This has been a troubling week for those who care about Bangladesh. The April 26 collapse of Rana Plaza, the garment factory building owned by a prominent member of the ruling party, the Awami League, shows the economic costs of the country’s “economic miracle.” Bangladeshi cyber-activists threw themselves into raising funds and helping to buy medicines for hospitals running out of supplies. If lives are being saved, one told me, it is because ordinary people are helping to mobilise relief.
The movement for accountability for war crimes, consists of several generations of activists - from those who feel strongly about the war because they witnessed its atrocities, to the children of victims demanding justice, to younger generations born since the mass movements of the 1990s first demanded war crimes trials. Each generation has experienced a backlash against it from both fundamentalists and the state.
And this is true of the most recent of these movements. The mass populist uprising occupying Shahbag in Dhaka, calling for ‘maximum punishment’ (the death penalty) for war criminals, was sparked by the triumphant V sign made by a convicted man. He saw his life sentence as a victory. At first, the political parties courted the Shahbag movement, with the government promising to rush through legislation that reflected its main demands – allowing the prosecution to challenge the sentence to make it harsher, and amending the law to enable the Jamaat e Islami to be put on trial as an organisation. The Jamaat-e-Islami, the largest Islamist political party in Bangladesh, responded to the conviction and death sentence of the Deputy leader of the party, Delawar Hussein Sayeedi, with a country-wide campaign of violence, with particularly vicious attacks on religious minorities, including killing Hindus and destroying temples and homes. Christian Bangladeshis also reported attacks, but in some cases people were too afraid to make an official report.
Abroad, the conviction was referred to as ‘judicial murder’, to capitalise on the revulsion against the death penalty. But Western criticism of the Tribunal process failed to note also that peaceful opposition to religious fundamentalism was met by death threats, assault and murder. All opposition to them was labelled ‘atheists’, and a label that seemed intended to provoke mass revulsion, promote extra-judicial killings as well as create a climate for laws criminalising blasphemy.
Rajib, a young blogger, activist and professed atheist who was targeted online and then murdered, has become an iconic figure in the movement. The fundamentalists have gone after a number of individual bloggers, beating people up and issuing death threats online or on mobiles. Labelling people as atheists, whether they are or not, puts them at risk of attack, and the bloggers have been targeted as atheists by both Muslim fundamentalists and the government.
In their defense, atheists, humanists and secularists and declared April 25 an International Day to Defend Bangladesh's Bloggers. With some more protests planned on 4th May in deference to the tragedy currently gripping Bangladesh. The young bloggers need all the support they can get, for another fundamentalist group has arisen out of nowhere with a familiar list of fundamentalist demands. On April 7 this group, Hefazat e Islam, staged a mammonth “long march” of half a million people to protest against the mixed sex, peaceful, candlelit gatherings in Shahbagh. They made 13 demands, which contain many of familiar obsessions of fundamentalists. Apart from demanding a defamation law with the highest punishment ( in other words making blasphemy punishable by death) , Hefazat wants to declare Ahmadiyas to be non-Muslim, attacks practices such as candle lighting and putting up sculptures, opposes sexual mixing and “promotion of Islamophobia among the youth,” wants compulsory Islamic education at all levels and an end to “ungodly education, inheritance laws and unIslamic laws generally.” Christian and other NGOs are attacked for proselytizing and “an immediate and unconditional release of all detained Islamic scholars” is demanded.
Rather than defend the Shahbagh bloggers against fundamentalists, the government has found it expedient to crack down on them. When Hefazat e Islam prepared a list of 84 “atheist” bloggers, the government responded with its own list of those who had “hurt religious sentiments.” Four bloggers have been taken into custody and more arrests are threatened. In order to humiliate and terrify dissenters, the police paraded the bloggers and had them photographed with their computers as if they found a cache of stolen goods. One blogger wrote, “it broke our hearts but it will not break our spirits.” Their accounts have been hacked, whether by non-state or state-backed people it is hard to say. Some bloggers have noticed that their arrested colleagues’ accounts remained active even after they were arrested, and have speculated that “evidence” may have been planted in them.
These demands are nothing new to Bangladesh, where Islamists have been trying to get a blasphemy law passed since the early nineties, when they went after the writer Taslima Nasrin. By labelling all bloggers as atheists, the fundamentalists hope turn the tide of public opinion against them. Throughout the war crimes trials, Jamaat’s strategy has been to say that they are being attacked as Muslims and as an opposition party, and to evade addressing the grave crimes of which they are accused. Their lobbying campaign has been very persuasive for many MPs in Britain, who demanded an invitation to monitor the Tribunal while also instructing the government of Bangladesh that they should not have ‘a retributive process’ but adopt a reconciliation model.
That is why it was heartening to see support for the principle of accountability from MPs from a range of parties. Two British MEPs, Charles Taylor, Conservative, and Jean Lambert of the Green Party, addressed a rally on war crimes in London on 28th April, which passed off peacefully. Emily Thornberry, the Shadow Attorney General, who has recently travelled in Bangladesh, acknowledged the strong democratic mandate for the trials and the immense strength of feeling on the issue. She said that if people were assured that life actually meant life, rather than a sentence that could be reversed by a change in government, the issue of the death penalty may not have arisen at all.
Writing in 2002 about the campaign by Jamaat e Islami and other fundamentalist organisations to make blasphemy a criminal offence, Bangladeshi Supreme Court lawyer Sara Hossain described a three-pronged strategy, “invoking criminal laws to curtail speech by targeted individuals and groups, fomenting a climate of intolerance against them, and mobilising public sentiment for the enactment of draconian new laws – as key tools in their project of silencing expressions of difference, and asserting their vision of a monolithic Islam.” All these elements are present in today’s battles.
The conflict between Bangladeshi secularists and fundamentalists has spread to London’s East End where, on Feb. 8th, at Altab Ali Park, young demonstrators supporting Shahbagh clashed with men from the Jamaat-dominated East London mosque. For older anti-racists, the scenes were remniscent of decades old battles where the police simply protected the aggressors ‘freedom of speech’ and right to threaten and intimidate. Fundamentalist demonstrations from the Jamaat associated East London Mosque have been taking place regularly after Friday prayers, according to activists. Secular Bangladeshis of all religious backgrounds and none were finally able to rally and march outwards from Altab Ali park through Brick Lane and the surrounding streets. It was a suitable demonstration that the secular activists who have been receiving regular death threats have not been cowed into retreat.
Thousands of leaflets have been distributed from the East London Mosque and across the world labelling prominent bloggers as atheists. Sermons have been read attacking atheists, Hindus and suggestive statements made regarding sexual assault. In Bangladesh, fundamentalists paraded a banner which said, ‘we demand the death penalty for atheist bloggers because they use obscene language to criticise Allah, Mohammed and the Quran.’ Statements such as these, along with murderous attacks on atheist and free thinking bloggers, need to be considered alongside the leaflets identifying named individuals as atheists and accusing them of insulting religion, to see whether they amount to incitement to murder. Fundamentalists consider it an obligation for believers to kill apostates; a recent Moroccan fatwa makes this very clear, as does the experience of an atheist from Bangladesh, applying for asylum in Canada.
It is clear that free-thinking activists will be actively targeted first by fundamentalists, and then by the state, so can expect no protection anywhere.
As Asif Mohiuddin, one of the Bangladeshi bloggers said just before his arrest, “To drag religion into politics and playing with it like a football is the real offence towards religion.” Authorities in both London and Dhaka are playing with fire if they think protecting hate campaigns is the same as defending freedom of religion.