Bashundhara City is touted by its developers as ‘the 12th largest shopping mall in the world’. On Friday, February 22, the multiplex inside the towering steel-and-glass sprawl in central Dhaka was playing The Amazing Spider-Man, Skyfall and Television to weekend crowds, the last being a critically acclaimed Bangladeshi film that satirically deals with issues of free expression and censorship.
Standing on the wide steps of the mega-mall — a proud, in-your-face advertisement of young, modern, economically rising Bangladesh — it was impossible to suspect that rocks, tear gas canisters and rubber bullets were flying in various other parts of Dhaka and Bangladesh.
After the Friday afternoon prayers, the Jamaat-e-Islami, an ally of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), had planned to take out ‘peace marches’ across the country to protest against the demands of thousands congregating at Dhaka’s Shahbagh square for the death sentence of Jamaat leaders accused of war crimes during the 1971 Liberation War. These ‘peace marches’ quickly degenerated into clashes with the police, with goons from the Bangladesh Islami Chhatra Shibir, the youth wing of the Jamaat, commonly known as the Jamaat-Shibir, targeting members of the media, whom they perceived, not incorrectly, as favouring the Shahbagh protesters.
Since February 5, when protesters at Shahbagh erupted against the life sentence given to Jamaat leader Abdul Qader Mollah — they want him hanged — Bangladesh has found the uneasy status quo between those who want a secular nation and those who want an Islamist State no longer an option. In the face of it, ‘Shahbagh’ has been about bringing a difficult chapter of Bangladesh’s history to a logical, judicial and psychological end. The Jamaat, which had vociferously sided with Islamabad in the latter’s bid to keep East Pakistan within the larger Pakistani nation, included many collaborators whose crimes of mass murder, rapes and destruction of Hindu properties, are on record. The Shahbagh protests are primarily about bringing them to justice. But 42 years is a long time to hold grudges, let alone keep notions of denied justice alive. What Bangladesh is fighting for — and against — today is more about its future than about its past. ‘Pakistan’ features in both strands of this story: ‘1971’ in a more symbolic form, while what Pakistan is today held up as a warning.
A week ago, it would have been easy to see an Islamist party flailing about under immense secular pressure. Unlike prior popular uprisings in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, the Shahbagh movement has not been about regime change, but about putting Islamist politics in a box and throwing the box away into the Bay of Bengal. But with the Jamaat’s strategy of painting all Shahbagh protesters, liberal bloggers and online activists as ‘anti-religion’ and ‘anti-Islam’, the river has changed its course over the last week. From being a ‘secularism vs religious fundamentalism’ war, it has morphed into an ‘atheists vs Muslims’ one.
“The possibility of siding with a movement that can be ‘anti-Islam’ is something that many who were there at Shahbagh last month are not comfortable with,” says Kaiser Haq, professor of English at Dhaka University. “The Jamaat has also been successful to a large extent in coming across as ‘victims’ in the last few weeks,” something that the daily death counts across Bangladesh in clashes between Jamaat-Shibir cadres and the police have only strengthened.
The idea of an Islamist party gaining ground in a country that has historically placed language and ethnicity at the core of its nationalism over the notion of an internationalist umma (brotherhood) tied by Islam is no longer fanciful again. On Sunday, a rumour based on a photoshopped picture of Delwar Hossain Sayedee, the Jamaat vice-president who was sentenced to death last week for war crimes, galvanised people in the rural and more conservative towns of Bogra, Shatkania and Chittagong. The picture showed Sayedee’s face on the moon’s surface thereby ‘proving’ his innocence, a ‘fact’ propagated by social media platforms and also through announcements in mosques across parts of Bangladesh.
Such propaganda comes with the Jamaat’s appeal as a social services provider in a country where the government has yet to fill a vacuum in healthcare, education and public infrastructure. As Asef Saleh, director of the non-governmental developmental organisation BRAC (formerly Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee), points out, there has been conflict for years between “petrodollars-funded NGOs run by Islamist organisations such as the Jamaat and secular ones”. Saleh cites how schools set up by BRAC have been burnt by Jamaat-Shibir activists long before the ongoing turmoil because of “their perceived conflicts with Islamic norms that include providing education for girls who are not forced to wear the hijab”. Saudi and Gulf money have made Jamaat-affiliated institutions proliferate far more widely than their non-religious counterparts.
Fear is a more potent wake-up call than anger. As the Jamaat continues to pose as victims, it has also showed its hand by unleashing violence in Hindu villages in Noakhali and across Chittagong, Rangpur, Sylhet and Raiganj. Like in India — and unlike in today’s Pakistan where between the zealots and the largely non-religious elite there is no middle ground (or middle class) — religion is part of Bangladeshi culture without it being an overriding force in public life. Will it remain so without military intervention is what Bangladesh is in the thick of finding out.
Bang opposite the Bashundhara City mall is the Panthapath Jame Masjid. It is for the Awami League government and Shahbagh’s secular forces to convince Bangladeshis that the two can — and, for the country’s prosperity, must— coexist. As it coexisted on February 22, when people coming out of the mosque crossed the road to spend a nice afternoon in the mall while the rest of Bangladesh started fighting for its soul.