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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Bangladesh's Secular Democracy Struggles with Violent Radical Islam


Bangladesh is a country associated more with floods, cyclones and poverty than terrorism or radical Islamism. Indeed, it is a country founded on secular, democratic values and widely regarded as a moderate Muslim state. In recent years, however, militant Islamism has quietly been taking ground – and Bangladesh’s survival as a progressive state is on a knife-edge.

The warning signs have been there for some years, and some commentators have been sounding the alarm. In 2002, Ruth Baldwin wrote a piece in The Nation headlined: “The ‘Talibanisation’ of Bangladesh.” Hiranmay Karlekar wrote Bangladesh: The Next Afghanistan? While Maneeza Hossain’s Broken Pendulum: Bangladesh’s Swing to Radicalism and Ali Riaz’s God Willing: The Politics of Islamism in Bangladesh are all important contributions. 

Perhaps the most visible and dramatic sign of the growth of extremism came three years ago. On 17 August 2005, between 11 and 11.30 am, 527 bombs were exploded in a massive attack on all but one of the country’s 64 districts. Such a carefully co-ordinated campaign of terror shocked the nation – but in many respects it was just the tip of the terror iceberg. Other terrorist incidents, including an attack on the Bangladeshi-born British High Commissioner, members of the judiciary and sporadic attacks on religious and ethnic minorities are further indicators of the presence of well-organised terrorist networks.

However, it is not simply the acts of violence that should cause concern. The Islamists’ ideological influence has spread to almost all parts of Bangladeshi society – not least the political arena.

The umbrella organisation is Jamaat-e-Islami, a radical group founded in India in 1941 by Mawlana Abul Ala Maududi. According to one analyst in Bangladesh, Jamaat’s objective is to create “a monolithic Islamic state, based on Shari’ah law, and declare jihad against Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and free-thinking Muslims.” Religious minorities – and Muslims regarded by Jamaat as heretical, such as the Ahmadiyya sect – are targeted for eviction, according to one human rights activist, “or at least to be made into a ‘non-existent’ element whose voice cannot be heard.” Jamaat’s tentacles now reach into major sectors, including banking, health care, education, business and non-profit organisations, and they aim to “destroy” the judicial system, according to one critic, including by “physically eliminating judges.” In 2001, Jamaat won 17 parliamentary seats in alliance with the governing party, the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), and became a partner in the coalition government until its overthrow by the military in 2007. Elections scheduled for next month could result in Jamaat’s return to government, if BNP wins, and even in the current caretaker administration there are believed to be Jamaat-sympathisers.

While Jamaat is the umbrella, according to journalist Shahriar Kabir and the Forum for Secular Bangladesh there are over 100 Islamist political parties and militant organisations in Bangladesh. Only four of these have been banned, and even they continue to operate under alternative names. Extremist literature, audio and video cassettes are widely distributed, and thousands of madrassas teach radical Islamism.

All this is completely at odds with the vision of Bangladesh’s founder, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who led the struggle for independence from Pakistan in which at least three million were killed, ten million displaced and 250,000 women raped. According to Hiranmay Karlekar, at the heart of the birth of Bangladesh was a belief that “the Bengali identity had prevailed over the Islamic identity.” The preamble of the first constitution explicitly stated a commitment to secularism and democracy, and political parties were banned from using religion as a basis for their activities.

Bangladesh began sliding slowly towards Islamism following the assassination of Rahman in 1975. In 1977, references to secularism were deleted from the constitution and the phrase “Bismillah-Ar-Rahiman-Ar Rahim” (“In the name of Allah, the Beneficient, the Merciful) was inserted. Five years later, General Ershad – one of the military dictators who ruled the country in the alternating competition between the army and the democrats – introduced the Eighth Amendment, making Islam the state religion. The constitution now states that “absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah shall be the basis of all actions.”

There remain some provisos, which give religious minorities protection. For example, while Islamic principles are set out as guiding values, the constitution states that they “shall not be judicially enforceable.” The Chief Justice has said clearly that Shari’ah does not constitute the basis of the country’s legislation. Religious freedom, including “the right to profess, practice or propagate any religion”, is protected, and discrimination on religious grounds prohibited.

Nevertheless, in practice Christians, Hindus and Buddhists are denied promotion in the government and the military and in the view of one Bangladeshi journalist, religious and ethnic minorities have seen “unprecedented persecution” in recent years.

In 1998, for example, three Christian sites in Dhaka were attacked – a Catholic girls’ school, an Anglican church and a Baptist church. A mob set fire to the school, destroyed property, burned books, pulled down a cross and smashed statues of the Virgin Mary and St Francis of Assisi. Death threats were issued from the nearby mosque. Since then, sporadic attacks on churches have escalated. In 2007, at least five churches were attacked. Hindus and Ahmadiyyas face similar violence.

