Bangladesh holds elections, January 5, 2014. (Image via AFP)

Bnagladesh holds elections, January 5, 2014. (Image via AFP)

By Nayma Qayum

On 6th April 2013, members of an Islamic group by the name of Hefazat-i-Islam organized what they called a “long march” into Dhaka city. They had gathered at various localities across the country on the days preceding the march, and on the sixth, they marched into Dhaka city shouting slogans that called for the death of the blasphemous. By late morning, thousands of Hefazat members had gathered at a city square called Shapla Chottor in Dhaka’s commercial hub, Motijheel.

Photographs and video footage of the procession shows that the group consisted entirely of men. Participants wore the same long and pastel-colored panjabi (long shirt) and a white tupi (cap). Most of them appeared to be young boys. Once the gathering was in place, the group’s leaders began the rally with a recitation from the holy Quran. Their only call at the time was for the death of the “atheist” bloggers, who had staged the Shahbag protest in February and demanded the death penalty for 1971 war criminals. Many of the accused in these trials belonged to the Jama’at-e-Islami (JI), the country’s premier Islamic party. But the Hefazat’s slogans did not just call for the release of Jama’at leaders –they also sought to punish initiators of the Shahbag movement for their alleged blasphemy.

The sheer magnitude of the march surprised many Dhaka-city residents – the number of participants, and their devotion to the cause as they walked for hundreds of miles to reach the city. One news outlet called it the “biggest-ever showdown by any Islamist group in recent times” in Bangladesh.

The march contradicts the neoliberal image of Bangladesh that the international media has projected in recent years. The Bangladesh government has pursued a World Bank-prescribed neoliberal development agenda; the government and non-government actors started to empower rural women through NGO programs and microfinance as far back as the early seventies. The government has started to contain the exploding population growth rate, as fertility rates have declined from almost seven children per woman in 1975 to 2.5 in 2006 according to the World Bank. Almost every single child of primary school-going age was enrolled in school by 2011. It was within this scenario that the war crimes trials and Shahbag movement prompted the entry of a new grassroots Islamic force into the political scene.

In 2012, the Awami League government established a War Crimes Trials in order to try perpetrators of 1971 war crimes, many of whom were now prominent members of the opposition alliance. The Bangladeshi people have waited a long time for a true reckoning on 1971. They have sought justice for the violence inflicted on the East Pakistan by the Pakistani Army and collaborators during the Liberation War from West Pakistan.  Over four decades later, the contested International War Crimes Tribunal (ICT) may not have provided the nation with closure.

The Secular Origin of Bangladesh

When the Indian subcontinent decolonized in 1947, then East-Bengal became part of Pakistan due to the common Islamic majority of the two populations.  For twenty-four years, West Pakistan marginalized its eastern province both economically and politically, prompting a movement for regional autonomy that soon grew into a full-blown call for independence. In 1971, the country became independent from West Pakistan after a bloody civil war and declared secularism as a founding principle, enshrined in its new constitution.

The secular foundation of Bangladesh’s 1972 constitution did not reflect the role that Islam played in society. In fact, over 89% of Bangladesh’s population is Muslim. The country also has the fourth-largest Muslim population in the world, and the number is expected to grow from 14.86 million to 187.5 million by 2030. Rather, Bangladesh’s secular origin is at least partially linked to a desire to detach the new country from the Islamic identity that it shared with West Pakistan. The independence movement was driven by chants such as “Joy Bangla,” as Bangladesh’s founders sought to establish a new state based on ethnic Bengali nationalism instead of the common Islamic identity that bound the two Pakistans. Thus, Bangladesh’s secular foundation may not have been an effort to undermine the role of religion in society, but rather, to separate religion from politics.

In 1971, the Pakistan Army engaged in mass atrocities against Bangladesh’s civilian population. They were aided by their paramilitary wings and local collaborators, many of whom allegedly belonged to the Islamic party, Jama’at-e-Islami, which also opposed the idea of independent Bangladesh. The country’s first Awami League government fell in 1975, when its leader, Sheikh Mujib was killed along with many of his family members inside his own home. The country was governed by a number of military governments amidst severe political unrest and numerous coups. Since the transition to multiparty democracy in 1991, both the Awami League and BNP have practiced dynastic politics and held power in alternate terms.

Both AL and BNP enjoy massive followings based on their historical legacies. During electoral campaigns, AL plays up Sheikh Mujib’s leadership in the liberation war and generally projects a secular, pro-India image (India played a pivotal role in the Liberation War. A new government in exile was based in Calcutta, and the India Army had fought alongside civil combatants and soldiers who had defected from the Pakistan Army. In turn, BNP focuses on the numerous developmental initiatives that its first President, Ziaur Rahman, adopted in the late seventies and early eighties. BNP has also acquired a pro-Islam reputation; President Ziaur Rahman replaced the word secularism in Bangladesh’s constitution with “absolute trust and faith in almighty Allah,” as part of an effort to ally with Islamic countries, such as Saudi Arabia, and seek a position for Bangladesh in the Islamic world.

