The recent calls by religious leaders to hang atheist bloggers didn't surprise many in Bangladesh's capital, Dhaka. Hefazat-e-Islam are an extremely conservative group of religious Muslim scholars and followers and their ire, pointed towards a popular movement led by bloggers calling for less extremism in Bangladeshi society, was no shock.
But their further demands of changes to the country's constitution, separation of men and women in public, and stopping "the infiltration of alien cultures" did cause alarm among the more liberal city dwellers here.
Saturday's mass rally by Hefazat called for a 13-point agenda to be conceded by the government. It outlines their interpretation of extremely conservative Muslim values.
During the rally, a female reporter was attacked by protesters. She told local media outlets she was yelled at for being a woman at the men's protest and scolded her for not covering her hair while they beat her and chased her away. Other media reports said a female rubbish collector was also chased away.
The bloggers' movement, named after the square at which they protest, Shahbagh, held counter protests and decried what they claimed were the group's intentions to subjugate women.
Most of Dhaka's liberal-leaning English-language newspapers ran frontpage stories about the event the next day, criticising attacks on women and women's rights in general.
The government has arrested four bloggers for offending religion, but Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina recently said she had no intentions of enacting a law against blasphemy. Her government has said it will look at the 13 points Hefazat have put forward but the likelihood of any of them being implemented is very slim. However, the very presence of Hefazat, and the angry response to the group’s demands, shows just how wide a gap lies between the two schools of thought in Bangladesh.
While they fight out their standpoints on the streets of cities, towns and villages, the very character of a future Bangladesh hangs in the balance.
The 13-point agenda demanded by Hefazat, as reported by local media outlets, is below:
1. Restore the phrase "Complete faith and trust in the Almighty Allah" in the constitution and repeal all the laws contrary to the holy Quran and Sunnah.
2. Pass a law in parliament keeping a provision of the maximum punishment of death sentence to prevent defaming Allah, Prophet Muhammad and Islam and smear campaigns against Muslims.
3. Take measures for stringent punishment against self-declared atheists and bloggers, led by the so-called Shahbagh movement, and anti-Islamists who made derogatory remarks against the Prophet.
4. Stop infiltration of all alien cultures, including shamelessness in the name of individual’s freedom of expression, anti-social activities, adultery, free mixing of male and female and candle lighting.
5. Make Islamic education mandatory from primary to higher secondary levels cancelling the anti-Islamic women policy and anti-religion education policy.
6. Officially declare Qadianis (Ahmadiyyas) as non-Muslim and stop their propaganda and all conspiratorial ill-moves.
7. Stop setting up sculptures at intersections, schools, colleges and universities across the country.
8. Lift restrictions on saying prayers in all mosques across the country, including Baitul Mukarram National Mosque, without any hassle and remove obstacles to carrying out religious activities.
9. Stop evil efforts to spread hatred in the mind of the young generation regarding Islam through the misrepresentation of religious dresses and cultures in the media.
10. Stop anti-Islam activities by NGOs across the country, including in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, and evil attempts of Christian missionaries for conversion.
11. Stop attacks, mass killing, oppression and indiscriminate shooting on Alem-Ulama, devout followers of the Prophet and towhidi janata (revolutionary people).
12. Stop threatening teachers and students of Qawmi madrasas, Islamic scholars, imams and khatibs and conspiracies against them.
13. Free immediately all the arrested Islamic scholars, madrasa students and towhidi janata and withdraw all false cases filed against them, compensate the victims and bring the assailants to justice.