Cases of abduction, rape, forced marriage and forced conversion of religious minority women – and particularly young girls – are increasing, in a trend worryingly reminiscent of Pakistan. On 13 February 2007, for example, Shantona Rozario, an 18 year-old Christian student, was kidnapped. She was forced at gunpoint to sign a marriage document with her kidnapper, and an affidavit for conversion to Islam, witnessed by a lawyer, a mullah and a group of young men. After a month she managed to escape, but others are not so fortunate. On April 30 of this year a 14 year-old Christian girl, Bituni de Silva, was raped at gunpoint, and on May 2 a 13 year-old daughter of a pastor was gang-raped.

Apostates in Bangladesh face similar severe consequences for leaving Islam as they do throughout the world. On 1 February this year, a 70 year-old woman convert to Christianity from Islam, Rahima Beoa, died from burns suffered when her home was set ablaze after her conversion.

In 2004, a Jamaat Member of Parliament attempted to introduce a blasphemy law in Bangladesh, modelled on Pakistan’s notorious legislation. Attempts have been made to ban Ahmadiyya literature. And even during the State of Emergency, when protests and processions are supposed to be banned, extremists led by groups such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir have held angry rallies. On 17 September 2007, for example, a cartoon was published in a satirical magazine, Alpin, featuring a conversation between a child and an imam, in which the boy was told that he should always use the prefix ‘Mohammed’ before a name. The boy then decided to call his cat “Mohammed Cat.” The cartoon sparked outrage, and effiges of the newspaper editor were burned in street protests. The cartoonist and the editor were arrested, charged with sedition, and the publication was closed down. In April this year, large protests were held after Friday prayers in major cities, opposing the government’s plans to legitimate women’s rights in the constitution. Maulana Fazlul Haq, chairman of the Islami Oikya Jote, described such a policy as “anti-Qu’ran” and “anti-Islamic.”

An estimated 2.5 million people in Bangladesh belong to indigenous ethnic tribal groups, sometime sknown as “Adibashis.” There are at least 40 different ethnic groups, mainly inhabiting the Chittagong Hill Tracts and the plains area around Mymensingh. Most of these tribal groups are non-Muslim – predominantly Buddhist, Christian and Animist. Since the late 1970s, the Bangladeshi government has actively sponsored the resettlement of Bengali Muslims into the tribal areas – resulting in the construction of mosques, land-grabbing, evictions and discrimination against non-Muslims. One indigenous rights campaigner said: “Our way of life is an open society. Men and women can work anywhere. We are more flexible on gender issues. But the settlers have come in and built mosques, and they use their loudspeakers which affects us culturally and psychologically.”

In one village near Mymensingh, for example, a Bengali Muslim married a Christian from a tribal group. All the other villagers are Christians. After a few years, he decided he needed a mosque – even though he was the only Muslim in the area. So now he is building a mosque – and the likelihood is he will bring in an imam, who will bring his family, who will bring their relatives: and the slow, subtle, insidious repopulation of a non-Muslim, non-Bengali area will unfold. When I visited the remote jungle village, the atmosphere was tense – and the imam, sitting at the mosque construction site, was unwelcoming.

The prediction of Bangladesh’s “Talibanisation” may sound extreme, and in the immediate term the likelihood of Bangladesh becoming like Afghanistan is far-fetched. Bangladesh has not gone as far down the road of radicalisation as Pakistan, for example. Nevertheless, the warnings need to be taken seriously. If it continues as it is, Bangladesh will go the way of Pakistan – and then the risk of Talibanisation becomes realistic.

Indeed, it is Pakistan and Saudi Arabia that are fuelling the Islamisation of Bangladesh. As one person put it, “Pakistan is the breeding ground and the brain, and Saudi Arabia provides the money.” Saudi Arabia is a major funder of madrassas and mosques in Bangladesh, for example – and it is no coincide that Wahhabi teaching is on the rise.

A prominent church leader predicts that full Shari’ah law will be implemented if the situation does not change. “Some day, it will happen. Maybe not immediately, but it will happen … The support of voices in the international community is very much needed. More people need to come and find out what is happening here.” As Ali Riaz says, “there is no doubt that if the present trend continues, the nation will inevitably slide further down the slope toward a regime with a clear Islamist agenda … What is necessary is a decisive change in the direction of the nation.” Such a decisive change is vital, to restore the founding principles of Bangladesh – secularism, democracy, equal rights. There is still a thriving civil society, with bold intellectuals, journalists and human rights activists willing to challenge radical Islamism – and that is a cause for hope. Bangladesh has not been lost to radical Islamism completely – but it will be if the alarm bells are not heard.

