Bangladeshis protest at Shahbagh square in Dhaka, demanding the death penalty for Jamaat Leader Abdul Qadar Mollah and other leaders who were involved in war crimes during Bangladesh’s War of Liberation in 1971. The war tribunal set by Sheikh Hasina government in 2010 sentenced Mollah for 10 years. Getty Images
So when crowds gathered at Shahbagh in Dhaka, I was apprehensive. Since February 5, protesters at Shahbagh have been demanding the death penalty for Abdul Qader Mollah, who was sentenced to life imprisonment for war crimes committed during the 1971 War of Liberation. The protesters fear that Mollah would be released if the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), an ally of the Jamaat-e-Islami of which Mollah is a senior leader, were to win the elections due in early 2014.
As a campaigner against the death penalty, I could not support this demand for death. Most people protesting at Shahbagh were born long after the 1971 war. But after Islamisation started in earnest in Bangladesh during the mid-80s, many witnessed how Islamists murdered progressive people, violated people's human rights, oppressed women and tortured non-Muslims in the name of Islam. After decades of maintaining silence, the patience of those protesting had been worn thin and they finally rebelled against the status quo.
I became more interested in the Shahbagh movement when some protesters started demanding a ban on the Jamaat, as well as on the religious schools, banks, clinics and other institutions created with funds from West Asian Islamist sources, whose express desire is to turn secular Bangladesh into an Islamist nation. I am not in favour of banning and censorship in general. But I supported the ban on the Jamaat because in Bangladesh, this political party is nothing more than a terrorist organisation led by known war criminals who raped, maimed and killed thousands in 1971.
In the last 40 years, the Jamaat has been committing an even more serious crime by systematically destroying the country through Islamisation. And yet, driven by the necessities of realpolitik, they have been pardoned, favoured, accorded respect, honoured, and empowered by the politicians and military since 1971. Some of these war criminals who were stoutly against the independence of Bangladesh were made members of Parliament, ministers, and once even president.
The Islamists have gained unbelievable strength in Bangladesh over the years. They have been showing off their strength by harassing, abusing, stabbing and murdering any dissenters. Islamists stabbed Asif Mohiuddin, an atheist blogger, in January. On February 15, they murdered Ahmed Rajib Haider, another atheist blogger and one of the organisers of the Shahbagh movement.
Islamists have also taken to the tactic of calling all bloggers and protesters 'atheists'. This has scared many at Shahbagh. Most of them are practising Muslims and they had cast their lot with the Shahbagh crowd with no other agenda than to demand the hanging of war criminals and seeking a closure for '1971'.
Now that the Islamists have called them atheists, many of them are now falling over themselves trying to prove themselves to be pious Muslims. Instead of saying, 'They are atheists and have the right to criticise religion, but 'no one' has the right to kill them', the 'liberal', 'secular' protesters at Shahbagh are bleating placatory statements: "Jamaat-e-Islami goons are trying to prove that bloggers are atheists, but they are not atheists; they are good people." As if atheists can't be good people!
Liberal Bangladeshis must realise that Islam should not be exempt from the critical scrutiny that applies to other religions as well. They must understand that Islam has to go through an enlightenment process similar to what other world religions have already gone through - by questioning the inhuman, unequal, unscientific and irrational aspects of religion.
If the Shahbagh movement can't make people understand this simple but necessary idea, then real change will not happen, even if some old criminals are hanged.
I know that even the atheists at Shahbagh will say that the time for this idea has not arrived yet. However, I earnestly hope that people will be enlightened enough to realise that there is no real difference between the Islam of the 7th century and the Islam the Jamaat-e-Islami practises to this day.
Sadly, the very nature of Bangladesh has changed greatly. Ordinary people have been alarmingly indoctrinated into the ways of Islamists. I lost the hopes I had for Bangladesh many years ago. But some of them were rekindled by the Shahbagh movement. I truly hope that the movement will turn into a positive political movement for a true democracy and a secular State, a State that affirms a strict separation between religion and the State, maintains a uniform civil code, a set of secular laws that are not based on religion, but on equality, and an education system that is secular, scientific and enlightened.
A war is needed in Bangladesh, a war between two diametrically opposite ideas - between secularism and fundamentalism; between rational thinking and irrational blind faith; between those who strive to move forward and those who strain to push themselves backward; between modernism and barbarism; between humanism and Islamism; between those who value freedom and those who do not.
Every sane person should support the Shahbagh movement since it is a rare and difficult movement in an Islamised country. I also hope that if the Shahbagh movement, in its present form, fails to achieve its goals now, the brave and enlightened people associated with it will not be permanently disillusioned, and will renew their efforts until their dreams come true.
A trend must be set. People need to get angry.
Taslima Nasreen is an award-winning Bengali writer and human rights activist. Some of her books are banned in Bangladesh where she has been prevented from returning since 1994. She lives in New Delhi.
She blogs at http://freethoughtblogs.com/taslima/