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Rioting and rubble: What's behind the turbulent times in Bangladesh?

Tens of thousands of Islamists rampaged through Bangladesh's capital today, countering even larger crowds that turned out earlier this year to oust conservative forms of Islam from Bangladeshi politics.

By Staff writer / May 5, 2013

Bangladeshi protesters throw stones at policemen during a protest in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Sunday. Police in Bangladesh's capital fired rubber bullets to disperse Islamic activists during a protest to demand that the government enact an anti-blasphemy law.

Ashraful Alam Tito/AP

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Islamists rampaged in the streets of Bangladesh’s capital today, wielding sticks, stones, and crude explosives to protest the government’s refusal to institute an anti-blasphemy law.

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Managing Editor, Monitor Frontier Markets

Ben Arnoldy is managing editor for Monitor Frontier Markets. He has served as the Monitor's bureau chief in India and Northern California. 

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The street violence is the latest pushback by some Islamists against a secularist mass movement that began earlier this year and threatens to sideline conservative forms of political Islam in Bangladesh.

Against this dramatic fight for the political and religious soul of the nation, the foundations of Bangladesh’s recent economic successes are suddenly facing international scrutiny. More than 700 people have died in the past half year in two horrific garment factory disasters, both caused by the lax regulation and oversight that helped fuel Bangladesh’s rapid rise as a garment exporter.

For decades, Bangladesh was regarded internationally as a quiet basket case, then as a quiet turnaround story on the fringes of the Muslim world. But the world is starting to listen more to the noises coming out of Bangladesh over the past six months. A LexisNexis search reveals that “major newspapers” in the company’s archives have increased mention of the country during this time by 25 percent over the previous six months, and 31 percent over the same time period a year prior.

Some reasons for Bangladesh's ferment include the country's women-driven economic growth and a younger generation's secular view on the country's war for independence. At the moment, upcoming elections due to be held by January are also stirring the pot. 

The country is currently headed by a center-left party with a secularist bent known as the Bangladesh Awami League. The opposition is led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), a center-right party that emphasizes Islamic identity. The recent events grabbing global headlines have been amplified within Bangladesh by the competing factions.

Bangladesh’s political turbulence began in February with street protests over a court decision drawing hundreds of thousands. A war crimes tribunal handed a life sentence to a leader of the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party for crimes he committed during Bangladesh’s war of independence from Pakistan. Crowds that gathered to call for the man to be put to death touched off something much bigger, the Monitor reported at the time:

This soon galvanized a vibrant protest movement against the ongoing influence of conservative, politicized Islam in one of the world's most populous Muslim nations. 

“The current movement is aimed very explicitly at the Jamaat's role in 1971,” says Zafar Sobhan, editor of the Dhaka Tribune. But “it was clear that the future that the youths protesting ... envision is one without Islamist politics, returning to Bangladesh's secular roots, and recognition that religion-based politics had poisoned the society."

The secularist spirit of what would become known as the Shahbag movement this spring seemed to redound to the ruling party’s benefit and posed a challenge to the opposition BNP and fringe Islamists further to the right.

At first, Jamaat-e-Islami supporters rioted. Then, a new radical religious party named Hifazat-e-Islam gained prominence as it pushed back against the Shahbag movement and the atheist bloggers at its forefront. The group demanded the government implement 13 demands, including an anti-blasphemy law and a ban on men and women mixing freely. The secular government did not oblige. Tens of thousands of Hifazat-e-Islam supporters blocked Dhaka’s roads today and battled with police.

The ruling Awami League also faces criticism for presiding over the two garment factory disasters and its ties to the owner of the building that collapsed last month. The New York Times describes how Sohel Rana capitalized on his past as a minor official in the Awami League’s student wing to become a wealthy industrialist above the law and “the most hated Bangladeshi.” 

The loose regulation and attendant catastrophes have worried Western clothing companies contracting labor there about the risk to their reputations. Disney announced last week that it will not source apparel from the South Asian nation. If others followed suit, rather than staying and stepping up oversight, the upward mobility of Bangladesh – and the revolutionary gains made by its women in particular – could be jeopardized. 

For a brief moment a week ago, all the political turmoil and uncertainty seemed to be set aside. The ultimately failed effort to rescue a survivor named Shahinur from the rubble of Mr. Rana’s building had transfixed the nation and brought people together, reported Saad Hammadi for the Monitor:

Bangladesh is passing through one of its gloomiest national moments. Civilians extending help in the rescue effort were anxiously looking forward to Shahinur’s rescue, as were those away from the site, who remained glued to television and mobile phones.…

For now, [political] tensions have receded. Bangladeshis from all walks of life, besides extending their support to the rescue efforts, are largely united in calling for the maximum punishment for the owner of the building and the factory owners – for what many call a “mass murder.”

A week later, the death toll from the building collapse now stands at 620 dead, and the streets are filling again with partisans fighting to define this young nation’s future.

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