First appeared in The Cutting Edge, 28 February 2013

Cutting Edge Contributor Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist with Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and serves as Deputy Chairman of the UK Conservative Party's Human Rights Commission. He is the author of A Land Without Evil: Stopping the Genocide of Burma's Karen People (Monarch, 2004).

Seeking war crimes justice, Bangladesh protesters fight 'anti-Islam' label


"For the government to ban Jamaat would mean pushing them against the wall"Romen Bose, Exclusive Analysis

Since early February tens of thousands of people have occupied an intersection of Bangladesh's capital every day, but unlike Tahrir Square and Occupy Wall Street, they're not calling for the overthrow of the government or greater economic equality.

The rallies, fueled by social media, are demanding capital punishment for people convicted of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide committed during the war of independence from Pakistan more than four decades ago.

Of the 10 indicted by the International Crimes Tribunal, a domestic court, in Bangladesh last year, seven are top leaders of Bangladesh's largest Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, including former MP Delwar Hossain Sayedee who faces judgment on Thursday.

A tenth person -- Abul Kalam Azad, an expelled Jamaat member who is at large -- was convicted and sentenced in absentia to death by hanging in the tribunal's first verdict in January. The cleric is believed to be hiding in Pakistan.

Jamaat acknowledges having supported a united Pakistan, but the party has been accused of helping Pakistani forces commit atrocities during the nine-month-long 1971 war, in which as many as three million people were killed and hundreds of thousands of women were raped.

The rallies at the Shahbag intersection in Dhaka were sparked on February 5 after Jamaat's assistant secretary general, Abdul Kader Mollah, was sentenced to life in jail for genocide and other atrocities -- a sentence protesters considered too mild for a convicted war criminal.

Jamaat has decried what it calls a smear campaign and questioned why the Awami League had not pressed forward on war crimes trials while in power during the 1970s and 1990s.

As with Cambodia, it has taken some four decades for Bangladesh to address its genocide, and the war crimes process has not been without criticism.

The ruling Awami League, which made the prosecution of war crimes perpetrators a central election plank in 2008, has been criticized by Human Rights Watch for proposing amendments that would enable a court to overturn a life sentence in favor of a death penalty.

"A government supposedly guided by the rule of law cannot simply pass retroactive laws to overrule court decisions when it doesn't like them," said Brad Adams, HRW's Asia director in a statement this month. The proposed amendments "make a mockery of the trial process," he added.

Significance of protests
The weeks-long Shahbag protests were initiated by bloggers to protest Mollah's sentence and grew to include university students and youth, celebrities like the Bangladesh national cricket team, and a large contingent of women, cutting across economic, religious and ethnic divides, according to six observers. The intersection has since been renamed "Projonmo Chottor" (New Generation Roundabout), with poetry read, music played, and candles burned.

In a piece published on The Asia Foundation's website, Awrup Sanyal, a Dhaka-based writer, wrote that the Shahbag movement has "opened up space for discussions on subjects that until now were considered taboo or avoided altogether." Such subjects include, according to Sanyal, fundamentalism in politics; secularism; unaccountability; inclusiveness irrespective of religion and ethnicity; contradictory historical narratives; boycotting of businesses; and the spirit of the 1971 independence movement.

"For four decades, we have remained quiet with the hope that one day these war criminals will be sentenced to death," said Shoaib, a student of Dhaka University, in a CNN iReport by Aminul Islam Sahib. "We cannot accept their lifetime imprisonment."

The protests have also included a call for the ban of religious-based political parties and Jamaat in particular, an opinion that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League have endorsed.

But such a scenario "would raise stability risks in Bangladesh," says Romen Bose, deputy head of Asia forecasting at Exclusive Analysis, recently acquired by the political risk consulting firm IHS. "For the government to ban Jamaat would mean pushing them against the wall," with the potential for a guerilla-style insurgency if the party is locked out of politics, he added.

Meanwhile Jamaat's tactic has been to turn criticism of it into criticism of Islam, Bose said.

Jamaat has called the Shahbag participants "anti-Islamic atheists" protected by the government who are deserving of arrests and death sentences for defaming the religion. The party also accuses the protesters of seeking to overturn an independent judiciary.

On February 15 a blogger and one of the Shahbag organizers, Ahmed Rajib Haider, was hacked to death hours after he called for a boycott of Jamaat-affiliated institutions and businesses. An atheist, he is alleged to have been behind anti-Islamic posts, which protesters contend are part of a cyber war to malign the movement.

