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Secular Bangladeshi Youths Organise Their Own “Bangladeshi Spring”

Photo: Reuters

Outside of the “Arab Spring” movement and unbeknownst to most of the atheist community in the West, there has been an equally forceful effort in East Asia to throw off Islamist domination since its establishment as an independent country in 1971.

Bangladesh - A country that was initially created as part of Muslim-dominated Pakistan in the movement of Indian independence in 1947, and later separated from Pakistan in 1971 as an independent country - has had a schizophrenic identity since then. Having been the ruling seat of British-ruled India, the Bengal region has had a strong heritage with the British Enlightenment. The region played a major part in the Indian Independence movement. But the region is also strongly Muslim and was the birthplace of the separationist Muslim League which led to the partitioning of India and the creation of Pakistan, which included East Bengal, later renamed East Pakistan, as a nation and a society focused on strict Sharia (Islamic law).

Politics have always been complex in Bangladesh. Since its separation from India, Bangladesh has endured a series of corruption scandals, assassinations and coups that left the country mired as one of the poorest for decades and eventually led to its own war of independence from Pakistan in 1971.

Much of that war was driven between conservative Islamists (supported by Pakistan) and moderate-minded Muslim and secular progressives (supported by India). The Islamists formed a military faction, the Jammat-e-Islami, which later transformed itself into a political party that led the state for the first decades after independence. 

In early 2007, following widespread political unrest and years of political corruption, the army declared martial law and imposed a neutral and temporary caretaker government which was charged with reforming the government and overseeing new elections. The caretaker government made it a priority to root out corruption from all levels of government. To this end, many notable politicians and officials, along with large numbers of lesser officials and party members, were investigated and eventually arrested on corruption charges. In December, 2008, the caretaker government oversaw new elections which brought an alliance of parties led by the moderate pro-secular and pro-social democracy Awami League to power.

As part of the anti-corruption sweep in 2007, a leader of the pro-Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party, Abdul Qader Mollah, who had earned the nickname “butcher of Mirpur” for his activities during the 1971 war, was arrested for war crimes alleged during the 1971 war of independence.

The tribunal awoke an astonishing struggle over this country’s identity and he role that religion plays in its fractious politics. Although Mollah’s crimes were punishable by death, Mollah was found guilty of lesser charges in 2012 and was sentenced to life imprisonment on 5 February, 2013. But many Bangladeshi, especially its youth, felt that that sentence was too lenient and provided in order to pacify powerful Islamist leaders who resented their leaders being put on trial. Since that sentence was passed, hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis have been protesting in the streets for over a week straight protesting against the ongoing influence of conservative, politicized Islam in the country and demanding the harsher punishment of death for Mr. Mollah.

Zafar Sobhan, editor of the Dhaka Tribune, summarized the protests: “The current movement is aimed very explicitly at the Jamaat’s role in 1971.” But “it was clear that the future that the youths envision is one without Islamist politics, returning to Bangladesh’s secular roots, and recognition that religion-based politics had poisoned the society.” [Christian Science Monitor, 13 Feb 2013].

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