An OpEd by Amina Begum, a British Bangladeshi. There are multiple perspectives on this topic and these are the writer’s views, MuslimMatters does not necessarily endorse them.
Protests broke out across Bangladesh in recent weeks following the conviction of Allama Delwar Hossain Sayedee, deputy Amir of the opposition Bangladesh Jamaat-i-Islami (Jamaat) party and a hugely popular scholar of Quran among Bangladeshis. Allama Sayedee was convicted by the deeply flawed Bangladesh International Crimes Tribunal (ICT). He is one of several elderly religious scholars and political leaders of the Jamaat standing trial at the ICT. This includes the party’s 90-year-old retired leader, Prof Ghulam Azam, whose case follows Allama Sayedee’s.
Allama Sayedee’s supporters took to the streets following the announcement of what they felt to be the political conviction of an innocent man. While the tribunal was set up by the government proclaiming to seek justice for crimes committed during the 1971 War of Independence from present day Pakistan, none of the key perpetrators of attacks against the Bengalis from the Pakistan Army are in the dock. Instead the entire senior leadership of the Jamaat as well as key leaders of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the largest opposition party, are being tried, sparking accusations that the tribunal is in fact a political show trial to weaken the opposition. Jamaat is a political party that participates in democratic processes and draws its ideology from Islamic principles. During the 1971 war they were opposed to the partition of then East Pakistan and West Pakistan. However, they maintain their opposition was political and that they did not participate in military crimes against their fellow men. Jamaat supports trials and justice for victims of the 1971 war, but insists it must be fair.
The current proceedings are anything but fair. International bodies from the UN to Human Rights Watch, have criticized the tribunal’s failure to ensure due process, impartiality, fairness and observance of standards of international law. The Economist exposed a leaked cache of correspondence that showed improper collusion between the presiding judge, government officials, prosecution and a Brussels based lawyer who is a known campaigner against the accused. This exposé led to the resignation of the chief judge, yet the tribunal merely appointed a new judge and continued undeterred. In Allama Sayedee’s case none of the three presiding judges had heard all the evidence, while a key prosecution-witness-turned-defense-witness was allegedly abducted by police at the court gates on the day he arrived to testify and has not been seen since. These are just a few examples of the extraordinary irregularities of this marred trial.
The protesters against Allama Sayedee’s conviction have been met with a violent state crackdown that has left well over a hundred dead. February 28th alone saw at least 66 people killed from live fire by security forces. Rights group, Odhikar, has since called on the Home Minister to resign, holding him responsible for what they have called “one of the most heinous killing sprees in the history of Bangladesh since independence.” Eight policemen have also been killed amidst the unrest since Feb 28.
These protests, while the bloodiest, are not the first and are an element of wider unrest that has gripped the nation. Allama Sayedee’s verdict was the third following that of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, who was tried, convicted and sentenced to death in absentia, provoking concern from both the US and UK. The second verdict was against Jamaat Assistant Secretary General, Abdul Quader Molla, who was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. Molla’s case, like that of the others, was rife with irregularities, and drew protesters to the street, yet this was given little attention.
Attention was instead given to a protest that sprang in Dhaka’s Shahbag crossing, supported by the ruling Awami League government, which demanded the execution of not only Molla but all those accused, even as trials are ongoing. The government took the opportunity to swiftly alter the law, post-trial, to allow prosecutors to appeal verdicts, a move decried by Amnesty and Human Rights Watch. The Prime Minister made the unprecedented improper call to the ICT judges to pay heed to people’s sentiments when issuing verdicts. Meanwhile, defense witnesses have been too intimidated by the protests and government to appear at court, a case particularly true for defendant Prof Ghulam Azam.
Soon the Shahbag demands extended to calls for banning Jamaat-i-Islami itself, and all its institutions including banks, hospitals and media. They also began a call for secular politics, decrying the ‘threat’ of Jamaat’s Islamism, despite the fact that the Islamists garner a mere 5% at the ballot and a secular government currently sits in power.
With the ICT targeting of some of the nation’s leading Islamic scholars and political leaders, and the government-backed Shahbag calls for banning Islamically inspired politics, many have raised the question as to whether Islam itself is under attack in Bangladesh. Given the facts on the ground, it is not unreasonable to be tempted by that assessment. The current government prides itself on its commitment to secularism, and its application of this philosophy has proven extreme in spite of their pluralistic rhetoric. This regime has overseen the sustained suppression of the Islamist party Jamaat in the form of arrests, custodial torture and harassment.
Women have not been spared either; 20 female Jamaat student activists were arrested without charge and imprisoned for weeks at the end of 2012. Those detained included a five-month pregnant young lady who was denied bail with the rest and imprisoned. These women were forcibly unveiled and faced violence during questioning, including being dragged by the hair. Soon after, 13 more women, including leaders of Jamaat, were arrested at a women’s rights press conference organized in protest of the students’ detention. These events have found muted press coverage in national and international media.
