Q&A: Deconstructing the chaos in Bangladesh

Recent events in turbulent South Asian nation have called into question the essence of political and religious identity.

Country-wide strike in Bangladesh
Strikes have involved sporadic clashes and explosions of homemade bombs in parts of the capital, Dhaka [EPA]

In recent months, the Bangladeshi government has struggled to contain public anger around war crimes trials, proposed blasphemy laws and building collapses.

Opposition activists this week launched the latest in a series of general strikes and demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, as more than 10,000 police were deployed.

The ruling Awami League has also shuttered TV stations as part of an apparent elections strategy to control the media, arguing the measures are crucial after a series of violent protest movements.

Outrage over worker safety issues has contributed to instability – after over 1,000 labourers died in a factory collapse last month. 

Al Jazeera’s Ben Piven spoke about the crisis in Bangladesh with Tazreena Sajjad, a professor of Global Governance, Politics and Security at American University’s School of International Service.

Al Jazeera: Does the current turmoil in Bangladesh mostly stem from religious disagreements, or is tension rooted in a broader mix of grievances about politics, economics and human rights?

Tazreena Sajjad: The current situation in Bangladesh is a consequence of a series of complex issues. There are different levels of dissatisfaction and disenchantment that are playing out at the social, economic and political levels, most of which have deep roots in its independence from Pakistan in 1971 – and especially since the 1990s after the end of the nine-year military rule,when the Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) emerged as the
two largest and most influential political parties.

Some of the current tensions are a continuation of the legacy of hostility and animosity between the two parties, both of whom claim credit for the independence of the country and dismiss the role of the other in the country’s politics.

Bangladesh today can boast of several key achievements. It is well on its way to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). It has an impressive record in agricultural development – and an increasing role of women and girls in the education and economic sectors. At the same time, Bangladesh is burdened with: an infrastructure that cannot support its growing population; a continued lack of transparency in government (irrespective of which party is in power); and institutionalised impunity in politics such that many have become disenchanted with the main political parties.

In addition to these ongoing challenges, the war crimes tribunal and the politics surrounding it has exposed the weaknesses of the Bangladesh government and strengthened the hand of opposition, especially in its ability to mobilise national and international support against the current government. Keep in mind that it is also election
season, and political violence in the run-up to the elections is not new to Bangladesh.

However, this type of mobilisation, with the kind of 13-point demands that Hifazat has put forward, does indicate that there is deep divide that has emerged in the country. The politics of non-compromise, disenfranchisement and animosity will contribute to political instability in the country for some time to come.

Al Jazeera: What is the relationship between Hifazat-e-Islam and Jamaat-e-Islami?

Tazreena Sajjad: Jamaat-e-Islami and Hifazat-e-Islamare not one and the same. To begin, Jamaat-e-Islami, founded on the ideology of Mawlana Abu Ala Moududi, is an organised political party, as well as the largest religious-based political party in Bangladesh. Moudidi was a strong advocate of the Wahhabi movement in British India. One of the Jamaat’s main objectives is to establish an Islamic state, governed by sharia.

In-depth infographic on Bangladesh’s war crimes tribunal

Because of its role in 1971 – when several of its members sided with Pakistan and actively worked against Bangladesh’s independence – the government of Bangladesh banned the Jamaat. Some of its leaders, including the provincial chief Ghulam Azam, escaped to Pakistan, the Gulf and the United Kingdom. Others went into hiding.

Even though Ghulam Azam initiated a movement to “recover East Pakistan”, the effort did not pick up traction – even after Zulfikar Ali Bhutto received Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in Lahore for the 1974 Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) summit.

Because of its general unpopularity at the local level, the Jamaat focused its energies on social work rather than direct political activities. However, after the 1975 coup in which Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was assassinated along with many members of his own family, the Jamaat resumed its political activities under the military dictatorship of President Ershad. During this period, the Jamaat emerged as a notable political party that began contesting in parliamentary elections, as well as seeking electoral alliances with larger political parties – namely, the BNP, with which they aligned both in 2001 and in 2008.

Al Jazeera: What is the impact of madrasas in the political landscape of Bangladesh?

