Members of the Awami Ulema League, a radical Islamist organization, hold a rally in Dhaka on Jan. 21 to press for a series of strict Islamic demands. Bangladesh’s ruling Awami League has denied any association with the group and warned it may take legal action against the group. (ucanews.com photo)
Bangladesh's ruling Awami League (AL) is denying any association with a radical Islamist group that has made a series of controversial demands recently, including calls to ban NGOs targeting child marriages.
In a statement issued to the media on Jan. 21, AL office secretary Abdus Sobhan Golap said the party was disturbed to read reports of the Awami Ulema League's called-for reforms.
It singled out the group's calls to ban local and international NGOs and cancel the ongoing Bangladesh Premier League (BPL), one of the most popular T20 (20 overs) cricket leagues in the country.
"We want to clearly state that the Awami League does not have any associated body called the Awami Ulema League, or any committee at any level, and there is no relationship between the reports published and the Awami League," the statement read, as reported by the Dhaka Tribune on Jan. 21.
Golap said the Awami Ulema League's activities were both unethical and illegal, and threatened legal action against it for conducting such activities, which he said are in no way aligned with AL policy.
On Jan. 21, the Islamist group and 13-like minded organizations held a rally in Dhaka calling to oust NGOs fighting against child marriage, a practice still widespread in the country.
They also insisted on the repeal of the Child Marriage Restraint Act 2017, which makes marrying a minor a punishable offense.
The group of demonstrators said the activities of agencies such as UNICEF, UK-based Save the Children, and Switzerland-based Terre dos homes were "anti-Muslim" and "anti-Islam."
Bangladesh has made notable progress in curbing child marriages in recent decades but it still ranks fourth in the world among countries that sanction this.
In 2015, roughly six in 10 weddings involved a bride under the age of 15. However within two years this had dropped to two in 10 marriages, according to figures supplied by UNICEF.
Meanwhile, the percentage of marriages featuring women under 18 fell from 66 percent to 59 percent over the same period, the statistics show.
The Awami Ulema League also branded Bangladesh's child marriage law as kufri (disgraceful) in a Muslim country.
It has also taken issue with cricket, demanding the BPL be axed immediately as it is "a den of gamblers and fixers."
While kabbadi is the national sport, cricket and football are the country's most popular.
The Islamist group also warned the government against drafting new laws or commissions to protect minorities, which it said could sow "the seeds of communalism" in the country and promote allegiance to religious and ethnic minority groups.
Maolana Fariduddin Masoud, president of Bangladesh Jamiatul Ulama (Council of Clerics), said the group's demands were not realistic.
"This group does not have a good base or following in the country, and it does not represent the majority of Muslims," Masoud told ucanews.com.
"Their demands are totally unacceptable. It's time to find out how they have gathered the courage to put forward these demands, and who is backing them," he said.
Father Anthony Sen, a member of the Catholic Bishops' Justice and Peace Commission, also criticized the group for its extremism.
"This group has made ridiculous demands in the past and now their voice is growing stronger," he said.
"They oppose the culture and further development of Bangladesh, and their demands go against people's constitutional rights," he added.
"The government needs to take action against the group and its backers."
Nur Khan, a Dhaka-based rights activist, had one word to describe the group's policies and ideology: "medieval."
"A sane person in this modern world cannot tolerate the absurd demands of such a group," Khan told ucanews.com.
"Sadly, we have seen a shaking-up of politics and religion in the country in recent times, and the rise of groups like this poses a threat to our longstanding culture of peace and harmony."
The Awami Ulema League was formed in 1996. It courted controversy in 2016 by trying to ban celebrations of the Bangla New Year, popularly known as Pohela Boishakh, and rallying to stop broadcasts of Indian television channels. The group considers the celebrations "un-Islamic" based on the argument they derive from Hindu traditions, and holds Indian TV responsible for "polluting Muslim culture" with Hindu ideology and culture.
In 2017, the organization teamed up with other Islamist groups to demand the removal of the Lady Justice statue from the Supreme Court compound. It said having a Greek statue in front of the country's top judicial body was also "un-Islamic" and tantamount to worshipping false idols.