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A battle for the soul of Bangladesh

Religion and nationalism are locked in a bloody battle for primacy

Street clashes in Bangladesh are frequent and violent Street clashes in Bangladesh are frequent and violent
  • The Third Eye
  • Bangladesh
  • April 11, 2013
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Bangladesh is going through turbulent times.

It can partly be blamed on the ongoing political struggle between the main political rivals, the ruling Awami League and the opposition alliance led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). As national elections loom, this impasse has sparked a series of bloody street clashes.

But as well as the usual party political friction, there is also a war of ideology sweeping through the nation between radical Islamists and secularists. It’s a question of primacy: which should come first, religion or nation?

Last weekend, radicals from the Hifazat-e-Islam group marched en masse through Dhaka to parade their staunchly Islamic 13-point agenda.

It includes the death penalty for bloggers who defame Islam and the Prophet Mohammed. They also want an anti-blasphemy law, a mandatory Islamic education system, exclusion of members of the Ahmadi sect from the Muslim faith, abolition of a pro-women development policy and the restoration of a pledge to Allah in the constitution.

It’s a manifesto that would make the country a fully fledged Islamic state, perhaps even a Taliban state.

On Monday, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said 'no' to their demand for a blasphemy law. This, unsurprisingly, led to another round of violent clashes and wildcat strikes.

The sworn opponents of the Islamic radicals comprise activists, progressives and secular groups. This loosely connected coalition, which has attracted attention from the international press and garnered massive public support, is no less trenchant in its views or pugnacious in its demands.

It called loudly for the death penalty for those found guilty in the recent war crimes tribunals, most of whom are leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s largest Islamic political party, It also wants confiscation of Jamaat-owned institutions and a ban on Jamaat and religion-based politics.

Its advocates will tell you the nation has suffered repression and victimization in the name of religion for far too long, from the orthodox Hindu Sena era a millennium ago to the effective rule of pro-Islamist West Pakistan in the mid-20th century.

They will also tell you that Jamaat and its forebears historically supported attacks on Bengali culture and nationalism in the name of Islam; that they sided with the Pakistan army during the 1971 war of independence; and that they have consistently persecuted religious minorities and even moderate Muslims.

Yet although these radical Islamists only represent around 5 percent of the population, their medieval ideologies continue to torment Bangladesh.

And even though the majority of people dislike the country’s dysfunctional political culture, it seems we just can’t get rid of it.

Which brings us back to the endless wrangles between the major political parties – the Awami League, the BNP and the others. For the sake of winning a vote, they will claim to be both nationalist and/or religious – whichever they think people want to hear at the time – although of course they are neither. They are just opportunist politicians who trade on nationalism and religion for personal gain.

Tragically, the history of Bangladesh is littered with monumental blunders; the British partition of India and Pakistan on religious grounds was possibly the biggest of them all. It’s a pity those reactionary forces that still hold us to ransom don’t seem to have learned a thing from those blunders.

The Third Eye is the pseudonym of a commentator based in Dhaka     

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