Tazreena Sajjad: In Bangladesh, there are mainly two types of madrasa: the Alia, which are largely state-sponsored, and the Qawami, which subscribe to the Deobandi school of thought and has historically resisted the Bangladesh Madrassah Education board with regard to questions of reform and modernisation.

The Qawami madrasas have also consistently provided students with a very narrow curriculum that does not include math, science, Bangla and English studies; in the past they also conferred degrees that lacked accreditation or official recognition. However, since 2006 the government of Bangladesh has begun recognizing some of the Qawami degrees.

This has meant that graduates from Alia madrasas have had some training in social and natural sciences and are qualified to apply for, for example, public service, including in the police force and as teachers. There are no official statistics available on the number of students in Qawami madrasas or the actual number of Qawami madrasas actually in the country, although it is estimated that the number of Alia madras enrollees is higher than the Qawami enrollees.


Al Jazeera’s special correspondent travels to the port city of Chittagong to talk to senior leaders of Hifazat

The Hifazat-e-Islam movement has emerged from these Qawami madrasa. Its leader is the 94-year-old Allama Shafi, who has a general reputation of being “honest” and “non-political”.

There is very little information about any long-term relationship between the Jamaat and Hifazat. It is very possible that the Jamaat did not have any formal connection to Hifazat prior to the recent developments, although it is not possible to make any definitive claims. However, the tensions stirred by the International War Crimes Tribunal provided an opportunity for the Jamaat to reach out to Hifazat, and to capitalise on two points of commonality.

First, both Jamaat and Hifazat have based their political activism on the assumption that Islam in Bangladesh is in danger, and that Bangladesh must become an Islamist state with sharia as the state law. Second, both have been united with regard to the activism in the blogosphere. Thy have presented the same demand to the government of Bangladesh regarding the bloggers – that the bloggers should be given the death penalty for offending Islam and the sentiments of Muslims. Third, in addition to generating funds from within Bangladesh, some of both groups’ financial support comes from abroad. However, there is no official information regarding the percentage of international financial support that either group receives.

The “Dhaka siege” by Hifazat unleashed a slew of speculation and allegations regarding who planned, orchestrated and led the movement and what the specific objectives were in the course of the siege. It is alleged that it is not Shafi but his deputies who have forged an alliance with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Jamaat. Hifazat’s ability to
move thousands of young men into the city in an organised manner was allegedly funded
by BNP and Jamaat.

The bigger plan, it is alleged, was to destabilise the government significantly, stop the war crimes tribunal proceedings and hold the elections – which are scheduled for December – under a caretaker government. Weakening the government also creates the possibility of a BNP victory, with support from the Jamaat.

It is imperative to point out that many of the young men brought in for the Dhaka siege were under-age, and many did not know the purpose of the demonstrations. Students from the Qawami madrasas were told by their instructors where to go, and they followed orders; many of them were injured in the clashes that ensued between the Bangladesh police and those demonstrating under the Hifazat banner.

Al Jazeera: Which aspect of the country’s identity is most important: Bengali nationalism, Muslim faith or liberal ideology?

Tazreena Sajjad: It is inherently problematic to classify questions of identity under such neat categories. It is just as problematic to set these categories up as being diametrically opposed to each other. It sets up a false dichotomy that is ultimately very unhelpful.

The question of identity is, of course, very important. One can argue that certain critical elements of the Bangladeshi identity remains unresolved, even 40 years after its independence, and that the tensions arise from the Bengali/Bangladeshi question.

Bangladesh army personnel offer prayer in front of the rubble of a nine-storey building collapse [AFP]

Bengali, by definition, is an ethnic identity, which in turn is defined largely by the use of Bengali/Bangla as the mother tongue and of course social and cultural practices. But identification with the category of being “Bengali” is an exclusionary exercise. It speaks to only those who adhere to Bengali language and cultural practices and recognises them as the only citizens of Bangladesh. Bangladesh, while overwhelmingly homogenous, is also home to approximately 300,000 Biharis and roughly two million people belong to the Adivasi (indigenous) communities. These groups are not Bengali by ethnicity, but are citizens of Bangladesh; the Bangladesh High Court recently ruled that Biharis born after
1971 should be granted Bangladeshi citizenship, while the indigenous communities and the human rights community are still fighting to get the Adivasi constitutional recognition.