Attack on Islamists aside, there appears to be a wider targeting of Islam. Visible manifestations of the Islamic faith have come under attack with pictures emerging of elderly men being yanked by their beards and accounts of other visible religiosity being a target. Changes in laws also seem to reflect targeting of Islamic principles and practice. In spite of Bangladesh’s Muslim majority, teaching of Islamic Studies, hitherto a central subject of the classroom, has been greatly reduced from state elementary school curricula and relegated to optional in high schools by this government.
The hijab has been a prominent target; the Deputy Speaker of Parliament, Showkat Ali, spoke out against the veil, incredibly stating, “only those who have ugly faces use religion to cover it.” In a number of state educational institutions, headscarves have been banned, including at Rajshahi University’s Social Welfare Department, Chittagong Nursing College, and Kushtia Women’s College. The ruling party has also made moves to secularize the nation’s constitution.
More recently, the emergence of hate-speech against Islam, in particular against the Prophet Muhammad and Allah, published by numerous lead bloggers of the Shahbag protest provoked national outrage. On February 22nd a 12-member alliance of diverse Islamic groups organized a protest after Friday prayers. The state administered a fierce crackdown leaving at least four dead and a thousand injured. Media reports showed police laying siege to Baitul Mukarram mosque, the national mosque in the capital, firing continuously at it for at least an hour as worshippers and protesters took refuge inside. Follow-up protests left many more casualties; by Feb 26th 22 people had been killed by police.
On Friday, March 8th police conducted mass arrests at Baitul Mukarram of individuals they “suspected of seeking to protest in the mosque area after prayers”. Protesting has now become a crime and Mosques, particularly at Friday prayers, have become the site of state suppression. While criticism of the ruling regime leaders have warranted court summons, arrests and even torture, hate-speech against Islam has been bolstered by a regime willing to shoot those who protested it. Only recently, after much loss of life, has the state given in to public pressure and set up a committee to address this form of hate-speech.
It is not, however, only Islam that has been the target of suppression; it seems the Awami League’s extreme form of secularism extends to a wider religious intolerance. Religious minorities have suffered repeated violence and harassment under this regime. Rights group, Odhikar records numerous attacks against minorities across 2012, mostly by ruling party members, with a few cases by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and none by Jamaat. Cases by ruling party members in particular have gone unchecked, with the police appearing unwilling to prosecute such party members. The Awami League activists seem to display a culture of attacking these more vulnerable religious groups with impunity in a manner not equivalently mirrored by their political opponents.
Amidst the current unrest, minorities have suffered a spate of attacks and the ruling regime has been quick to accuse the opposition Jamaat. That, in spite of their own history of intolerance, suddenly the Awami League is claiming to champion minority rights rings hollow and opportunistic. Furthermore, in a recent well-documented and widely deplored murder of a Hindu tailor by ruling party youth, the government was quick to deny their activists’ involvement, despite photographic and video evidence, and tried to blame the opposition.
In a statement, Jamaat acting leader Moqbul Ahmed condemned the recent attacks and stated, “Jamaat has issued strict orders to its member to protect the lives and properties of minorities in light of the saying of the Prophet Mohammad , ‘whoever harms a non-Muslim will not enter paradise.’” In response to a call from party leadership, Jamaat activists guarded minority temples to prevent further attacks.
Many, including members of the minority community, contend that opposition groups like Jamaat, in the midst of their struggle to survive sustained state onslaught, can only be further crippled by out of character attacks on minorities, thus to suggest they were involved is illogical. In fact, the government alone stands to benefit from these attacks by distracting from their state violence against civilians, and such a tactic has been employed by past dictatorial governments.
The violence in Bangladesh is taking a troubling turn as religious minorities are dragged into the milieu while the religious majority, and the Islamists in particular, are facing a sustained and brutal onslaught, forcing them into desperate positions and measures. The international community of Muslims needs to pay attention to the events taking place on the ground in Bangladesh, a nation that represents 10% of all Muslims worldwide, and call upon the Bangladesh government to show restraint and uphold an environment that is respectful of all faith groups and is politically pluralist. Muslims in the West should furthermore pressure their governments, including MPs, Congressmen and other political figures, to condemn state suppression and murder in Bangladesh, the politically charged ICT, and the growing religious intolerance of the ruling regime.
If you would like to join the call for justice, please sign the following petitions:
United Kingdom – http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/46050
United States – https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/demand-fair-trials-bangladesh-opposition-leaders-and-stop-their-execution-government-exploiting/5QmwTRbf
In Britain, you can also call upon your MPs to sign the following Early Day Motion: http://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/business-papers/commons/early-day-motions/edm-detail1/?session=2012-13&edmnumber=1095
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