Recent events have intensified the existing conflict between these two parties. During the ICT trials, BNP stood by its coalition partner Jama’at and demanded fair trials, as well as the trying of alleged collaborators who were part of the ruling party alliance (to date, all charged war criminals belong to the BNP-Jama’at alliance). At the time, a massive protest erupted in Dhaka’s Shahbag Chottor, where citizens gathered to demand the death penalty for Kader Mollah, a JI-leader and charged war criminal whom the tribunal had sentenced to life imprisonment. The AL coopted the Shahbag movement and appeared to stand by its leaders, and a clear divide appeared within Bangladeshi political and intellectual circles, where AL supporters branded the BNP as anti-liberation due to their questioning of the war crimes trials and support for JI leaders, and BNP supporters branded the AL as anti-Islamic.

Religion and Party Preference in Bashabo (2009-2011)

The war crimes trials have intensified the role that Islam plays in the AL-BNP divide. However, Islamic parties have historically played a limited role in mainstream politics. The JI enjoys a small following and has previously formed coalition governments with both AL and BNP. But the party has a limited voter base. At least in urban centers, religion seems to have had little influence on party preference before 2013.

Between 2009 and 2011, I interviewed residents of Bashabo, an area in Dhaka city, regarding their perceptions of various parties and motivations for participation in politics. Bashabo lies on the outskirts of Dhaka city. It falls just east of the rail tracks that border the capital and lies adjacent to the city’s easternmost thana, Demra. The area drew large numbers of migrant workers. Many of the people I spoke with belonged to families where the primary earners held low-paying desk jobs or worked in the informal service sector – in the housing, garments, or urban transportation industries. Slum-dwellers huddled large families together into small, one-room tin huts. Even the better-off families cramped numerous members into small apartments. They shared bedrooms and converted living rooms into sleeping quarters.

Bashabo dwellers’ support for AL-BNP had little to do with religion, or even the parties’ programmatic agendas. Rather, they chose to support parties based on historical legacies and their perception of the parties’ ability to meeting their material needs. Selina was a 27 year-old housewife who had attended college, but given up her career after her wedding.[1] She shared a tiny two-bedroom apartment with her in-laws; her living room was crowded with oversized sofas and small cabinets that overflowed with kitchenware. Selina was raised as an avid BNP supporter. She said that BNP was a good party as the country had progressed under this party; prices of basic necessities (mostly food, such as rice, lentils, sugar, and gas) were also low under BNP governments. However, in reality, prices were not low under either AL or BNP governments, and in fact, surged during the post-BNP period, when an independent caretaker government remained in office for almost three years in order to restore a law and order crisis. Ahmed, a 42 year-old office worker also believed that AL’s performance far exceeded that of BNP. He said, “Prices were less, and people lived peacefully. AL was also the most responsive government.”

Both Selina and Ahmed had grown up supporting their party of choice. In fact, most people I spoke to vote for the political party that their parents had also supported.  Ayesha, a housewife in her forties, has voted in the last four national elections.[2] Although disenchanted with the various existing parties, she is eager to vote. During elections in 2008, she had gone to visit her parents in the northern district of Sylhet. She took an overnight train ride back to Dhaka so that she could vote the next day. Ayesha felt that most democratic governments did not do anything for the people. Their business pretty much halted during the current AL regime due to high levels of extortion by ruling party cadres. But she voted regularly and supported BNP because her father did. Many times during the interview, she said that voting was her responsibility and that she had learnt this from her family.

Neither Selina, nor Ayesha supported BNP for their alliance with the Jama’at-e-Islami. In fact, none of the sixty-five interviewees from the area supported the JI – they supported the AL, BNP, or AL-ally Jatiya Party. For Dhaka-city dwellers, religion and politics were separate. Nor were they supportive of the city-wide strikes (hartals) that plagued urban life. Most of them liked democracy – some supported army interventions when law and order spiraled out of control. But they did not like hartal, protests that involved city or nation-wide shutdown. A young professional who worked in a private firm said that protesting was of little use, as most protests are staged by the political parties in order to force out the opposition. In his eyes, when parties protested in Bangladesh, they almost never made demands on behalf of the people. “People protest because they will get some advantage out of it.” He added, “Money or connections. It is political.”  Like many others, he felt that the Jama’at-e-Islami used religion to amass power, but failed to uphold the true values of Islam.

