The Bangladeshi Islamist group Hefajat-e-Islam has demanded stricter blasphemy laws and the segregation of sexes in public. It is bringing followers onto the streets to push the agenda of a more Islamic Bangladesh.
The driving force behind the demonstrations against female Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's government is the Islamist Hefajat-e-Islam group, which until recently has attracted little public attention.
The organization is led by Shah Ahmed Shafi, who claims his organization is apolitical. Its aim, he says, is instead to prevent Islam from being "undermined." The group wants to enforce a 13-point radical program. Hefajat wants tougher laws against blasphemy, the death penalty for so-called atheist bloggers, and stricter segregation of sexes in public places. The organization demands "special protection" of Islam and for references to Allah to be returned to the constitution. Women, according to Hefajat, should not be permitted to work outside the home.
Another Afghanistan in making?
Such demands are, of course, not compatible with the liberal constitution of Bangladesh. The director of the Islam Foundation in Dhaka, Shamim Mohammed Afjal, rejects the demands of the group. "Out of these 13 demands, some are Islamic, but their interpretation is flawed. Furthermore, Islam does not support violence."
Sufia Akhtar, a spokesperson for the women's organization Mahila Parishad and a women's rights activist, told the media that the Bangladeshi women would not permit the Islamists to "Talibanize" Bangladesh. "Why should we allow Bangladesh to become another Afghanistan?" said Akhtar.
The fear is understandable.
Maulana Habibur Rahmen, one of the Hefajat leaders, runs a madrassa in Sylhet. He boasts of his role in the 1980s Afghan war and his support to the former al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. His beliefs have earned him respect from the Hefajat followers, especially from students and teachers of the madrassas.
Hefajat was first noticed in 2010 as one of the new Islamist organizations which opposed Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's secular policies. In 2011, Hefajat took to the streets to protest against the gender equality policies of the government.
'Supporting the opposition'
Observers believe that the reason Hefajat has gained so much popularity is because another Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, has been literally paralyzed by the verdicts of the war crimes tribunal, and is now putting its weight behind Hefajat. Some of the Jamaat leaders are either charged by the tribunal for their role during Bangladesh's war of independence from Pakistan in 1971. Others have disappeared. The Jamaat leaders are accused of genocide and rape during the war of independence. The Pakistan-backed militias are said to have raped more than 200,000 women during the war. In January, the tribunal ordered its first death sentences.
Bangladesh's biggest opposition party, the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), is supporting protests against the government. The BNP, led by Former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, views the war crimes trial as a process initiated by the government. It is apparently interested in using the Islamists' protests to gain political advantage because Prime Minister Hasina has refused to stop the war crimes trial before the scheduled parliamentary elections and is also not prepared to put in place an interim government similar to one set up in 2007.
Last Sunday, the Islamists brought Dhaka to a standstill. It is estimated that up to 200,000 protesters blocked the main roads of the capital and shouted "death to all atheists." More than 150 people have officially died since protests began in January.
Dr. Khandakar Mosharraf Hossain, a leading BNP official, believes the real number of dead is higher. Speaking to DW, he holds the government accountable. "The way that the government has killed hundreds of people in the night, disposing of their bodies wherever, is something that no modern society can accept. I can’t support all of Hafazat’s demands, but I would not say that I don’t support them (generally)."
Hefazat resorted to extreme violence against the supporters of the ruling party as well as students and liberal-minded Bangladeshis who, in a series of counter-demonstrations at the centrally located Shahbag Square in Dhaka, demanded the death penalty for those Islamist leaders accused of war crimes. Bloggers involved in the protests were specifically targeted by the Islamists. Several were murdered in the streets.
The Islamists, in return, demanded the death penalty for bloggers, who they claimed were atheists.
Charges against the madrassas
To prevent further escalation the government was forced to arrest several bloggers. The Secretary General of the ruling Awami League and prime ministerial advisor, Mahbubul Alam Hanif, accepts this is a concession to the Islamists: "We have accepted some demands, but some we cannot accept. If we were to accept all demands that would mean turning our country into another Afghanistan. We are now going to put an end to all Hefajat activities."
The police have now filed charges against nearly 200 Hefajat followers. The Minister of Information, Hasanul Haque Inu, accused the heads of the madrassas of preparing their students for "terrorist activities" and sending them to the streets to protest against the government.
International human rights organizations and journalists have meanwhile called on the government to respect freedom of expression and free the bloggers. But the violence continues to escalate. Other demonstrations are planned.