The Bengali calendar turned anew on April 15, marking the beginning of the year 1420. But a rising tide of violent confrontations and political bickering makes it seem like the country is slipping back to the year 1420, on the Gregorian calendar.
On April 6, hundreds of thousands of men and boys spread out across the sweltering capital Dhaka to call for, among other things, the hanging of atheists. The mass mobilization of Islamists was spurred by a handful of “atheist” bloggers who are supposedly so offensive to Islam that they should face the hangman’s noose.
“There is no place in this country for atheists,” was one of the friendlier refrains that a supporter of the organizers, Hefazet Islami, a Sunni Muslim outfit from the country’s second-largest city, Chittagong, told me.
The Islamist marchers listed 84 bloggers who they demand be arrested or hanged. There are only about 6 million internet users in the South Asian nation of 160 million. So it’s unlikely that the majority of the crowd assembled had ever read the offending blogs. The rancor directed at atheist bloggers seems to be a cover for political opportunism in the lead-up to next year's countrywide elections.
The largest opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), had supported what organizers called the “long march,” to protest against the ruling government that describes itself as secular.
Religious skepticism is nothing new; it has been online for years in Bangladesh. In February, an atheist blogger named Rajib was stabbed to death a month after blogger Asif Mohiuddin was nearly killed for his beliefs. And Asif’s entries specifically state that he and his blogger cohorts were not antireligion. But fearmongering about blasphemy and the encroaching influence of Western values and mores has made some Bangladeshis jumpy, which is exactly what the opposition party hopes to harness.
The “long march” then arose in response to something far more public than blogging in this land so short of computers or literacy. The bloggers had been responsible for mobilizing an unprecedented movement of young Bangladeshi protesters called, Shabagh. Last month, an Islamist war criminal was given life behind bars for brutal killings, rape, and torture of civilians during the country’s independence struggle of 1971, to break free of a religiously defined state of Pakistan.
Shabagh protesters objected to the leniency of the sentence, given that Abdul Qader Mollah had been found guilty of the deaths of over 30 people and that “life” on prison for a powerful politician might not be so bad.
The ruling government, led by Prime Minister Sheik Hasina, is caught in between, hoping to assuage Islamists but at the same time knowing that the hard right will never fully embrace their so-called secular position.
This is how politics work in a democracy without institutions of state. Elite groups mobilize their hoards to do their bidding and capture power for them. As a result, the mobs of conservative Islamic groups, bussed into the capital from madrassas reflect this. Feudal tribalism has captured the state to the extent that regular institutions such as education have suffered, leaving private institutions, such as religious schools to take their place and be used to enhance a particular interest group.
This leaves governance acutely susceptible to mob rule. As an election approaches, the fear that the government may lose power means that they have to placate anybody who can get a large number on the streets. The opposition now sees Islam as a fine banner under which to march against its supposed enemies: bloggers “victimizing the people.”
This occurs in myth-making as well. The bloggers’ atheism has been sensationally exaggerated, with pro-opposition newspapers reporting on them in hyped-up rhetoric. Even more bizzarely, some Islamists circulated news that a preacher’s face appears on the moon.
This relentless pursuit of power leaves enormous leverage for political Islam to take hold. Much like Indonesia's minority Islamic groups, such as the Ahmadhiyas, have also faced the wrath of hard-line Sunni groups. Liberals were shocked after the Hefazet Islami march because it had demanded the banning of men and women mixing freely in public. Few women were at the protest; one woman, a journalist reporting on the march, was assaulted. As a supporter of hard-line Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami summed up his attitude to women: “I want an honest wife who wants to wear the burka.”
(Photos by Joseph Allchin)
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