One man I interviewed was well past his nineties. He was dismayed at the state of politics in Bangladesh and felt that the Jama’at’s religiosity was limited to prayer. “They do not live up to religious morals” he said. “Outside of their fake prayers they do immoral things.”

The new conflict: AL vs. BNP-Jama’at-Shibir

The war crimes trials have now created an unprecedented ideological divide among supporters of the two parties in urban Bangladesh. Over the past months, opposition activists from the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its coalition partner, the Jama’at-e-Islami, have clashed with the police and workers of the ruling Awami League (AL). The country is not unfamiliar with such political turmoil nor is such violence exclusive to the BNP-Jama’at alliance. While one party has ruled, its opponent party has frequently used hartals (strikes) as a weapon to delegitimize the ruling party and force them to step down.

On 5th January, Bangladesh held elections that were far from representative. In many areas, Awami League candidates won uncontested as the opposition boycotted polls and refused to go into elections without a neutral caretaker government. Very few people showed up at the polls; Al Jazeera reports that the media declared between 20 and 30 percent turnout and the election commission claimed official turnout at 40 percent in 139 constituencies.

The ongoing deadlock between the ruling AL and opposition BNP also has its roots in the war crimes trials. The AL has ardently pursued these trials as to live up to its electoral agenda of 2008. But many of the accused war criminals belong to the Jama’at-e-Islami (JI), a prominent Islamic party and a member of the opposition coalition.  The Jama’at-e-Islami and Shibir have embarked on a violent campaign to oppose the verdicts against their leaders.

The BNP opposition initially stood by its coalition partner and contested the trials’ flawed process – witnesses have disappeared midtrial or been coerced into silence and on 12th December 2013, Abdul Kader Mollah was hanged to death after a law was retroactively amended to retry the accused after an initial verdict granted him a life sentence. After Mollah’s death, violence escalated as activists of Jama’at and its student wing Shibir continued their violent campaign. The earlier verdict of life sentence for Mollah also sparked a mass protest, now popularly known as Shahbag movement, where thousands of Bangladeshis demanded justice for the war crimes and the banning of Islamic parties. Later this year, the Supreme Court removed Jama’at from politics and the election commission prevented them from registering for the election.

The war crimes trials and subsequent Shahbag movement have prompted the emergence of a new kind of politics. Both parties have used these events to create new and perceived ideological divides. Their very stand on the issues has forced them to take sides; those supporting the trials verdicts are now rallying behind the AL but being labelled as anti-Islam by their proponents, and those demanding due process are now rallying behind the BNP and being castigated as anti-liberation. The Awami League General Secretary has said that the BNP has now become the prime anti-liberation party.  Others have called the Awami League anti-Islam and fascist based on its crackdown on opposition activists and guiding philosophy of Bengali nationalism; the 1971 liberation movement was guided by the latter, which stood in opposition to the Islamic identity that bound the two Pakistans.

The Hefazat and a Silent Rural Transformation

It was this very political climate that the Hefazat-e-Islam emerges with its extreme vision of political Islam. The group’s radical demands are surprising and contradict Bangladesh’s successful pursuit of neoliberal growth and human development, and especially, the empowerment of its women through the efforts of various non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The Hefazat not only asked for the punishment of blasphemy with death, but also for educating boys and girls separately and banning the installment of sculptures across the country, among other things.

The Hefazat’s march drew participants from towns and villages across the country. Most of its members did not live in Dhaka; they came from a world that was far removed from the cosmopolitan setting that gave birth to the Shahbag movement. Religious organizations have indeed transformed rural Bangladesh. During a weekend trip to Bangladesh’s north-eastern district of Hobiganj two years ago, a friend snapped a picture of a curious road sign on the drive from Hobiganj town to Lawacchara, a national park in the heart of the district. The sign read, “Ma bonera porda manun,” which translates to “mothers and sisters, cover yourselves.” Local travelers on this route remain unfazed by such billboards. Hobiganj falls within the division of Sylhet, which has the reputation of being fairly conservative. However, the billboard illustrates one of the many ways in which religious organizations have reinforced existing religious norms, and perhaps, instilled new religious practices into rural society.

In Bangladesh, development organizations – for example, donor organizations, national NGOs, and United Nations agencies – and Islamic organizations have developed side-by-side since the late 1970s. It was during this period that Bangladesh’s governments adopted poverty reduction and rural development as crucial components of its development strategy.  Massive aid entered the country through Islamic sources via the petrodollar bonanza, and along with diaspora remittances, funded hospitals, clinics, educational foundations, orphanages, and madrassas or Islamic schools. President Ziaur Rahman strengthened alliances with Western donors. He secured a total of US$ 808.63 million in aid from the Muslim states and established a security relationship with china, but the most significant volume of aid came from the USA and other Western allies, including Japan.

