If Bangladesh does not change its present trajectory, it will be sucked into a vortex of bloody civil and sectarian conflict. In 1971 as many as three million were killed when Bangladesh fought for independence from Pakistan. Bangladeshi Islamist groups such as the Jama’at-e-Islami aided and abetted the Pakistan military in war crimes. Though the war ended, the ideological struggle continued.
Since independence, political power has oscillated between the pro-Pakistan, pro-Islamist Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the quasi-secular Awami League. After the 11 September 2001 terror attacks, the US invaded Afghanistan via Pakistan. In Bangladesh, Islamic fundamentalist, mostly Taliban-trained clerics denounced the ‘war on Islam’, whipping up Islamic indignation. Islamic rage was reflected in Bangladesh’s October 2001 election results which saw the secular Awami League led by Sheikh Hasina routed and the Islamic BNP led by Khaled Zia — in coalition with some very radical Islamist groups — sweep to power. The hard-line Islamist Jama’at-e-Islami Party, the BNP’s principal coalition partner, went from holding one seat to 17 seats.
The elections in December 2008 saw the Awami League restored to power as part of a 14-party Grand Alliance. Its election platform included the promise to set up a court to try those accused of committing war crimes during the 1971 War of Independence. Accordingly the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) was established in 2010. However, justice seems to be less of a concern than the December 2013 elections, especially in these days of Islamic resurgence and Sunni ascendancy. Trials commenced in January 2013, but of the 1600 suspects listed only eleven have been charged and all are leaders in the opposition Jama’at-e-Islami Party. On 5 February pro-secularists started protesting what they claimed was judicial slowness and leniency. Led by young bloggers and student activists, the ‘Shahbag’ protesters demanded that the accused be convicted and executed; and that Jama’at-e-Islami (JI) be banned. The government interfered in the judicial process to ensure that the next JI suspect was sentenced to death, triggering Islamic riots. (The Islamists are not alone in charging that the government is running unjust, non-transparent show-trials for political gain.)
Now the Islamists are playing the religion card, labelling the ‘Shahbag’ protesters ‘anti-Islamic’. Bloggers, journalists and passers-by have been beaten and hacked to death. An estimated 100 people have been killed in clashes (including with police) since early February as protests evolve into riots that are increasingly out of control. Both sides of politics are promising to punish those who defame Islam. On Friday 29 March tens of thousands of Islamists filled the streets of Dhaka to pray, call for blasphemy laws and demand the restoration of a caretaker government. Members of Islami Andolan Bangladesh are demanding the arrest of ‘atheist bloggers who insulted Islam’, and the passing of laws to punish those who ‘insulted Islam in the parliament’. They have threatened to ‘lay siege’ to the office of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on 25 April if their demands are not met. On Sunday 31 March shots were fired at the political office of BNP leader Khaleda Zia who, however, was not hurt. International war crimes barrister Toby Cadman warns: ‘Failure to find a resolution could see the country descend into civil war.’
The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) reports (7 March): ‘The violence has spread beyond Dhaka, where fundamentalist hoodlums target members of the minority communities and their properties. [Minorities mostly vote for the secular Awami league.] Arson and looting is rampant. Places of worship are burned down or otherwise vandalized. It is gruesomely clear that nobody is in control.’ After questioning the true purpose and integrity of the ICT the AHRC notes: ‘The ensuing confusion has resulted in opportunities for criminal elements in the country to target their victims, most importantly the minorities.’ The Hindu community as the largest minority (10 percent) is being hit hard. An Islamic fuse has been lit. A jihad would attract foreigners, especially Pakistanis.
At a vulnerable 0.6 percent, Christians will not escape if violence continues to escalate and spread. Basserkella, a JI-run website, articulates the threat: ‘We will kill all the Malauns [infidels] and Bangladesh will be “Banglastan” like Pakistan.’