Islamists pose a challenge to Bangladesh's secularism

Conceding to the Islamist demand for stopping the installation of the Mujib statue at Dholaipar will be a huge political defeat for the Awami League, especially during the birth centenary of the founding father and a year before the Golden Jubilee of Bangladesh's independence, writes Subir Bhaumik for South Asia Monitor

Subir Bhaumik Nov 19, 2020

An agitation by hardline Islamist groups in Bangladesh against the installation of a statue of the country's founding father, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, has put the ruling Awami League in a bind. The statue is supposed to be installed at Dholaipar in the southern suburbs of capital Dhaka.

The agitation, hot on the heels of the countrywide anti-France protest rallies by Hifazat-e-Islam, an Islamist advocacy group of madrassa teachers and students, points to a renewed Islamist push to pressurize the ruling Awani League to concede demands like a blasphemy law that Bangladesh does not have. 

It is indeed a tragic irony that this Islamist push seems to be peaking in the Mujib centenary year and a year before Bangladesh celebrates the Golden Jubilee of its hard-earned independence from Islamist Pakistan, a struggle anchored on secular, linguistic Bengali nationalism.

Islamists groups to the fore 

Though police have so far controlled the agitation, it has seriously embarrassed the Awami League, especially because some of the Islamist groups now involved in the agitation have been courted by the ruling party as a counter-weight against Jamaat-e-Islami.

The Jamaat supported the cause of 'united Pakistan' and opposed the war of independence, its activists joining Pakistani troops in perpetrating torture, murder, and rape on a large scale against pro-liberation elements and religious minorities. 

Since democracy returned to Bangladesh in 1990, the Jamaat has been an ally of Awami League's principal opposition, Bangladesh National Party (BNP). 

The Awami League has courted Islamist groups like the Islamiand Khilafat-e-Majlish, even signing an MOU with the latter for creating a political alliance against the BNP-Jamaat coalition in Jan 2006.  After facing severe criticism within the party from the rank and file and leaders who adhere to secular values, Sheikh Hasina scrapped the alliance saying it was a “temporary move to combat some communal forces.”

Hasina's address on their platform before the 2019 parliament elections resurrected speculation of a covert link between this group and the ruling party.

The Hifazat, which wants woman denied higher education (nothing beyond Class 4), spearheaded the recent protest rallies outside the French embassy in Dhaka against French President Emmanuel Macron’s reported remarks that “Islam is a religion that is in crisis today all over the world.”

Pandering to soft Islam

Now the ruling party's approach to radical Islamists has emboldened them to dare challenge even the installation of the Mujib statue at Dholaipar. Pandering to soft Islam has only emboldened hardline Islamists to pursue their agenda.

Some Awami League leaders like Deputy Education Minister Mohibul Hasan Chowdhury of Chittagong have warned the Islamists to desist from “creating chaos in the country or bargain for broken necks.” 

But the ruling party is yet to formally come out with its stand on the Mujib statue issue. The Islamist groups insist that the Awami leadership - surely a section of it- have promised them that no law in the country would be passed or enforced if it contradicted the Shariat. 

Many within the party, who led the war of independence, feel short-sighted tactical bonhomie towards Islamist radicals just to balance off the Jamaat have led to an “influx of snakes” which could undermine the secular ethos of the party.

That Islamist radicalism has a trans-Bengal dimension is evident from the protests by a fringe Muslim group in West Bengal which in 2017 removed a bust of Bangabandhu from a hostel in Maulana Azad College in Kolkata hostel. The protests started just before Sheikh Hasina's India visit that year.

Terming the statue "unethical and anti-Islamic," the All Bengal Minority Youth Federation (ABMYF) had opposed the statue at the government-run Baker Hostel. The group had said that the hostel is meant for Muslim students and since it has a mosque on its premises, such a statue could not be allowed to vitiate an "Islamic atmosphere."

The 110-year-old hostel, located in central Kolkata was home to the great leader between 1945 and 1946 when he was a student at the erstwhile Islamia College in Kolkata. 

"We are religious people. It is our free right to follow our religion as per the Indian Constitution. We cannot read namaz and also install statues at the same place. It is defiling to our religion," Md. Quamruzzaman, general secretary of the minority body, had claimed at that time.

"No Muslim institutions have statues inside. Aligarh Muslim University was built by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan but his statue was never installed at the university," he argued.

Two months after the Islamist outcry in Calcutta, their cousins in Bangladesh started a massive protest, demanding the dismantling of the statue of a Greek goddess from the premises of the country's Supreme Court complex in Dhaka. 

The sculpture of Themis - the goddess of justice - wearing a sari was less than six months old, but Islamist groups demanded its removal, claiming  it hurt the religious sentiments of Muslims.

Prime Minister Hasina had agreed to its removal, but secular groups opposed it.

Statues of Bangladesh's tallest leader have been installed before (in Raojan, Chittagong) or are in the process of being erected (a 100-feet statue at Chaudanga sculpted by Mrinal Haque).

Political defeat for Awami League

Conceding to the Islamist demand for stopping the installation of the Mujib statue at Dholaipar will be a huge political defeat for the Awami League, especially during the birth centenary of the founding father and a year before the Golden Jubilee of Bangladesh's independence. It will also send a very wrong message to the party's rank and file and undermine the Awami League's avowed politics of secularism.

A spokesman for the agitation, Emir of Islamic Andolan Rezaul Islam Karim has said "a statue is unacceptable in Islam." 

"For us, a statue is a statue, we are not bothered if some see it as a work of sculpture," he had told the BBC. 

This agitation coincides with a death threat issued against Bangladesh's cricket hero Shakib Al Hassan for 'inaugurating "a Kali Puja" in Kolkata.

But the organizers of the Kali Puja denied Shakib inaugurated the Puja and said he "only lighted the lamp" along with West Bengal minister Firhad Hakim and an official from the Bangladesh Deputy High Commission.

Awami League general secretary Obaidul Quader has said the Dholaipar statue issue is being discussed in detail by the party. But the feeling in the party rank and file is that the Islamists cannot be allowed to go too far. But will the leadership bite the bullet?

(The writer is a strategic analyst and editorial director at Views expressed are personal)


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