These issues of identity – particularly those relating to Bengali nationalism – were raised in certain circles during the peak of the Shahbag movement, and some limited effort was made to make the slogans, for example, more inclusive, but for the most part, it was a demonstration of the Bengali identity.

Bangladeshis have also historically practiced a version of Islam infused with the diverse cultural practices of South Asia, including Hinduism and Buddhism. In other words, Islamic practices have been internalized within cultural practices and reflected different philosophies and schools of thought that existed prior to Islam’s advent in the region, and others that have emerged as a consequence of Islam’s presence.

The vast majority of Muslims in Bangladesh are Hanafi Muslims, influenced by indigenous cultural practices predating Islam, as well as by Sufi philosophies. But the legalistic interpretation of Islam, and the more conservative strains manifest in some parts of the Middle East, have not been as dominant part of the sociocultural fabric of the country until fairly recently.

Al Jazeera: Has the country’s Muslim identify shifted in recent years?

Tazreena Sajjad: So Bangladeshis, while culturally conservative, have not traditionally practiced the same kind of Islam practiced in, for example, places like Saudi Arabia or any of the Gulf states.

Bangladesh also has a long history of political and social struggles where different religious communities have come together, setting up the framework for a “liberal” political mindset.

Within that, there are Muslims who are politically secular, non-Muslim Bengalis who believe in secular principles in the establishment of the Bangladeshi state, and others who have not subscribed to the understanding of a strict interpretation of sharia dictating the systems of governance and the legal infrastructure, while defining themselves as Muslims.

The Shahbag movement, which has been criticised as being a middle-class “awakening”, nevertheless emphasises that many people see themselves as Bangladeshis, Bengalis, and Muslims – without inherent contradictions.

However, it is important to point out that a conservative strain of Islam has existed for a while in the region, predating the establishment of an independent Bangladesh. Haji Shariatullah spent 19 years in Saudi Arabia and was greatly influenced by the austere version of Islam that was taking root there and imported this conservative ideology.

Shariatullah and his followers, upon their return to what is now Bangladesh in the early part of 1800s, witnessed first hand the project of British colonialism and began organising a resistance movement which would purge foreign influence from Bengali Muslim culture and establish a state based on the Salafi ideology. While the movement had some success
particularly during the British period, it did not flourish as intended in the political landscape of pre-partition India.

Some of these ideas have lingered, though they have not found strong and widespread expression or support in terms of a political formula for governance in modern-day Bangladesh.

In the last decade or so, there have been some shifts with regard to these fluid identities. The question of identifying oneself as “Muslim” has gained increasing prominence for a number of reasons. One key reason is the increased influence of some of the Gulf states in building and supporting madrasas in South Asia. Furthermore, the effects of globalisation have increased the gap between the different classes and created access to technology and media outlets. These effects have, in turn, driven concerns about Westernisation of society. Disenchantment with the political parties, continuing corruption and impunity, and the increased politicisation of the “Muslim identity” have also led growing numbers to focus on the Muslim aspect of their identity.

Bangladeshis in general have been increasingly interested in engaging with “Muslimhood”. And despite the history of a strain of conservative Islam in the country that has never flourished as a “mainstream” political ideology, there have always been reservations about religious politics in the country.

The Jamaat has never won a single democratic election in Bangladesh – although both the Awami League (AL) and the BNP have courted their support to win elections and the party has effectively worked as a “kingmaker”. As recently as the 2008 elections, Jamaat won only three seats in the parliament. So the population at large rejected the kind of political Islam that Jamaat proposes for the country.

The Shahbag movement, which has been criticised as being a middle-class “awakening”, nevertheless emphasises that many people see themselves as Bangladeshis, Bengalis, and Muslims – without inherent contradictions.

Given these complex forces and undercurrents at work, the 2013 elections – if held – will reveal the politics at play for Bangladesh’s future.

Source: Al Jazeera