April 2023

The dangers of bigotry

As general elections loom, Syed Badrul Ahsan  condemns mounting religious in tolerance in Bangladesh, seen at its starkest in the ongoing violence against the Ahmadiyya Muslim community 

The recent assault on the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat’s annual conference in Panchagarh, a town in Bangladesh’s northern region, once again raises the spectre of communal forces undermining the secular nature of the country’s politics. Indeed, the Ahmadiyyas, a small group of religious adherents whose version of Islam is at variance with that of Muslims in the wider Islamic world, have been under attack in Bangladesh for the past couple of decades. The sect has been unable to organise its annual conferences, referred to as Salana Jalsa, because of the violence regularly unleashed against it by Sunni Muslims, urged on by bigoted mullahs.

In Panchagarh, the Ahmadiyyas had alerted the local administration about their programme and requested adequate security. They were indeed promised that security measures would be in place for the duration of their conference. In the event, the authorities failed abjectly to protect the Ahmadiyyas, who were set upon by thousands of fanatical Muslims even before the Salana Jalsa got underway. Worse, the bigots extended their violence to include the homes of Ahmadiyya families, beating them up, destroying their houses and making off with valuables they looted during the course of the violence.

Of course, as has regularly been the story, the police and the local administration subsequently informed the media that investigations were underway and that those responsible for the attacks on the Ahmadiyyas would be identified and held accountable before the law. They could offer no credible explanations behind their inability to prevent the attacks, or their failure to unearth the fanatics’ plans to carry out the violence. Clearly it was well-planned, as radicalised Muslims, provoked by a number of Muslim preachers and organisations, were fully prepared for the assault.

This latest attack on the Ahmadiyya community is part of a well-worn pattern, one that sees liberalism regularly come under assault from bigotry. Not long ago, the Khatme Nabuwat, a body of extremist Muslims, set out a systematic programme to spread messages of hate against the Ahmadiyyas. They clearly have allies among other such outfits, notably the Jamaat-e-Islami, which has now demanded that the Bangladesh government decree the Ahmadiyyas as a non-Muslim community. It may be recalled that the Jamaat has been de-registered as a political party in Bangladesh, given its collaborationist role in association with the Pakistan occupation army during Bangladesh’s War of Liberation in 1971.

Jamaat-e-Islami founder and leader Abul Aala Maududi
PARDONED: Jamaat-e-Islami founder and leader Abul Aala Maududi

The role of the Jamaat in the persecution of the Ahmadiyya community dates back to 1953, when the party, led by Abul Aala Maududi, served as an incitement to anti-Ahmadiyya riots in the Pakistani city of Lahore. In the violence let loose by the Jamaat and its followers, as many as 2,000 Ahmadiyyas were left dead. The mayhem ended only when martial law was imposed on Lahore and Jamaat elements were carted off to prison. Maududi was arrested, placed on trial and sentenced to death over his role in fomenting the crisis.

The role of the Jamaat in the persecution of the Ahmadiyya community dates back to 1953

But he was subsequently pardoned. It was under Maududi’s stewardship that the Jamaat would later assist the Pakistan army in committing genocide in occupied Bangladesh in 1971. Its goon squads, al-Badr and al-Shams, would abduct scores of Bengali intellectuals on the eve of liberation in December 1971 and murder them in cold blood. In 1974, agitation spearheaded by the Jamaat would force Pakistan’s Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to declare his country’s Ahmadiyyas ‘non-Muslims’.

In Bangladesh, the Panchagarh violence is but a new hint of the spirit of religious intolerance coming into play through the growing fanaticism of a vocal section of bigots. In these past few years, the Hefazat-e-Islam, a radical organisation propagating what is clearly a medieval approach to life, has been behind a subtle campaign to compel the authorities to endorse a Muslim revisionist version of school textbooks.

Collective punishment is used to silence dissent

That Islam is a religion of peace is a message constantly underscored by PM Sheikh Hasina

For its part, the government has been unable to curb the Hefazat is and has even been accused by citizens of appeasing such elements in its own political interests. Besides, the murder of liberal Bengalis, Muslim as well as Hindu, in the country has been a major worry. The July 2016 murder of diners at a Dhaka restaurant by a gang of young Muslim fanatics left an entire nation in a state of shock.

The Bangladesh government appears to have gone out on a limb to ensure that bigotry is kept in check through its insistence on Islam being a force for good in the country. That Islam is a religion of peace is a message constantly underscored by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, whose government has undertaken the task of building what has been described as 600-plus model mosques in the country. The move has not pleased liberal Bengalis, who note that such measures go against the secular spirit of Bangladesh’s ethos as a nation-state.

In recent years, attacks on Hindu Durga Puja celebrations have been unadulterated assaults on Bangladesh’s secularism. Fortunately, the last puja celebrations passed off peacefully, in light of the government’s determination to avoid a repeat of the violence resorted to by the forces of bigotry in the preceding year.

As general elections approach at the end of this year, Bangladesh needs to walk a fine line in order to ensure that its politics continues on the non-communal path shaped by the present government. It will be difficult, given that the political opposition, with its emphasis on majoritarian faith being its main policy plank, will likely play the Islam card (as in the days of pre-1971 Pakistan) during the election campaign.

Attacks on Hindu Durga Puja celebrations have been assaults on Bangladesh’s secularism

But a failure by liberals – who have always invested in the Awami League their visions of the future – to conduct a forceful and successful campaign for a revival of secular values in the run-up to the vote, will be a major setback for the country. It will be a turning back of the clock, with the wheels of development grinding to a halt.

One has not forgotten the violence meted out to Bangladesh’s Hindu community and Awami League supporters within minutes of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s return to power in October 2001. It was a recreation of the nightmare caused by the Pakistan army and its local Bengali collaborators in the nine months of Bangladesh’s armed struggle for freedom.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a Bangladeshi journalist and political commentator based in London. He is the author of biographies of Bangladesh’s founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the country’s first prime minister Tajuddin Ahmad