The youth-led non-violent rallies have occurred amid countrywide strikes and counter protests backed by Jamaat and Islamist parties to protest the government's support of "atheists."

As yet, there have been no direct confrontations between Shahbag protesters and Jamaat, Bose said, a scenario he says would be "disastrous."

On Tuesday, Shahbag activists marched to the home ministry with a memorandum demanding the arrest of the editor of the newspaper Amar Desh for instigating violence with reports that their movement was anti-Islam.

The editor, Mahmudur Rahman, who is being sued for such charges, has been defended in the past by the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, citing "ongoing judicial harassment." Amar Desh, according to the group, reports on corruption cases in Bangladesh.

More recently, the group expressed concerns about a restricting environment for human rights activities ahead of elections in the coming year.

Meanwhile, the International Press Institute has condemned attacks on at least 18 journalists by Jamaat supporters across the country after last Friday's Juma prayers.

Bose, of Exclusive Analysis, pointed out that some of those journalists may be bloggers, who have been among the organizers of the Shahbag protests.

Photographer and CNN iReporter Shah Sazzad Hossein has gone to Shahbag about a dozen times to get a sense of who the demonstrators are and what keeps bringing them back.

He says he sees no signs of the rallies abating, with people wanting nothing less than the death penalty for war criminals.

And yet he cannot shake a feeling of foreboding.

"I think there will be violence in the coming months," he said. "I'm not afraid."

First appeared in CNN online, February 28, 2013

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Bangladesh's 'Pakistani' party Jamaat-e-Islami

Caption: Activist at Shahbagh Square holding a sign which says "Religion is individual, county is ours"


The signs are there all over Dhaka. If it's not blatant demands to "hang the war criminals" in posters and billboards surrounding Shahbagh Square where Bangladesh erupted on February 5, there are murals depicting demonic Islamist fundamentalists on the outside wall of Dhaka Art

Along the main thoroughfare of Panthapath in central Dhaka, across the giant Infinity Mega Mall - where last Friday ambulances zipped by carrying those injured in clashes with the police - a billboard advertising the ATM services of the Islami Bank Bangladesh Ltd carries a marker-scrawl at the bottom: 'Bank of the rajakars' referring to the collaborators with Pakistan in the 1971 liberation war.

There is no doubt that across the country, Jamaat-e-Islami leaders are scared. An overwhelming number of those under trial, accused of war crimes in 1971 are from this party and the Awami League government is only too happy to let 'the people' vent their collective ire against an important ally of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party.

Conflated with the Shahbagh protestors' demand for a ban on the 'Pakistani party' and their leaders be punished with death for war crimes is their wish that Bangladesh be rid of religious fundamentalism. The past and the present combine in this demand to not become 'another Pakistan'.

So how brittle is the Jamaat today? The Islamist party was banned when Bangladesh was formed in 1971 for opposing the creation of the country. It returned to parliamentary politics in 1978 with little impact. In 2001, it won 18 parliamentary seats riding piggyback on the BNP. Some experts point out that it was the BNP that was doing the piggybacking on the Jamaat. In 2008, it won only two seats.

But the Jamaat, not unlike the Shiv Sena in India, looms disproportionately over Bangladeshi politics. A banner near the Shahid Minar that commemorates those killed during the Bengali Language movement in 1951 lists the number of institutions the Jamaat is allegedly linked with. These include banks, real estate companies, educational and health institutions, transportation companies, coaching centres and even a tourist and travel company, Keari Tourism, with its own cruises and holiday packages. The banner demands the boycott of these 'Islamist-owned' institutions that "provide the Jamaat directly and indirectly" with funds.

Unpleasant truths
Over a plate brimming with rice and what seems like a nursery of hilsa cooked in mustard, I listen to Neamat Imam, playwright and author of The Black Coat, his forthcoming novel that deals with an 'unpleasant truth' of Bangladeshi history dealing with the rule of the country's 'founding father' Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Imam is certainly no apologist of the Jamaat or religion-based politics. Pointing at his Chinese wife sitting next to him, he says, "I certainly don't want her to be covered from head to toe in a hijab and looking out of a slit every time we come to Bangladesh!"

But he explains why the Jamaat is not as universally despised as it may seem from Dhaka's Shahbagh. "Conservative Bangladeshis are certainly not Islamists or Jamaat supporters. But many of them do see organisations such as the Islamist banks and educational institutions as being run by 'good Muslims'," says Imam, an expatriate Bangladeshi in his late-30s, who is visiting 'home' after he left it in 1995 under dire financial and creative conditions.

