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Bangladesh Unrest: A Battle of Faith?

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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.

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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 ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) 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 ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him), ‘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

Photo Credit- suronin / Shutterstock.com

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23 Comments

23 Comments

  1. the truthseeker

    March 18, 2013 at 2:35 AM

    hey, i think you forgot to mention Sayeedi’s face appearing on the moon http://tazakhobor.com/national/3111-delwar-hossain-sayedees-face-in-moon-rumor-floating-around and then announcing this great miracle throughout the country’s mosques after fajr prayers and motivating all his followers to resist this oppression…

  2. Hisham

    March 18, 2013 at 9:40 AM

    Great article – however I would suggest adding a line in the opening paragraphs on WHAT charge Allama Sayedee was convicted of. It just helps the piece flow better if readers understand that up front.

  3. Concerned

    March 18, 2013 at 10:14 AM

    First of all, calling Delwar Hossain Sayedee a scholar is a joke and an insult to Islam. He is a well known war criminal who slaughtered and raped anyone who got in his way. Although the ICT is deeply flawed, the conviction of Delwar Hossain is still an accurate punishment for his crimes.

    I’m seeing a lot of articles in the western blogs about how Jamaat is being persecuted in Bangladesh and their leaders are being targeted by Awami league. Although I’m not a fan of Awami League myself (or any Bangladeshi political party for that matter), to say that Jamaat is being targeted unfairly is an overstatement, atleast for now.

    Leaders of Jamaat are simply paying for their crimes now and people are extremely glad they are. And photoshopping a picture of Sayeede on the moon and claiming this to be a miracle shows how stupid and gullible Jamaat followers really are -http://tazakhobor.com/national/3111-delwar-hossain-sayedees-face-in-moon-rumor-floating-around.

  4. Muslimah

    March 18, 2013 at 12:06 PM

    If Sayeedee is so hugely popular why is he banned from Qatar and discouraged in UK and USA for his violent rhetorics?. Recurring again and again in the article is the ‘violence’ and ‘discriminatory’ acts agains Jamaat. Is it just because they are ‘religion based political party’ or is that they and their sister business and financial concerns have been repeatedly linked to terrorist organizations home and abroad? Why aren’t any other religious institutions NOT linked with Jamaat spared in Bangladesh (a country with 90% Muslim population Alhamdulillah), I will leave that question to the readers.

  5. Musa

    March 18, 2013 at 3:25 PM

    I would not place too much importance on the moon “miracle” issue; a hoax started and many uneducated people fell for it, and that’s it. What many secularists tried to portray was that most of Allama Sayeedi’s followers are ignorant fools who would fall for such hoaxes.

  6. hurtbythis

    March 18, 2013 at 6:13 PM

    This is what happens when obvious-indian allies are in power…. Dear bengalis, u asked for it over 40 years ago…

    • Gibran

      March 19, 2013 at 1:35 PM

      Assalamualaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh

      SubhanAllah what are you saying? That they were wrong to rebel against the oppressive Pakistan?

      Better an independent Bangladesh at war with itself than a Bangladesh subjugated by Pakistan. Despite the countries flaws, it is still in a far better situation that Pakistan is Alhamdulilah.

      • N Iqbal

        April 26, 2013 at 5:07 PM

        Obviously you are not aware of the Islamic hukm regarding unity. InshaAllah you should look into this and amend your comment accordingly. Allah (SWT) descibes the Muslims as ‘Ummatun Wahida’ and orders us ‘Hold on to the rope of Allah and do not divide’. Dividing Muslim land on any basis is haram and a great sin. It is through such corrupt thoughts that the Muslim Ummah has gone from one nation to over fifty. May Allah (SWT) grant the Muslims hidayah and once again unify their affairs under Your (SWT) deen. Ameen.

        • Gibran

          April 26, 2013 at 8:41 PM

          Assalamualaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh
          N Iqbal I am not against this opinion if this is what Allah and His Messenger have commanded. But I don’t see any evidence for it. Jusgt because Muslims should be united doesn’t mean they can’t have their own nations right?…..

          Also, what do you expect Bangladeshis to do in such a case? Just accept oppression? No of course not. They refused to be humiliated.

          • Mumin

            December 28, 2013 at 3:03 AM

            The concept of a nation does not exist in islam. Islam is one nation, and we are only allowed to have one leader in Islam, the Khalifa. All Muslims are supposed to unite under his banner. RasulAllah (SAW) said that if you have a khalifah, and a second one arises, we are to kill the second. This shows the importance of unity. Nationalism has not place in this religion, RasulAllah (SAW) declared it rotten and commanded us to stay away from it.
            This doesn’t mean Bangladeshis should be loyal to Pakistan, after all Nawaz Sharif is not the Khalifah. However, Muslims should abandon their national identities and work on uniting all Msulims lands under a just Muslim ruler who will rule by Islam.

      • ZAI

        July 19, 2014 at 6:37 AM

        Man, Ramazan is a blessed month…found something we agree on.
        Afrin brother, afrin. Well said.

  7. Pingback: Jamaat : affrontements à ঢাকা Dhaka et রাজশাহী Rajshahi – 18 mars 2013 | anthropologie du présent

  8. mus

    March 19, 2013 at 4:23 AM

    While the world especially the west are turning to Islam, it is so sad that the Awami Lg followers who are by birth muslim are turing secular. Are they searching or the hell fire? Why can’t Bangladesh ruling party focus on development and fight against corruption instead of fighting against Allah! This nation is doomed to chaos

    • N Iqbal

      April 26, 2013 at 5:11 PM

      It is the secular Awami League which is doomed. May Allah (SWT) bless and guide the Muslims of Bangladesh and re-unite them with their brothers in Pakistan and indeed the rest of the Muslim world. Ameen.

      • Gibran

        April 26, 2013 at 8:37 PM

        Assalamualaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh

        The first cases on yawm al Qiyamah are bloodshed, and the butchers from Pakistan won’t fair well when the record shows that they slaughtered Muslims.

        If you want unity, do not act superior to your brothers. Than you can be unified.

      • ZAI

        July 19, 2014 at 6:39 AM

        Again, brother…I agree.
        Is a very blessed month :)
        Also add Indian Muslims killed in indiscriminate terrorist attacks and Afghans to
        list that ISI generals and Pakistani governments will have to answer for.

  9. Dr A L T Khan

    March 19, 2013 at 11:36 AM

    I am very disappointed in MuslimMatters for publishing such a misleading and one-sided view on such a complicated situation

    • Ismail

      March 20, 2013 at 11:09 AM

      ‘One-sided view’ as in the view you wish not to believe in?

    • Aly Balagamwala | DiscoMaulvi

      March 21, 2013 at 4:39 AM

      Dear Dr Khan

      As you point out, it is a complicated situation. Thus, we are posting multiple views to be able to get the full scope of the situation. Please read more on Bangladesh at http://muslimmatters.org/tag/bangladesh/.

      Best Regards
      Comments Team

  10. O H

    March 19, 2013 at 9:53 PM

    Jazak Allaahu Khair for the informative article.

  11. Tanveer Khan

    April 2, 2013 at 12:09 PM

    A very interesting article and the petition has been signed :)

  12. Pingback: Bangladesh: ‘Islam under attack’ | Rehmat's World

  13. Pingback: Bangladesh: ‘Islam under attack’ - Banoosh

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