Religion Warps Politics as Bangladesh War Crimes Protests Continue

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The protesting crowd's demand We want capital punishment
The protesting crowd’s demand “We want capital punishment”. Photo by Arif Hossain Sayeed, used with permission.

Since the beginning of February, hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis have been occupying a major intersection called Shahbag in the heart of Dhaka, calling for capital punishment for war crimes committed during the country’s liberation from Pakistan in 1971. But what began as a peaceful civic uprising may be taking a turn in the public’s perception as one that contradicts Islam.

While this moment has been in the making for decades, the current explosion of civic activity has a new and youthful character born out of optimism. The vitality and size of the crowd has surprised and delighted. As Shimul Bashar, a reporter for a private TV channel wrote of the #Shahbag protests on Facebook:

I reiterate that these days of Shahbag will be part of history. I do not have anything greater than this in my life. Mama, i can’t sleep. I keep thinking about Shahbag. I remember the faces.

A movement sparked by bloggers

It all began when the Bloggers and Online Activists Network (BOAN) initiated the call to occupy the intersection on 5 February, and demand capital punishment for the secretary general of the Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami, Abdul Quader Mollah, only hours after he was sentenced to life in prison by the International Crimes Tribunal in Bangladesh on 344 counts of murder, rape and torture committed in 1971.

Since then, demands for capital punishment have extended to all war criminals facing trial, and protests have spread across the country in the name of justice for the estimated 3 million people killed and 250,000 women raped during the liberation war.

Local political and Islamic militia groups who opposed the secession of Bangladesh from Pakistan participated in the killing, particularly targeting Hindus. And like Mollah, a number of indicted war criminals have held public office and lived a life of impunity until 2010, when proceedings were initiated against them by the war crimes  court.

The battle for public perception

The main battlefront for detractors of the Shahbag protests is now public perception, and this can have deadly consequences in a society where religious tension is constantly smoldering. In Bangladesh, where 89% of the population is Muslim, many are easily distracted by accusations of atheism.

Supporters of Jamaat-e-Islami have distributed leaflets around the country saying that the bloggers who initiated the Shahbag protests are blasphemous, and have even called for the “death penalty for atheist bloggers“. At least three opposition-led newspapers have supported these claims with further incitements against the Shahbag protesters and individual bloggers.

One blogger at the forefront of the Shahbag protests, Ahmed Rajib Haider, was murdered outside his home in Dhaka on February 15. For years, he had been writing about war criminals and Islamic fundamentalism in Bangladesh under the pseudonym Thaba Baba (Captain Claw).

The blogger Hasib wrote:

It is clear why Thaba Baba was picked up and killed. He was an open atheist. The main target of the Jamaat (Islamist party) is to create division among bloggers using religion. They were successful.

Blogger Nir Shandhani writes of the frenzy that ensued after Rajib’s murder when a fake blog full of blasphemy was widely circulated and attributed to the blogger even though it was created after his death. The blog texts were downloaded, printed and distributed to incite hatred against Shahbag bloggers. Jamaat-e-Islami and its allies launched protests across country on February 22 against “atheist bloggers” in which 4 people were killed in clashes with police.

Meanwhile, Bangladesh’s government is quietly in favor of the Shahbag demonstrations since Jamaat-e-Islami is a political opponent who wishes to introduce Islamic law.

As the protests continue from strength to strength, youth are having their resolve tested by contradictory claims and threats. And less internet-savvy citizens in Bangladesh who may not know what a blog is must have concluded by now that it is something quite anti-Islamic.

On February 28, Jamaat-e-Islami leader Delwar Hossain Sayed was sentenced to death, leading to cheers in the Shabagh intersection, and deadly clashes between Islamists and police in Dhaka and other parts of the country. Jamaat-e-Islami say they will retaliate with a 48-hour “shutdown” of Bangladesh starting Sunday, March 3.

This post was written with contributions from Global Voices’ Bangladesh team.

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