"Also, apart from being considered clean, unlike the corruption rife in other political parties including in the ruling Awami League, the Jamaat serves an important social function in many parts of Bangladesh that can't be discounted." Only a couple of days before, I had heard Asif Saleh, director with the development organisation BRAC and a strident critic of the Jamaat, compare the Islamist party with the Hamas in Palestine, with its strong roots in social service.

"Frankly, I don't think much will come of it," Imam tells me about the Shahbagh movement. "The demands made are in line with what the government in power wants. What do you think will happen if the government does not agree with some of the people's demands at some point? In China, each year the government supports popular protests against Japanese atrocities in the war. We all know what happens when there are popular protests against the Communist Party of China."

Rifat Munim, in his late-20s, heads the English newspaper Daily Star's book publishing division. His father Abul Khair, a retired college teacher in Bagerhat in Khulna, has always been a secular Muslim and a strong supporter of the 1971 freedom movement. But he conducts business with the Jamaat-affiliated Islami Bank. "I've explained to him - you're providing support to an Islamist party bent on changing the Bangladesh you love. But he's adamant, saying that he wants to put his money in a bank that works according to the tenets of Islam," says Munim shaking his head.

Charred Pages
Last Saturday, I had visited the Dhaka Book Fair. I was taken aback by the utter energy and focus that people had while buying books - novels, non-fiction books and translated works - instead of zoning in on food stalls and buying text books and colouring books for their kids.

Today, I read about a fire breaking out in the fair grounds on late Sunday night, gutting at least 25 stalls. The suspected cause was a short-circuit. The effect, in a churning, electric Dhaka, is nothing short of tragic.

First appeared in the Hindustan Times, February 26, 2013

Monday, February 25, 2013

Bangla 2.0: Net wave paradox

The last Facebook update that Ahmed Rajib Haider posted was on February 15. Not too long after he had uploaded this post, his hacked body was discovered around 9.30pm in front of the house where he lived with his brother in the Mirpur area of Dhaka. 

The 30-year-old architect had an online persona of Thaba Baba (loosely translated as ‘Paw Daddy’, which he wrote as ‘Claw’ in English as an explanation).

His blogs on the popular Amarblog site regularly and primarily dealt with the menace of rising Islamic fundamentalism in Bangladesh.

Haider, one of the main organisers of the anti-Jamaat demonstrations at Dhaka’s Shahbagh square, was uninhibited about his distaste towards the Jamaat-e-Islami.

He had also proudly declared himself to be an atheist, something that the Jamaat has subsequently used to brand every ‘blogger’ demanding its ban as being ‘un-Islamic’ and therefore morally degenerate.

While his murderer(s) are yet to be found, most Bangladeshis believe Haider’s untimely death to be the handiwork of the Jamaat-Shibir, the lumpen youth wing of the Jamaat.

In a way, it’s rather apt that in his final Facebook post, Haider had posted the link of a news story from the Bengali daily Kaaler Kantha that detailed the massive network of assets and business interests under the Jamaat’s control.

In his comments above the link, he had strongly recommended the boycott of Jamaat-linked establishments — from banks and educational establishments to hospitals and media companies — adding that there should be a proper set of guidelines to identify Jamaat fronts since a simple transfer of shares could suggest new ownership of a company.  

This had not been the first attack on an online activist in Bangladesh. Only a month before, Asif Mohiuddin, another openly atheist blogger, was stabbed by suspected Islamists. Fortunately, he survived.

In the case of Haider, authorities and fellow bloggers point to the death threats he had received from a pro-Jamaat blog, Sonar Bangla.

If Pakistan was horrified by the brutal attack on 14-year-old blogger Malala Yousafzai by the Taliban in October last year, Haider’s murder has enraged secular Bangladesh and split the nation into two.

Facebook friends 

Inside the compound of Dhaka Art College, Asif Saleh, blogger-tweeter and senior director at the development organisation BRAC (formerly, Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee), sips on his tea and explains how the popular movement against Islamist politics has been intimately connected to the successful ‘Digitial Bangladesh’ drive that has been aggressively pushing for the use of digital technology to spread education, poverty alleviation, health as well as democracy and human rights.

“The youth in Bangladesh was not politically sensitised. They were apathetic towards what was going on in the country,” says Saleh.

“With the arrival of social media platforms, ‘being political’ became cool. Young Bangladeshis have now suddenly found out that their actions do matter, their actions can lead to change,” says Saleh.

On the first day of the Shahbagh demonstrations on February 5, there were about 500 people who had gathered to protest against the life sentence, as opposed to a sentence of death, handed by the international war tribunal to Jamaat leader and accused 1971 war criminal Abdul Qader Mollah.

This core group had connected and vented online, and had decided their plan of action on Facebook.

