A protest that has at times swelled into the hundreds of thousands entered its ninth day today in Bangladesh’s capital, touched off by the outcome of a war crimes trial that has awoken an astonishing struggle over this country's identity and the role that religion plays in its fractious politics.
“God is Great,” cried out Abdul Qader Mollah, as he was sentenced to life behind bars on Feb. 5 in Bangladesh’s controversial war crimes tribunal. Known as the "butcher of Mirpur," Mr. Mollah was convicted of heinous crimes committed in 1971 during the country’s blood-soaked independence struggle from Pakistan. He has also been one of the leaders of the largest Islamist party here, the Jamaat-e-Islami.
After the sentencing, protesters gathered in downtown Dhaka, crying foul that Mollah had not received the death sentence. 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.
“They don't want to see the Jamaati-style Islamism either gain further currency in the society or more power politically,” he says.
Crowds continued to grow all week after the verdict. Soon a junction previously known simply as Shahbagh had become "Shahbagh Square," in reference to Tahrir. The calls of the protest morphed from macabre lynched effigies to calls for Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) to be banned and associated businesses boycotted.
“Us pushing for the death sentence is the tip of the iceberg; this is a way to begin to unravel religion from politics,” says founding protester and blogger Asif Moihuddin, who was recently stabbed by Islamist thugs because of the content of his blog.
The 1971 independence struggle pitted indigenous Bengali identity against those wishing to remain a part of Pakistan, a country founded with an Islamic identity.
JI represents two things in Bangladesh, says Mr. Sobhan. “The first is their Islamist political philosophy. The second is their role, both as a party and individually, as collaborators with the Pakistan Army in 1971,” and as such, the current protests have drawn on a potent secular patriotism.
The protests “are not an antireligious movement; we are not against Islam,” says Mr. Moihuddin. “We are against intimidation in the name of Islam and religion interfering in politics.”
For their part, the JI have called the protests “fascist in nature,” in a recent press release.
"Of late we have learnt that the demonstrators are planning to attack commercial and philanthropic organizations having distant relationships with Jamaat,” says JI spokesman Abdur Razzaq. He also worries that "the judges of the tribunal will be intimidated" by the protest.
As for calls to disband his party, Mr. Razzaq sees politics at play: "This idea was first floated by a partner of the ruling coalition with communist/socialist leanings."
But there are some indications that the protesters are attempting to avoid co-option from political parties. Last Wednesday, a ruling party politician was pelted with bottles when he attempted to address the crowd. “I don't want the politicians here, they are poison,” says protester Sadab Hossein.
“This verdict gave us an opportunity to hold both the government and JI accountable to the people on an issue we can assemble round,” says Moihuddin. “If we don’t stop them now, who’s to say where it ends.”
He insists he will continue to protest at Shahbagh, despite receiving death threats.
There are already indications that the ongoing disruption could touch off violence. Counter-riots from JI's student wing, known as Shibir, have broken out, with live ammunition, Molotov cocktails, and running battles with police in other parts of the city.