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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Bangladesh simmers as Islamic conservatives and progressives clash

Photo Rehman Asad/CorbisMuslim men pray in the street in Dhaka during a grand rally in March to call on the prime minister to arrest atheist bloggers who insulted Islam
As popularity of rightwing party Hefazat-e-Islam grows, millions of female garment workers increasingly fear for their jobs

JASON BURKE in Delhi and SAAD HAMMADI in Dhaka

Six mornings a week, Tania Akhter leaves her home in the Banasri Ullah Para neighbourhood in the north of Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital, for the garments factory where she stitches jackets and trousers to be sold on western high streets. The journey takes the 23-year-old through a simmering city.

Protests and clashes in Dhaka and elsewhere in the country have diminished in recent weeks but with about 100 dead and thousands injured, tensions remain high. A series of "shutdowns" have been enforced by political groups, more are threatened and many fear violence will flare again.

The battle pits religious conservatives against more moderate, progressive voices in a fight to determine the future direction of the country – the world's eighth most populous – 40 years after it won independence from Pakistan in a brutal war.

The most recent development is the emergence of a radical conservative Muslim party, Hefazat-e-Islam, as the standard bearer of the religious right. Earlier this month, at a huge rally in Dhaka attended by more than 100,000 according to police, the party issued 13 demands. They included the introduction of measures to stop "alien culture" making inroads in Bangladesh, the reinstatement of the line "absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah" in the nation's constitution, which is largely secular, and a ban on new statues in public places.

But it was Hefazat-e-Islam's demand that men and women do not mix in public – seen by many as a bid to stop women working outside the home – that most worried Akhter, one of tens of millions of female labourers in Bangladesh's booming garment industry.

"If we are not allowed to work, how will we survive?" asked Akhter, who supports her elderly parents on her monthly wage of 6,500 takas (£55). "Many of our coworkers were abandoned by their husbands. Some families only have daughters, whose parents are old. What will a single mother do? We will not have any means for a living."

Hefazat-e-Islam's demand is opposed by employers too. "There are women in media, defence, and development. There cannot be development [by] keeping half of a population ineffective," Mushrefa Mishu, president of the Garment Workers' Unity Forum, told the Guardian.

But beyond the issue of women working are much larger questions. "Although Bangladesh is a Muslim-majority country, it is a people's republic, not a Muslim country," said Mishu.

The unrest was initially provoked by the first verdicts passed by the international war crimes tribunal, set up by Sheikh Hasina, the prime minister and daughter of the wartime leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, to investigate atrocities committed during the 1971 conflict.

When a group of young moderates in Dhaka demonstrated in the central Shahbag Square, their protest quickly grew into a mass movement demanding accountability and harsh sentences for alleged crimes during the war.

The conflict left up to 3 million people dead. At least 200,000 women were raped while millions fled to neighbouring India.

Bangladesh's biggest Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), opposed the independence movement during the 1971 war and worked with the Pakistani army to fight nationalists. It is largely senior officials from JI who have been indicted by the tribunal. Two have been convicted this year.

Religious conservatives, many loyal to JI, took to the streets to counter the Shahbag demonstrators, accusing their leaders of being atheists and blasphemers.

Some of the violence has been explicitly sectarian, with attacks on places of worship of the small Hindu minority. Several activists have been shot dead by the police who routinely use live ammunition to quell protest.

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 using the tribunal to hound political enemies.

In turn, Zia has been charged with encouraging and exploiting the rightwing anger. Hefazat-e-Islam are close to JI, which is a key ally of the BNP.

The conservatives say they are victims of a smear campaign and that their aims have been misunderstood. "The idea that Hefazat-e-Islam is taking the country back to the medieval age through its demands is propaganda," said Moinuddin Ruhi, joint secretary of the party. "We are not opposing women's development … Hefazat demands women refrain from free mixing in society to avoid sexual harassment and incidents such as rape. This does not … mean we want them to refrain from going to work or study. They should go to work and study following the principles of Islam."

Akhter countered that she and her female colleagues were "responsible enough to protect our own prestige and self-respect".

Hefazat-e-Islam officials say they will "besiege" Dhaka next month if the government does not agree to their demands.

There are fears that the pressure from the conservatives is having an effect. Shortly after officials said their demands would be considered last week, police detained four bloggers who are seen as sympathetic to the Shahbag movement and critical of Islamists on charges of "hurting religious sentiment".

In Bangladesh, defaming a religion on the internet can carry a 10-year jail sentence. One of Hefazat-e-Islam's principal demands is that the death penalty be imposed in such circumstances.

Pinaki Bhattacharya, a blogger and online activist, describes the arrests as unacceptable. "I believe we should not unnecessarily hurt someone's beliefs. I believe everybody should be sensible. Everybody should have their own sense of responsibility and they should not indulge into things which might create unrest and trouble in society," said Pinaki.

Police in Bangladesh have also arrested the acting editor of Amar Desh, a pro-opposition newspaper, on several charges, including sedition. Mahmudur Rahman of the Bengali-language publication was detained in a raid on his office in Dhaka, said a city police official Masudur Rahman.

The arrest has concerned local journalists. Nurul Kabir, editor-in-chief of Bangladesh's popular English daily New Age, said: "I have serious disagreement with the editorial policy of Mahmudur Rahman and the most of the contents that his paper Amar Desh disseminates, but I have no doubt that the government has arrested him primarily because of his active support for the opposition political camps. In a democratic dispensation, this is unacceptable."

Elections are due in Bangladesh later this year or early in 2014.

First published in The Guardian, United Kingdom, 16 April 2013

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