The protests of this initial small gathering was picked up by the media, which in turn fed the news on the internet for others to join in. The media – social as well as mainstream –became force-multipliers for the movement.

 “It’s been a year since the advent of 24-hour news channels. The 24-hour format has to fill news round the clock. It was fortuitous that the Shahbagh protests filled much of news TV.

Suddenly you also saw the white-haired pundits, the usual suspects on political discussions, being joined by youngsters airing their views,” says Saleh, a computer technology graduate who came back from the United States leaving a Goldman Sachs job five years ago.

But at the core of the Shahbagh revolution lies Bangladesh’s internet revolution. Over the last three years, the cost of online communication has nosedived.

In 2009, a megabyte of information would set the consumer back by 27,000 takas. Today, a megabyte costs 5,000 takas.

Thanks to affordability, by November 2011, there were 9 million users with an internet connection in a country of 142 million people. The figures go up if one considers the many more mobile phone users.

Tech has no ideology

But here’s the flip side. The resources-rich Jamaat is disproportionately stronger online than offline.

Technology being ideologically neutral, the same social media platforms and penetrative telephony are tools for the enemies of the Shahbagh activists.

It is in the terrain where the online seeps into the offline and then feeds the online again that a new kind of war of propaganda is being fought.

Knowing that the Jamaat has already started to successfully conflate the idea of ‘blogger’ with ‘atheist’, the Awami League government has ‘cracked down’ on internet sites, removing blog posts that are deemed to be “spreading hatred, provoking social disorder and hurting religious sentiments of the people”.

Last week, information minister Hasanal Haque Inu urged the media “not to publish any indecent remark against Islam, the Koran and the Prophet Muhammad”.

The government had swiftly blocked YouTube after an allegedly blasphemous film on the prophet was “shown there”. 

These are measures that were taken by the government to ‘protect’ secular bloggers from the violent reactive politics of the Islamists — and not give a handle to the opposition BNP-Jamaat to accuse the government of being anti-Islamic.

But here’s the paradox: it was through social media that those demanding Bangladesh remain secular found their voices heard, voices that would ultimately reverberate through Shahbagh and Bangladesh.

To get that volume knob turned down as a precaution would be exactly what the Islamists want. To make the people disinterested again.

Hindustan Times, Dhaka, February 23, 2013

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Age-old violence and recriminations still provide the fuel for Bangladesh spring

Protesters gather during a demonstration against the Jamaat-e-Islami party in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photograph: Pavel Rahman/AP

Gulf widens between those who think Shahbag Square rallies are righting historical wrong and those who see them as anti-Islam

NAJMUL HOSSAIN had never been to a protest before. But for the past fortnight, the 45-year-old Bangladeshi banker has regularly made the short journey to Shahbag Square, a broad, tree-lined thoroughfare in the heart of Dhaka, the capital, to call for the hangings of Islamist politicians accused of war crimes during the country's 1971 war of independence.

On Saturday, Hossain took his six-year-old son with him to the protest, holding a banner with the message, "Razakars [Islamist collaborators] must be hanged". The child carried a toy gun. "My uncle was killed in 1971 by the Pakistan army," Hossain said. "I cannot forgive those who killed and stood with the killers."

On the other side of town, Shamsuz Zaman, a 58-year-old timber trader, is equally fired up but for different reasons when discussing Shahbag. "War crimes are just an excuse," he said. "Bangladesh has so many problems. The people who are leading these mobs are atheists who insult Islam, God and the prophet." The gulf between those who think the Shahbag protests – the largest in two decades, that some are calling the Bangladesh spring – is a movement for righting a historical wrong and those who consider it to be a veiled, government-sponsored attempt to curb the influence of Islam has never been wider.

At least five people have been killed since Friday in countrywide violence, including two opposition activists who were shot dead by police on Saturday morning, local police officials confirmed. The violence began when conservative Islamists clashed with police after Friday prayers, protesting against what they said were blasphemous online posts by bloggers at the forefront of the Shahbag protests.

An alliance of Islamist parties called for a general strike on Sunday to protest at what they see as the use of excessive force against opposition activists. The police said they were trying to maintain law and order.

Much of the mistrust is rooted in Bangladesh's tumultuous past. Bangladesh declared independence from Pakistan in 1971. The Pakistani army fought and lost a brutal nine-month war with Bengali fighters and Indian forces that had intervened. Hundreds of thousands of civilians died, many of them at the hands of Islamist militia groups who wanted the country to remain part of Pakistan.

In 2010, Sheikh Hasina, the prime minister, and daughter of wartime political leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, set up a war crimes tribunal to investigate atrocities committed during the 1971 conflict – a move she said would bring closure for victims and families and heal the rifts of war.

