Islam, 'Atheist' Bloggers & Hefazat-e-
Islam in Bangladesh
Dr. Mozammel Haque
Bangladesh has been passing through a very critical phase in its 42- years history. The country is divided not only into two groups, but multiple of groups. Though a small country of 144,000 square kilometres (55,598 square miles) inhabited by 160 million people, but there are now so many divide in the population: Pro-Mukhti Juddha verses anti-Mukhta Juddha; secularists verses Islamic; 1971 sentiments verses 1947 sentiments and most recently the atheists verses religious-Ulema groups.
For the present, in this paper, I would like to concentrate on the division – atheists verses religious-Ulema groups which is now the talk of the town in Bangladesh and abroad. It is the issue which started with the 'atheists' bloggers who posted anti-Islamic inflammatory writings in their blogs and continued with the Hefazat-e-Islam Long March and hartal (strike) throughout the country.
Bangladesh has been rocketed by protests and counter-protests since January when a tribunal set up, by the government to investigate abuses during the war of independence against Pakistan and passed first conviction; but it took a deadly turn when an anti-Islam blogger was murdered.
In February, blogger Rajib Haider, 30, architect and Shahbagh protest activist, who was alleged to have posted anti-Islamic inflammatory writings in his blog, was killed outside his house. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visited Haider’s residence to meet the bereaved family members where she allegedly said 'Shahid Rajib'. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina also pledged stern action against people found guilty of defaming Islam using the internet as right-wing Islamic parties threatened to wage an intensified street campaign against “atheist bloggers”. The premier’s comments came days after newly-emerged Hefazat-e-Islam announced a long march towards the capital Dhaka on 6th of April to protest against “atheist-internet bloggers”.
Following the unrest, the Government formed a nine-member panel to identify and take action against bloggers making derogatory remarks against Islam. The Government has also closed a website for “hurting religious sentiments”.
Four bloggers were arrested on suspicion of harming religious sentiment through their work. Those being held have been accused of hurting the religious sentiments of the country’s Muslim majority. Detectives also arrested another blogger Asif Mohiuddin, who was attacked in January following alleged postings on the internet suspected of being derogatory to Islam and the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Mohiuddin and other bloggers face charges of “instigating negative elements against Islam to create anarchy.”
The Detective branch also arrested the three – Moshiur Rahman Biplob, Russell Parvez and Subrata Adhikari Shubho – had ‘hurt the religious sentiment' of the 90 percent people of Bangladesh by writing inflammatory derogatory blogs against Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) that angered people and caused a slide in law and order and created anarchy.’
The detectives seized a laptop and a desktop computer, two internet modems and an external hard drive during the operation. The Detective Branch’s deputy commissioner Nazrul Islam said that the contents stored in the computers substantiated the allegations of ‘hurting religious sentiments’ against them.
Home Minister said the government had identified 11 bloggers, including the four detainees who had hurt the religious sentiments of the nation’s majority Muslim population.
Campaign against bloggers
Hefazat-e-Islam Bangladesh, a platform of Islamists, was not happy about the arrest as it viewed the arrest might be aimed at tackling the situation. Its organising secretary Azizul Haque Islamabadi termed the arrest of bloggers ‘a government conspiracy to misguide their movement. He demanded the arrest of all ‘atheists’ bloggers. Islamists launched a campaign against the bloggers branding them as ‘atheists” and pushing for their demand for the enactment of a blasphemy law provisioning for death penalty as the highest punishment for hurting religious sentiments’.
Hefazjat-e-Islam earlier announced a long march towards the capital Dhaka for April 6 to push for the demand. The platform earlier took up their 13-point demands with the government.
Long March announced on March 10
On March 10, 2013 Ahmad Shafi announced the ‘long march’ to Dhaka to push for, among other issues, their demands for an end to ‘police firing on demonstrations and killing of Muslims, release of all ulema and withdrawal of all cases filed against ulema and the Muslims, declaring the Ahmadiyyas non-Muslims, an end to alien and anti-Islamic culture such as candlelight vigil and dismantling of all sculptures from universities and roads.
Hefazat-e-Islam Long March
Ten of thousands of members of a Islamists from across the country joined Hefazat-e-Islam's rally at Motijheel in the capital on Saturday, 6 April and protested and demanding the government enact anti-blasphemy laws. Members and supporters of the group Hefazat-e- Islam are calling for the law in reaction to a group of bloggers the Muslim activists accuse of being atheists who have been insulting Islam. They also pressed for ‘death’ to the ‘atheist bloggers’ and branded Awami League government as ‘atheist’.
