Our history, Hefazat, and the Bangladeshi identity
I come from a family where faith is integral -- it is perceived as a means to unite and strengthen a sense of community. Islam has thus played a positive role in shaping the person I am today. Likewise, I come from a family which celebrates the diversity of Bengali culture. I have hardly seen my grandmother miss her prayers -- similarly, the same lady continues to remain in awe of Tagore and her favourite Satyajit Ray films.
Bengali culture and Islam are not natural adversaries -- or at least, this is what I knew to be true. Today, so-called religious groups, masquerading their socio-political ambitions under the aegis of Islam, have mobilized a societal rift about our collective identity -- both as Muslims and Bengalis. The future of Hefazat-e-Islam and its allies is, therefore, attached to the social fabric and the very identity of Bangladesh -- and I for one, have my apprehensions.
My relationship with faith and family is the story of most Bangladeshi households. Across varying income groups, families, and generations, we have, with time and practice, discovered our version of Islam. Yet it seems that Bangladesh, branded constitutionally secular, is at odds with itself over matters which seem trivial in today’s world -- statues and sculptures have occupied national headlines at a time when a pandemic is in motion, gender-based violence widespread, and democracy, systematically sidelined.
Islam stands for social justice, altruism, and the protection of human rights -- but we in Bangladesh increasingly reserve Islam only to rile up political bases and score cheap popularity points. Therefore, the inherent presence of Islam in our society is without a shadow of doubt, a force for good -- but the usage of faith to provoke constitutional, social, and cultural fractures, is indeed a cause of immense discomfort.
How did we get here?
The constitution signed into law by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1972 institutionalized secularism as a fundamental principle of the newly independent country. But remnants of the Muslim League philosophy did not disappear with the departure of Pakistan -- the idea of Pakistan, which Bengalis supported during the 1947 partition, focused on the development of a nation-state based on religious principles.
But leading up to 1971, a clear realization was reached, at least amongst the majority of East Pakistanis, that the rich and tolerant nature of Islam in Bengal, was different to what was practiced politically by the West Pakistani generals.
Now this did not mean that Islam lacked presence in Bengali politics -- far from it. Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani used his brand of Islamic socialism as a focal point to raise awareness about the systematic abuse of political, social, economic, and cultural rights committed against East Pakistanis.
As such, Bengali language, culture, literature, and what it represented cumulatively, became a principal theme in the sustained demands for emancipation. Bangladesh was born a sovereign, secular, socialist, and democratic state -- where your faith was your own and the state had no mandate to impose. The idea was and till today, remains beautiful.
Following the assassination of Bangabandhu, statutory efforts were made to transition a People’s Republic to the Islamic Republic of Bangladesh. Generals Zia and Ershad did not think twice before leveraging anti-Awami League forces to form their respective political parties. Perhaps the most accurate description to define their respective electoral bases is through the Bengali phrase jogakhichuri -- both parties included freedom fighters, liberals, progressive thinkers, and yes, hard-line right wing elements.
This made for an unsustainable political ideology -- the effects of which we see today. But more importantly, both the generals paved the way for forces whose primary ideology stemmed from religion, to be active players in our national story -- mandating a state religion in a constitutionally secular country remains the greatest example of opportunistic political posturing. And Ershad in particular, was a master in this regard.
Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina followed suit -- using Jamaat-e-Islam as leverage to diminish one another, while in other cases, allying with them to win in the polls. But something changed in 2013 following the trial of the top tier of the Jamaat leadership. Khaleda Zia infamously backed the Hefazat-e-Islam, an emerging force stationed in Southern Bangladesh and heavily dependent on the Qawmi Madrasah system, in their demands to punish atheist bloggers -- the rest is history.
As destiny would have it, the BNP today is a second tier force compared to Hefazat. In 2013, Hefazat gave a list of 13 demands to the government, of which several were accepted. Little did Mrs Zia know or recognize, that the space her party occupied in Bangladeshi politics -- that of being the primary organized group to formulate dissent -- would be taken over by the Hefazat-e-Islam.
Where we are now
Today, Hefazat remains in a more powerful position to demand actionable change than a party which governed Bangladesh across four terms in government -- the relative independence of the Qawmi Madrasah system from state education mandates is perhaps a living embodiment of how Bangladesh has compromised its own national principles.
The following is what I fundamentally believe to be true: The systematic eradication of the BNP as a political force over the past decade and the resulting political vacuum has created room for forces such as Hefazat to play an ever-growing role in influencing the political trajectory of the country. The seeds sown by the likes of generals Zia and Ershad and the dillydallying with Islamic parties on part of Mrs Zia and Prime Minister Hasina over the years, has created ample opportunities for forces, which on paper seem to be against the very spirit of what Bangladesh represents, to prosper and demand concessions regularly.
We have seen the Awami League cozy up to Hefazat leaders over the past decade -- this needs no validation. Some have argued that this was a masterstroke from Sheikh Hasina to control Hefazat -- but with each passing day, greater compromise is demanded and, in some cases, delivered. The removal of Lady Justice from the Supreme Court premises remains a classic example.
In summary, Bangladesh has a rich Islamic history -- but do not for once put the legacy of Islam in Bengal in congruence with the demands of Hefazat-e-Islam. Certain groups say that they are trying to protect the will of God on earth -- but in doing so, they forget that the sovereignty and protection of Islam lies with God and God only. Hefazat-e-Islam and its allies are playing plain politics -- and while I disagree with their demands, they have a democratic right to project them.
The challenge for mainstream political actors, such as the Awami League and the BNP, is to decide how they use democratic means to engage with these forces -- it is a matter of whether we accede to a philosophy of propaganda, versus whether the country protects its identity. Let there be no doubt -- the manner in which our two major parties conducted themselves over the past 30 years is a fundamental reason in explaining the rise of forces such as Hefazat.
From the point of privilege that I have, it is easy to say that we must shun the philosophy portrayed by groups like these -- yet, without education, awareness, and democratic engagement, it is also true that Hefazat-e-Islam has the mileage to convince a majority of Bangladeshis that they are in the right. And the buck will not stop with statues and sculptures -- this is certain.
Mir Aftabuddin Ahmed is a Toronto-based banking professional. He can be reached at [email protected]