The leader of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), Khaleda Zia, the widow of the independence war's best-known military commander, has accused Hasina of politicising the tribunal and conveniently using it to hound her political enemies. All of the 10 people indicted for war crimes by the tribunal are opposition politicians, eight of them from the Jamaat-e-Islami, the country's largest Islamist party and an ally of Zia's BNP.

Despite criticism from human rights groups about politicisation and procedural flaws, the war crimes tribunal has remained broadly popular. Last month the tribunal sentenced a former member of the Jamaat-e-Islami to death for his role in the 1971 war. On 5 February, a verdict of life imprisonment was delivered against Abdul Quader Molla, a senior leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami, sparking the Shahbag protests. Since then, hundreds of thousands of people have converged on Shahbag, the hub of protests, adamant that all of the men on trial for war crimes must receive the death penalty.

This week President Zillur Rahman signed into law an amendment to the statute that governs two functioning war crimes tribunals, giving prosecutors the power to seek stiffer sentences on appeal, a key demand of the protesters. The new law also gives the government the power to charge entire organisations with war crimes, another Shahbag demand.

The protesters, however, have ratcheted up the pressure, saying they will remain camped out in Shahbag until all of the accused currently before the war crimes tribunal are given the death sentence. They have pushed a broader set of demands, including banning the Jamaat-e-Islami and confiscating businesses linked to Islamist groups.

"We are protesting 40 years of injustice," said Lucky Akter, 23, a student and member of a leftwing political party who has become one of the faces of the protest with her fiery slogans. "We want those who collaborated with the Pakistan army hanged and their finances cut off."

Analysts say the broader demands from the Shahbag gathering show how the rifts of the past continue to play a major role in Bangladesh's present. "There is an ideological basis to protests," said Muhammad Musa, a political commentator and former newspaper editor. "There is the widespread perception that the Jamaat-e-Islami supported Pakistan during the war and should answer for this."

On Saturday a crowd in the thousands gathered in Shahbag, joining a hardcore group of activists, waving flags and chanting slogans such as, "Hang, hang, hang them all!" and, "The weapons of '71 must fire again!"

The Jamaat-e-Islami, whose activists have waged violent street agitations against the tribunal, says it is being scapegoated. Shafiqul Islam Masud, a party leader, said many people were blurring the difference between a political position and war crimes. "There are only about 50 people active in the party now who took any kind of a political position 42 years ago," he said. "It's possible some of them did not want to secede from Pakistan, but that's a far cry from war crimes. The party accepted the sovereignty of Bangladesh and is a registered political party, represented in parliament."

Sam Zarifi, the Asia director for the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), a Geneva-based legal advocacy, said a fair trial process was necessary to heal the wounds of the war. "It is very important that victims of 1971 get justice," he said. "But justice must be ensured through a fair and transparent trial process. Unfortunately, if judges are intimidated by mass protests into handing out death sentences, that's not justice and may unleash yet another cycle of violence."

Such words of caution are dismissed by Shahbag protesters as intellectual posturing. The crimes of 1971, which have been thrust into the spotlight by the tribunals, have dominated Bangladeshi newspapers, airwaves and websites, uniting the youth of Dhaka in an unprecedented manner.

"The people have spoken," said Akter. "Now it is up to the courts and the politicians to implement."

Analysts say the protests have worked to the government's advantage and distracted attention from economic and governance issues the opposition had been agitating about. Last year, Hasina scrapped a constitutional provision under which a non-partisan caretaker government oversees elections, leading to the opposition threatening a boycott of parliamentary elections due in early 2014.

"Had it not been for the protests, now we would all be focusing on next year's elections and looking at the government's record in office and the opposition's pledges," said Zafar Sobhan, editor of the Dhaka Tribune, an English daily. "Now, all bets are off and elections seem a distant concern. It is hard to see how things will revert to politics as usual after this."
Asif Mohiuddin, a co-ordinator of the bloggers' network that called for the Shahbag protests, is keen to point out the group's struggle did not start with Shahbag. "We have been waging war on religious fundamentalists on the blogs for years," he said. "Shahbag has been successful because people are so outraged by the war crimes."

Yet some analysts say the narrative of a secular revolution leading the country towards a democratic future may be simplistic. The protests have polarised the country and led to tensions between those who identify themselves as progressive.

"Many are worried about the Shahbag protest's aggressive tone and narrow focus on the death penalty," said one of the editors, an English language blog. "I wish the unique energy of Shahbag could be channelled into the energy and desire to do thorough research, digging out solid evidence that can result in fair trials that do not require government contortions."