Leaders of Hefazat-e-Islam, a platform of some Islamist groups mostly from Qaumi madrasah background, demanded enactment of blasphemy law for ensuring highest punishment for derogatory remarks on Islam and the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
Apolitical peaceful movement
The Islamist leaders claimed that their movement was apolitical, though they had some political issues on their charter of demands. None of their 13 demands were political nor were they aimed at pushing someone to or overthrowing anyone. ‘But if anyone wanting to stay in power will need to meet the demands,” he said. They also claimed that the aim of their movement was to protect Islam, not to do politics.”Our major demands are reinstatement of the phrase “absolute trust and faith in Almighty Allah” in the constitution, enactment of a blasphemy law with provisions for death penalty for people making derogatory remarks on Allah, Islam and the Quran, and exemplary punishment of the “atheist” bloggers for “mocking” Allah and the Prophet (peace be upon him),’ Hefazat chief Shah Ahmed Shafi said while addressing the rally. In his written speech, the 93-year-old Islamist leader also said that the government would have to accept the demands if it wanted to stay in power or to go to power again in the next elections.
They gave the government a month to accept their demands or face ‘tougher’ programmes.The rally concluded in a peaceful manner.
Hefazat-e-Islam and its 13-point demands
Hefazat-e-Islam chief Shah Ahmed Shafi’s son Anas Madani read out the speech on behalf of his 93-year-old ailing father.As he read out his father’s statement thousands of Hefazat activists raised their hands shouting ‘hang the atheist bloggers’ to counter the slogan of Shahbagh protesters who were demanding capital punishment for the war criminals and a ban on Jamaat-e-Islami and Islami Chhatra Shibir.
Some of the demands are: “the reinstatement of the phrase ‘absolute trust and faith in Almighty Allah’ in the preamble to the constitution; the enactment of a law provisioning for death penalty in the highest punishment for maligning Allah, Islam and the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and the Muslims; punishment ‘atheist’ leaders of the Shahbagh protests, bloggers and anti-Islamic people making ‘derogatory’ remarks about the Prophet and an end to killing, attacking and shooting Islamic scholars and madrassah students, release of all the detained Islamic scholars and madrassah students, and the withdrawal of restrictions on mosques and removal of obstacles to holding religious programes.”
The demands also include: “the declaration of the Ahmadiyyas as non-Muslims and an end to their publicity and conspiracies, a ban on immoral and improper conducts and free mixing of men and women in the name of freedom of individual and expression and end to all foreign culture including candlelight vigil, an no installation of sculptures in road crossings, colleges and universities, and making Islamic instruction mandatory from primary to higher secondary levels and scrapping the women development policy and the irreligious education policy.
It is also reported that the demands also include an end to the intimidation of and conspiracies against teachers and students of qaumi madrassahs, Islamic scholars, imams and khatibs, an end to reading hatred against the Muslims among the young by misrepresentation and mocking at Islamic culture in films and the media, an end to anti-Islam activities by NGOs, evil designs of the Ahmadiyyas and conversion of people by Christian missionaries in Chittagong Hill Tracts and elsewhere.”
One of the biggest rallies in recent times
The Hefazat-e-Islam activists filled Motijheel and its surroundings, including Fakirerpul, Ittefaq crossing and Paltan area. It was one of the biggest rallies in recent times. Motijheel, the commercial district of the capital was thronged with people covering from Shapla Square to the National Press club. ‘The human sea at Motijheel proves that the atheists have no place in the country which is the land of Muslims,’ said Shafi, director general of Hathajari Madrassah in Chittagong. He said truth would prevail over lies.
About the size of the marchers who came to attend the rally from across the country is tens of thousands of people in spite of obstacles and communication disruptions. “Around 200,000 people attended the rally,” Dhaka’s deputy police commissioner Sheikh Nazmul Alam said, while protest organizers put the number at over half a million.
Observers commented: “The Tawheedi force wake up in Bangladesh against the Shahbaghi 'atheist' and 'Murtad'. Nobody has seen such a scene of people's uprising and hospitality ever before. Nobody has heard such a powerful and commanding voice against the 'atheists'. What a wonderful, spectacular and impressive panorama; wherever you turn your face you see only white skull cap and white robes.”
Obstacles faced by them
Long march and obstructions
Communications between Dhaka and the rest of the country remained almost snapped on Friday, April 5 and Saturday, April 6 as buses stayed off the roads, frequency of trains were reduced, and water vessels remained anchored at river ports fearing violence ahead of the Dhaka march and the rally. The Hefazat-e -Islam leaders alleged that specific orders from the authorities had led to the scarcity of transport. They said many of them marched for Dhaka ‘on foot’ from nearby districts while many others could not come from far away districts like Chittagong and Sylhet as transport operators at the eleventh hour refused to provide buses.