But foreign funded Islamic institutions have won the hearts and minds of many rural Bangladeshis, as they provided essential services to rural Bangladeshis much earlier than NGOs funded by western donors. Geoff Wood reports that these Islamic sources of aid have avoided classic West-favored development sectors such as agriculture, infrastructure, and poverty reduction, and instead focused on health services and madrassa education. As the Western donors have recently turned their attention to the health and education sectors, these areas have become “contested terrain.” As government schools have failed to keep up with Bangladesh’s exponentially growing population, both NGO schools and madrassas have picked up the slack. State-funded madrassas have expanded their focus to accommodate a modern curriculum, but other foreign-funded madrassas focus strictly on Islamic studies.

Much like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, these organizations have entered rural society and provided much-needed services to an impoverished population. Unlike NGO-services at the time, which focused on longer-term goals of livelihoods and poverty eradication, the services provided by Islamic organizations were immediate. Wood writes that it is certainly not a coincidence that cultural and religious rejection of Bangladesh’s secular founding principles occurred alongside a heightened sense of relative deprivation and that arises from exclusionary growth that is assisted by urbanization, migration, and mobility. Indeed, in Bangladesh, poverty and weak institutions may have contributed to the attractiveness of service-providing religious institutions.

These Islamic organizations are also likely to have filled a vacuum that occurred in the weak institutional context of rural Bangladesh. Rapid growth uprooted older and traditional power structures and provided new actors with opportunities to assume leadership positions. Local religious leaders could have found new spaces to exercise their authority within this rapidly shifting social structure.

As local religious authorities grew in strength, they openly clashed with some of the larger national NGOs, such as BRAC. This conflict was fairly visible during the 1990s, when there was a sudden rise in crimes against women by militant Islamic groups and rural elites, including the local clergy. In 1993, several women were publicly stoned by a local clergy for adultery and one woman was burnt to death. The clergy openly condemned donor-funded and national NGOs, many of which implemented programs for rural women. In 1997, a human rights initiative by the development organization BRAC that involved fixing 700,000 posters throughout Bangladesh met with opposition from religious groups, where attacks included verbal condemnation, tearing down of posters, and organizing demonstrations against BRAC staff.

In the context of this transformation, the radical demands of the Hefazat-e-Islam may not as be as surprising as they first appear in a country that was founded a secular state and has later embraced neoliberal development. Indeed, images suggest that the group consists of young men, mostly madrassa students who attended the rally to condemn those who are desecrating their religion. As the Hefazat marched through the streets of Dhaka in early April, the young men chanted, “Nastik blogger-der fashi chai,” which translates to “We demand that the atheist bloggers be hanged.” (The online blogger network had initiated the Shahbag movement that called for war criminals to be hanged). If we imagine the circumstances through their eyes, the protestors were probably defending their religion as they know it, and their values as endorsed by the institution that educates and feeds them.

Faruk Wasif writes of the morning after the Hefazat march,

In the morning I saw four teenagers on the pavement across the street from Mohammadpur Central College. They wore the usual jobba-tupi, but no footwear. Those, they had lost in Motijheel, and could not buy another pair. Now, the four of them hold hands and walk the streets of an unknown city. They have figured out that this nation’s capital no longer belongs to them….

…They had come to Dhaka just like that, in hundreds of thousands, walking in lines, along with their hujoors. I don’t know how much they despise this city, but they have now certainly realized that those who own Dhaka despise them.

Wasif identifies a previously unnoticed dichotomy between urban and rural Bangladesh that the Hefazat’s march has now brought to the surface.

The intersection of the war crimes trials a growth in grassroots Islamic organizations may have created a turning point for Bangladeshi politics. The conflict that surrounds these trials has provided groups such as the Hefazat to emerge as new and visible actors in the political space. The AL and BNP now remain in a deadlock, but religious parties are no longer playing a role in mainstream politics after the ban on Jama’at. However, an emerging Islamic politics threatens Bangladesh’s secular politics, political stability, and women’s rights and freedoms. These grassroots religious organizations may provide Jama’at with a space for its operations. Jama’at has a history of violence in Bangladesh. The Hefazat’s demands resonate elements of Sharia Law. For example, the demands ask for a stop on the “free-mixing” of men and women. One of their leaders referred to women as tetul (tamarind) and argued that women should stay confined to their homes.

The Hefazat may not play a role in mainstream politics, but its followers are not strangers to the rural population. The young men who marched into Dhaka city are themselves members of rural communities. Should the group emerge as a potent political force, it will pose a challenge to Bangladesh’s secular politics, neoliberal development, and the cosmopolitanism that has grown out of rapid economic growth and urbanization.

Nayma Qayum is a PhD Candidate at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

With support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs.


[1] Not her real name.

[2] Not her real name.