In early 2017, a tussle around a statue of a woman personifying justice became a proxy for the longstanding tensions between Islamist and secular groups in Bangladesh. The sculpture, erected in front of the Supreme Court Complex in capital Dhaka, triggered a series of protests spearheaded by Hefazat-e-Islam, a hardline Islamist group based in Chittagong. Islamist groups deem such statues to be anti-Islamic, often associating them with idol worship – a strictly forbidden practice in Islam.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina subsequently signaled support for the statue’s removal from the Supreme Court premises. Despite the outcry from secular groups, the authorities quietly relocated the statue to the annex building of the Supreme Court, away from the public eye. The ruling Awami League – an in-principle secular political party – is not new to the religious groups’ threats of escalating protests. In hindsight, this may look like a minor political compromise for a government in a Muslim-majority state. However, three years on, agitations over another sculpture has turned out to be Awami League’s deja vu moment. For Hasina, the ball this time has rather hit too close to home.
The government had sanctioned several projects to erect sculptures of the country’s founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 2018. For Hasina, the daughter of Rahman, the emotional value of such projects far surpassed the necessity of having a statue in the Supreme Court premises. Despite the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the regime was busy celebrating “Mujib Year” – the centenary of the founder’s birth. Disregarding the risks related to the spread of the virus, fireworks and other celebratory gatherings continued in Dhaka.
However, agitations over the sculpture issue were renewed in November, when popular leaders from the hardline Hefazat-e-Islam Bangladesh (HIB) and Islami Andolan Bangladesh (IAB) demanded the removal of a statue of Rahman under construction in Dhaka’s Dholaipar area. The demands intensified in the succeeding religious gatherings by HIB and other Islamist groups. In a November 13 rally, IAB leader Syed Fazlul Karim reportedly threatened to “dismantle the statue and throw it in the Buriganga river” if the installation works were not stopped. On December 4, another under construction sculpture of Rahman was vandalized in Rajshahi division.
While the agitations in Dhaka were quickly thwarted by the police, the ensuing chain of events were a major embarrassment for the government, given that groups like Hefazat have long been courted by the Awami League regime. Sedition charges were eventually brought against several HIB and IAB leaders over public comments they had made on the issue, which has subdued the agitation. The developments nevertheless raise tough questions about the Awami League’s approach to dealing with hardline Islamists. Years of appeasement and concessions toward Hefazat and similar groups have only emboldened hardliners, who see such policy shifts as empowering and mobilizing changes in the social sphere while not being in the power.
Hefazat-e-Islam rose to public consciousness in May 2013, staging mass protests and sit-ins in Dhaka with a 13-point charter that included implementing the death penalty for blaspheming Islam or the prophet. The hardline group, which claims to be apolitical, also advocates for the separation of boys and girls in public schools, declaring Qadianis as non-Muslims, and other stringent Islamic laws. Following the police raid at a HIB rally in 2013 in which several students from a madrasa (Islamic school) were killed, the Awami League was forced to negotiate with the group in order to deter further unrest.
To win over HIB, three bloggers were arrested in 2013 for allegedly posting blasphemous content on social media and blogs. The move came after hardline Muslim groups had submitted a list of 84 bloggers to a committee formed by the home ministry, accusing them of atheism and blasphemy. In the same year, the government amended the controversial Information and Communication Technology Act and a number of bloggers were charged for hurting religious sentiments. The law was replaced in 2018 with a more stringent version, named the “Digital Security Act,” which has been used to arrest bloggers, journalists, and civil society activists. The DSA has even been exploited to arrest a number of Sufi and folklore singers for allegedly hurting Islamic sentiments.
In the years between 2013 to 2016, when secular bloggers were killed by militant groups, the regime resorted to blaming the victims for their offensive writings. In 2017, the government responded to HIB’s demand by removing 17 popular poems and stories by non-Muslim writers as the group accused such writings of promoting secularism. In 2018, ahead of that year’s general elections, the government decided to recognize the Dawra-e-Hadith, a top Qawmi madrasa degree, as the equivalent of a Master’s degree, despite its considerable differences with the mainstream curriculum. Understandably, the religious groups considered such appeasement policies as empowering, and have since continued to push their agendas to further Islamize the society and public sphere.
The ruling party is no stranger to the threats posed by Islamist militancy; neither is it alien to the demonstrable street power of Hefazat-e-Islam. Conceivably the current regime is trying to tame extremist groups by offering ideological concessions while “winning over hearts and minds.” However, concessions to even symbolic demands have over the years only encouraged groups like Hefazat that are vying to play a greater role in the policy space. The 2018 general election in Bangladesh was smeared with allegations of irregularities, with the main opposition BNP practically disappearing from the political landscape afterwards. Without the presence of a powerful opposition – fundamentally and systematically weakened after the 2014 general elections – there remains a substantial power vacuum with no liberal contenders in sight. The BNP’s hope for a political homecoming are unclear, as the party’s head Khaleda Zia remains in jail on corruption charges while her son lives in exile in London. The country is silently going through an unfathomable political crisis that has been overshadowed by the narrative of its economic miracle.
For the West, Bangladesh has become everyone’s economic darling with its per capita GDP recently surpassing that of neighboring India. No doubt, political stability has facilitated Bangladesh’s consistent GDP growth of 6 percent for almost a decade. However, unequal wealth distribution, public grievances over alleged irregularities, and the overall law and order situation continues to fuel discontent. Hefazat has maintained its status as a non-political advocacy group while moderate Islamist parties have remained largely alienated from the political landscape.
The appeasement policies of the Awami League government have set a precedent for other political parties to undermine secular values for electoral benefit. Historically, such approach has proved to be unsustainable in Pakistan, Syria, and Iraq, to name a few examples. The ensuing power vacuum is bound to be filled by hardline Islamist groups that are ideologically driven by the goal to replace secular democracy with theocracy. As HIB continues to gain a foothold, it is also paving the way for other Islamist groups to achieve political success. For the Awami League – a traditionally liberal, center-left party – priorities need to change for the sake of Bangladesh’s secular principles, the very ideology the party was meant to protect.
Manas Nag is currently working for a global security assistance provider company based in Singapore as a security specialist, Asia Pacific (APAC). He holds a Master of Science degree in International Political Economy from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.