First appeared in The GuardianLondon, Saturday 23 February 2013

Syed Zain Al-Mahmood is an investigative reporter and editor based in Dhaka, Bangladesh

Friday, February 22, 2013

In Bangladesh, a generation turns its politics to the angry past


IN DHAKA the other day, I saw children dancing in the streets, swinging nooses like festive streamers.

Bangladesh, a country of 160 million, is currently experiencing a “Bengal Spring.” Hundreds of thousands of young people have responded to text messages and online bloggers and gathered nightly in Shahbag square in downtown Dhaka and elsewhere around the country. Their demand is that Abdul Kader Mullah, a leader of the Islamic political party Jamaat-I-Islami, be hanged.

Four decades after the “war of liberation” from Pakistan in 1971, ending in the birth of Bangladesh, the government has set up a special war-crimes tribunal to prosecute sympathizers with Pakistan who committed “crimes against humanity.” The tribunal has found Mr. Mullah guilty, as a young student political leader, of committing serious crimes that warranted life imprisonment. Rather than accept Mr. Mullah’s sentence as justice too-long delayed, the crowds demand his execution.

After four days of Shahbag demonstrations, Prime Minister Sheik Hasina pledged to pursue a death sentence, only to discover that the legislation establishing the tribunal allows the government to appeal a verdict, but not a sentence. The problem has been solved: the government will amend the legislation to enable an appeal of the verdict to the Supreme Court. Few doubt that Mr. Mullah will hang.

The Bengal Spring raises key ethical issues in the prosecution of war crimes, in defining the rule of law and the nature of democracy itself.

Since independence, a combination of political crises and religious conservatism blocked the prosecution of Mr. Mullah and other Jamaat leaders. In 1975, the first prime minister, the secular and socialist Sheikh Mujib, was assassinated. That government was followed by the military dictatorship of General Zia Rahman, who in turn was assassinated. Finally, in 1990, the army retired to the cantonment. A hotly contested election in 1991 pitted the conservative Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) headed by Gen. Zia’s widow (in an alliance with Jamaat), against the Awami League, headed by Sheikh Mujib’s daughter, Sheikh Hasina.

For two decades these two women have dominated Bangladeshi politics, effectively sustaining the bitter hostilities of 1971. Each has enjoyed two terms in office, each one dogged by corruption, which prompted the most recent military intervention in 2007. Finally, in 2008 Sheikh Hasina won a resounding majority and proceeded with war-crime trials.

That her government in 2009 created a domestically controlled war-crimes tribunal rather than engage the International Criminal Court reflects the country’s suspicion of the West. Conveniently for the government, virtually all those prosecuted have affiliations with either Jamaat or the BNP – the two opposition parties.

Inexperienced judges and lawyers have led international observers (most notably The Economist) to question the integrity of the process. Still, despite procedural flaws, the trials have not been outright “drumhead justice.” The second verdict, Mr. Mullah’s, displayed a certain judicial desire for reconciliation. He received life imprisonment. Then he flashed a “V” sign as he left the courtroom – a bad move. Protests by elderly intellectuals began, but it took the bloggers to put thousands into the street.

One might expect to hear a lawyer or a human-rights activist object to retroactively changing the law in order to please the street. So far there has been silence, though in fairness events have moved quickly and unexpectedly.

What of the tribunal judges themselves? They clearly have limited independence. This appears to be a war-crimes tribunal that can issue only one verdict, guilty, and one sentence, death.

Bangladeshi political culture places great faith in mass protests, the tactic that Gandhi invented to end the British raj, and that Sheikh Mujib copied leading up to 1971. For forty years, all parties have relied on violent street demonstrations. The parliament plays a marginal role. On the one hand, the youthful composition of the crowds in Shahbag and their determination not to be suborned by any political party symbolize a refreshing rejection of politics as usual. On the other hand, their demand – death for those who fought with the Pakistani army – is a continuation of the politics of violent confrontation.

The media have proclaimed the rebirth of the “Spirit of 1971.” The movement must be welcomed if it leads to a more liberal and less violent polity. But will it? Will it go beyond settling old scores?

And herein lies the dilemma. The new leadership of bloggers and youth in Shahbag have not been calling with anywhere near as much fervor for safer conditions for garment workers, better schools, better health care, less corruption; rather, they have committed themselves to inflict deadly vengeance upon the old men of Jamaat.

A youth movement seeking death sentences regardless of the law carries within itself the germ of their parents’ politics. It is Lord of the Flies writ large. The goal should be to move beyond a four-decade-old civil war towards genuine democratic reform within the rule of law. Put away the noose.

First published in The Globe and Mail, February 19, 2013

Owen Lippert lives in Dhaka where he has served as head of two US AID democracy projects. He was senior policy adviser to the CIDA minister in 2007-08