”, people spontaneously protested against the government in 2013. Known as the Shahbag Movement, it was organised and led by young freethinking bloggers. Nazimuddin and those killed in 2015 were involved with it. The BNP-Jamaat coalition, ideologically opposed to the trials, voiced its opinions via platforms such as Hefazat-e-Islam. This network of fundamentalist clerics labelled the Movement atheistic, echoing the incendiary rhetoric of BNP-Jamaat. The government appropriated Shahbag and played the secularism card to remain in power.
Since extending its rule into a second successive term, however, Awami League has abandoned its secularist inclinations in favour of pandering to Islamism. The government used the Penal Code, which has made hurting religious sentiments a criminal offence since 1860, to punish secular activists. A week after Nazimuddin’s murder, the prime minister stated that offending religious sentiment showed “a perverted mind-set” in her New Year’s address.
Investigations into murders, none of which have yielded any arrests despite the prime minister’s claims to the contrary in parliament on 27 April 2016, scrutinise whether the victims had said or done anything inappropriate. The police and government officials regularly warn people not to hurt religious sentiment, which is tantamount to victim-blaming.
The Penal Code also makes homosexuality a criminal offence. The initial targets of the fundamentalists were politically motivated and beneficial to the political right, but the recent murders indicate a broadening of their operations in line with existing intolerant laws. Awami League and BNP-Jamaat have stood by and watched as secular bloggers and writers were labelled as atheists and killed. The same justification for murder has been extended to a Muslim publisher and a Muslim teacher. While the two political forces become harder to tell apart, the nation is being pushed further to the edge by Islamism.
(The writer is a columnist for Dhaka Tribune whose socio-political writings include the short story collection, “Yours, Etcetera” and the poetry collection, “Requiem”. He can be reached at @ikhtisad)
This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.
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