Growing calls to separate Bangladeshi religion and politics
Recent violence spurs calls to ban main Islamic party
In the world’s fourth most populous Muslim nation there are growing calls to seperate politics and religion once and for all.
In recent weeks, about 1,000 protesters have been arrested across the country following heated demonstrations in which vehicles have been vandalized and police attacked. Reports vary wildly but estimates suggest there have been about 500 people injured including 100 policemen.
Blame has been directed in one clear direction: The main opposition Jamaat-e-Islami party and its youth wing Islamic Chhatra Shibir.
But is this a debate about religion-based politics or are Jamaat the subject of a coordinated effort to weaken the main opponents of the ruling interim government of the Awami League?
On Monday, the Communist Party of Bangladesh (CPB) – a non-aligned party – formed a human chain in front of the National Press Club in Dhaka demanding a complete ban on Jamaat and its associates.
“Armed Jamaat-Shibir cadres attacked police – it’s nothing short of sedition,” said Muzahidul Islam Selim, CPB president.
He suggests that Jamaat is using the name of Islam in vain.
“A party that claims Islamic principles as its guidelines but keeps doing everything to destabilize the country must be banned,” he said, calling for a restoration of strict secularism over what he termed “religious extremism” in Bangladeshi politics.
Last year, the Awami League-led government amended the constitution to reinstate secularism and ban religion-based politics in a move widely viewed as politically motivated to curtail political archrivals of Jamaat.
Meanwhile, nine Jamaat leaders remain behind bars as part of investigations into crimes against humanity committed during the Bangladesh war of independence in 1971 during which the Islamists are accused of gross rights violations in siding with Pakistan.
These detentions are a major factor behind the recent wave of violence that is prompting the recent backlash against Jamaat.
About a dozen intellectuals, journalists and activists held a meeting on Monday in which they too demanded a ban on religion in politics and on Jamaat.
“Jamaat was always against Bangladesh liberation and secularism. It has led into rise of religious extremism in the country in the name of Islam. If they are not banned, national and international security will be at stake,” said Shahriar Kabir, a journalist, filmmaker and rights activists.
As the head of the Committee for Secular Bangladesh and Trials of the 1971 War Criminals, Kabir says he has filed a petition to the Election Commission demanding a ban on the party.
The commission declined to respond on whether it would take action against Jamaat.
“If the government thinks that it can win an election while keeping Jamaat on the field, it is a fool,” said Kabir.
A top Jamaat leader last week threatened to take the party “underground” to do everything to resist “political repression” if it is banned.
“There are plots to destroy our party,” said Abu Taher Masum, publication secretary at the Jamaat central committee.
“Our top leaders were detained on ‘so-called’ war crimes charges and now the Awami League and its allies are trying to ban Jamaat. But they will not succeed.”
Shantanu Majumder, professor of political science and researcher on secularism at Dhaka University, says it is not a good time to ban Jamaat or other smaller Islamist political parties.
“If Islamist parties or Jamaat are banned now, their activists would cause havoc across the country and the longstanding war crimes trial will be seriously affected,” he said.
Jamaat is strongly organized and established – socially, ideologically and financially – so if it was banned, he added, it could easily operate as an extremist group.
Bishop Gervas Rozario of Rajshahi, chairman of the Catholic Bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission, said he agrees that a ban on Jamaat would be difficult to execute without a broad consensus, but that ultimately, banning parties of any religion should be the goal.
“Religion and politics should stay separate because they too often spoil each other,” he said.
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