The Islamists alleged that they had faced obstacles from the police and Awami League activists at different places during their march to Dhaka that began Friday, the 5th of April after juma prayers. ‘Police turned away many of our fellows from Gabtoli last evening. Chhatra League activists in front of Jahangirnagar University also stopped our march towards Dhaka. We came to the venue on foot,’ said madrassah teacher Iman Uddin, 70, who came from Makinganj and was accompanied by his two sons—both masrassah students.
Many began traveling by foot on Friday, April 5 from remote villages to Dhaka’s Motijheel area that became a sea of white skull caps and robes. “I’ve come here to fight for Islam. We won’t allow any bloggers to blaspheme our religion and our beloved Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him),” said Shahidul Islam, an imam at a mosque outside Dhaka who walked 20 km.
To counter the Hefazat-e-Islam rally and marchers, 25 pro-Shahbagh organizations called a nationwide shutdown. Shahbagh activists swarmed the roads to challenge the Hefazat-e-Islam and the majority of private transport organizations supported the anti-Islamists and suspended their services.
Despite obstructions, communication disruptions and nationwide shutdown called by the anti-Islamists, the Islamists, wearing headbands and holding placards reading ‘death to atheist bloggers’, poured in the venue in their thousands from different areas of Dhaka and outlying districts.They defied a pro-government national strike by secular protesters — who staged a smaller rival protest in Dhaka — aimed at foiling the Islamists group march.
Many protesters carrying dry food and water travelled a long way on foot to reach Motijheel due to a hartal enforced by Sammilita Sangskritik Jote, Ghatak Dalal Nirmul Committee, Sector Commanders Forum and 24 other socio-cultural organisations against the Hefazat’s ‘long march’.
The Hefazat-e-Islam congregated on Dhaka’s main commercial hub to protest against blasphemous writings by 'atheist' bloggers, shouting “God is great — hang the atheist bloggers.”
Support from other parties
Though there were obstructions, hartals (strike) and communication disruptions between Dhaka and the rest of the country, the size of the rally was never seen before in recent times. Friday, 5 April and Saturday, 6 April, buses stayed off the roads, frequency of trains were reduced, and water vessels remained anchored at river ports fearing violence ahead of the Dhaka march and the rally. The marchers got the support from other parties and common average people because of their demands for the punishment of those who wrote against Allah and Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). BNP and Jatiya Party, among others, set up camps in and around the venue to provide food and drinking water to the marchers. Many individuals also distributed food among the Islamists.
Bangladesh Nationalist Party leaders and Jatiya Party leaders joined and visited the rally to express solidaity on behalf of the party chairperson Khaleda Zia and the party chair HM Ershad respectively.
The Hefazat activists branded the youths spearheading the Shahbagh protests as ‘atheist bloggers’ and demanded their ‘execution’, including blogger Imran H Sarker and writer Shahriar Kabir.
Addressing the rally, their leaders, including the central organising secretary, Azizul Haque Islamabadi, demanded death penalty for the ‘atheist’ bloggers for ‘defaming’ Islam and the Prophet (peace be upon him).
Series of rallies announced
It announced a series of rallies across the country, including a countrywide general strike, for April 8 and ‘Dhaka siege’ for May 5. Hefazat-e-Islam announced rallies in Sylhet on April 11, Brahmanbaria on April 12, Mymensingh on April 13, Barisal on April 18, Faridpur on April 19, Khulna on April 20, Chittagong on April 26, Rajshahi on April 29 and Bogra on April 30 to push their demands.
Hefazat leaders said that the ‘atheist’ government had no authority to stay in power in a country where 90 per cent of the population were Muslims, terming the government ‘munafek (hypocrites) for applying ‘double standards’.
Dhaka Siege on May 5
“If the government does not meet the 13-point demands by April 30, we will lay siege to Dhaka on May 5 said Babunagari accusing the government of adopting a dual policy of allowing them to hold the rally and obstructing people joining the rally.
Role of Ulema
This long march reminded the people of the role Ulema and religious groups played in history, during the British period, in the late 19th century and in the middle of the 20th century. It reminded them of the Faraizi movement led by Haji Shariat Allah (1781-1840) and his son, Dudu Miah (1819-62) for religious purification, but Dudu Miah turned its movement into social and political movement. Titu Mir was campaigning in favour of a purified Islam similar to Haji Shariat Allah by 1827. The Muslim reform movements of the 19th century helped to transform Muslim attitudes and society in Bengal. Similarly, during the Sylhet Referendum in 1947, nobody will forget the role played Maulana Shabbir Ahmad Usmani for the inclusion of Sylhet to the then East Pakistan (the present Bangladesh).