If recent events were billed as a show of strength between Islamist and secular forces in Bangladesh, the showdown fizzled. The Islamist group Hefazat-e-Islam, led by the aging cleric Ahmad Shafi, was able to draw hundreds of thousands of supporters to Motijheel during their long march program, dwarfing the counter-rallies organised on that day by opponents. The general strike and blockade called by the latter failed to stem the flow of white-robed men marching on Motijheel.
On the one hand, the relatively peaceful end to the Hefazat “long march” drew a sigh of relief from jittery Dhakaites. But, on the other, the success of the march, and the strength of the following programmes, clearly signalled a realignment of political forces in Bangladesh – one that seemed impossible just a short while ago, with Shahbagh at its peak. The sight of prominent leaders of the BNP and the Jatiya Party – an ally of AL – at the Hefazat rally was testimony to the new polarisation that appears to have taken place in the country.
The Shahbagh rallies of February-March, led by mostly left-leaning secular, middle class youth, painted a picture of a Bangladesh divided between supporters of the Jamaat, in the dock for 1971 war crimes and those against Jamaat. But almost unnoticed, the lines have been redrawn. The Hefazat grand rally clearly indicates a secular-Islamist polarisation and even hints at an urban-rural divide reminiscent of the aftermath of the Tahrir Square uprising in Egypt.
Hefazat-e-Islam, led by clerics from the Qaumi Madrassas, is no ally of the Jamaat. Their ideological enmity dates back almost a century to the time Hussein Ahmad Madani, Ahmad Shafi’s teacher, denounced Abul A’la Maududi, the spiritual founder of Jamaat-e-Islami.
The fact that Hefazat has joined the fray is a reflection of the concern felt by many conservative Muslims that the Islamic culture and way of life is under attack.
It is just what the government didn’t want. Desperate to avoid a confrontation with the clerics, who still wield influence in the countryside, the government arrested several “atheist” bloggers. The moves failed to appease Hefazat leaders who dismissed them.
The organisers of the Shahbagh Mancha positioned themselves squarely against the Hefazat, and Islamist parties as a whole, by calling for a blockade to stop the Qaumi supporters from entering the city, and speaking out against them in the time since. The tactics did not succeed and may have hurt the Shahbagh youths’ free speech credentials, an action they have yet to remedy. It also reinforced the impression that the political debate is no longer “pro-liberation” and “anti-liberation” but secularist versus Islamist.
Hefazat’s demands may conflict with liberal values, but in the villages, such views are common. With elections around the corner, it may become increasingly difficult for political parties to ignore such sentiments.
Syed Zain Al-Mahmood is online and digital editor, Dhaka Tribune