Bangladesh’s Islamist Challenge Intensifies

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Bangladesh’s Islamist Challenge Intensifies

The violent anti-Modi protests were just the latest sign that the government’s outreach to Islamist groups has backfired.

Bangladesh’s Islamist Challenge Intensifies

Two factions of protestors clash after Friday prayers at Baitul Mokarram mosque in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Friday, March 26, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo/Mahmud Hossain Opu

Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has promised the “strongest possible action” against Islamist radicals responsible for violent protests over Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the country.

Fourteen supporters of the radical Hefazat-e-Islam group were killed in police shootings across the country as Hasina’s government stood by its decision to invite Modi as guest of honor for celebrations of the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh’s independence on March 26.

“We invited the Indian prime minister to express our gratitude to Indian people for their unstinted support during the 1971 Liberation War,” Hasina told the media.

She warned Hefazat radicals would face “dire consequences” if they continued their violence over Modi’s visit.

The protesters accuse Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party of anti-Muslim policies in India, ranging from a controversial citizenship law that excludes Muslim migrants to alleged incitement of violence against Indian Muslims by BJP politicians.

The Hefazat controls the thousands of Qaumi Madrassas (Islamic schools) in the country and government spokespeople have accused Hefazat leaders of mobilizing them in their vicious anti-Modi campaign.

“Your students go to India’s Deoband seminary for higher religious studies. Has India denied them visas? So why are you making such an issue out of Modi’s visit? India is our trusted friend,” said Hasina in a press conference this week.

Critics have denounced the police’s use of rubber bullets, tear gas, and even live ammunition to break up the anti-Modi protests. The government, however, scoffed at allegations of police overkill in countering the protests and justified the dozens of arrests of Hefazat leaders and activists.

“For those who lament the Hefazat arrests, let this be known: that they have given an open call to topple the Hasina government by force and violence. So should we offer them Bengali sweets and just step down?” said Awami League youth leader Sufi Farooq.

He said other Islamist opposition parties have backed this call.

Farooq said Hefazat supporters are targeting secular institutions like the Music Academy in the Brahmanbaria district, home of classical music legend Allaudin Khan, which was set ablaze along with an old public library in the area.

“The Islamist radicals, be the pro-Pakistan Jamaat-e-Islami or the Hefazat or Khelafat, are determined to create a Taliban type Islamic state, which goes against the secular values of our 1971 Liberation War. We will not allow our country to become Pakistan. We are moderate Muslims and our state is committed to protect our minorities,” said former junior Information and Telecom Minister Tarana Halim.

Stressing the importance of both Bengali identity and Islam in Bangladesh, Halim said: “We are now observing this week both the Bengali New Year and Holy Ramadan with equal enthusiasm. We are a Bengali nation with equal place for all religions and our tribal brothers of Chittagong Hill Tracts.”

Barrister Tureen Afroz was lead prosecutor in the pointed to the 1971 War Crimes Trials, designed to punish local Islamists who joined the Pakistan Army in perpetrating “unspeakable atrocities” during the Liberation War.

“The charges against these Islamist radicals range from rape, murder and forcible conversion of non-Muslims. In today’s Bangladesh, forcible conversion to Islam is an offense,” Afroz said. “For those in the West who criticize our police crackdown, let me say these are not peaceful protesters and if Guantanamo Bay waterboardings of Arab and Afghan jihadis are acceptable, our police crackdown should not raise hackles.”

Hefazat followers have also attacked mosques and forced devotees to join their violent protests aimed at toppling the Hasina government, she said.

The upsurge in radicalism comes at a time when Hasina is basking in global applause for the country’s economic and human development, which is symbolized by the U.N. upgrading Bangladesh from “Least Developed Country” to “Developing Nation.”

Bangladesh and Indian intelligence reports indicate a surge in the Hefazat’s cadre base, drawn essentially from Qaumi madrassas it controls. The use of weapons during the recent violence suggests the group may resort to increasing armed action in the future.

Following some intelligence inputs that Hefazat activists might launch armed attacks on police stations in the next stage of their movement, machine guns have been placed in police pickets in key urban locations across the country.

The ruling Awami League, which has restrained its activists from hitting the streets to confront the Hefazat, has unleashed a furious social media campaign to “expose” and discredit the Islamist group.

Some of these social media postings blame Hefazat’s anti-Modi violence on “secret Pakistani funding.” Others focus on Hefazat leader Mamunul Huq being caught with a massage girl from a resort, whom he tried to project as his second wife.

A Facebook post by Awami Women League leader Ayesha Zaman Shimu purports to show pictures of Islamist clergymen in Hefazat-controlled madrassas in acts of child sex abuse.

“Is this the Islam you want us to practice?” asked Shimu.

Modi’s visit sparked the latest in a line of Hefazat-organized violent public protests since the Awami League won a landslide victory in the 2018 elections, which were marred by violence and allegations of vote rigging.

The first wave of the protests was directed against the installation of statues of the country’s founder, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, in his birth centenary year. Hasina is Rahman’s daughter.

Then came the Hefazat encirclement of the French embassy in Dhaka, where they burned effigies of President Emmanuel Macron to protest the French government’s refusal to ban caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad after the beheadings in France. Their street protests raged alongside a furious social media campaign by anti-India and anti-Awami League netizens against Indian vaccines.

“Elements in Bangladesh’s pro-Western civil society and activists from the country’s Islamist eco-system appear to be on same page on the regime change and anti-Indian agenda,” said Awami Women League leader Ayesha Zaman Shimu.

Hefazat leaders accuse Hasina of being “propped up by India.”

“How can she invite Modi who has butchered thousands of Muslims in his home state Gujarat? Why should she go for statues and not construct minarets in memory of her father Mujibur Rahman?” said Hefazat supremo Junaid Babunagari.

“Bangladesh must strictly follow the tenets of Islam in letter and spirit,” he told journalists. “Statues are anti-Islam, no matter whose it is.”

Babunagari wants Hasina to declare Ahmadiyyas as non-Muslims, stop the activities of Hindu sects like ISKCON in Bangladesh, stop the installation of statues, and not organize visits of leaders from India’s ruling Hindu nationalist BJP to Bangladesh.

Bangladesh’s Islamist political eco-system ranges from the opposition and rabidly pro-Pakistan Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Jamaat-e- Islami to the openly active Islamist radical groups like Hefazat-e-Islam and Khilafat-e-Majlis to the underground jihadi terror groups like Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and Ansarullah Bangla.

“The Hefazat now has come to occupy a central position in this ecosystem, which is sworn to create an Islamist Bangladesh by undermining the secularist values of the 1971 Liberation War,” said Bangladesh watcher Sukhoranjan Dasgupta, author of “Midnight Massacre” on the 1975 military coup in the country. “The Awami League’s tactical mistake of trying to cultivate the Hefazat to counter the pro-Pakistan Jamaat-e-Islami ahead of the 2019 parliament has helped the clergy-driven Islamist group to bounce back as a political force.”

But after the Modi visit violence, Hasina has made it clear the Hefazat will be crushed if it tried to instigate mob violence.

Her government has also hit at the BJP, which blamed Bangladesh for being a source of illegal migration into India during the election campaign in the border states of West Bengal and Assam.

“These allegations are baseless,” Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen said after Indian Home Minister Amit Shah pointed to illegal migration from Bangladesh as a huge problem in bordering Indian states.

“If India wants a friendly Bangladesh, such baseless tirades must stop, if even they fetch the BJP some votes,” said Dasgupta.