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The rise, fall and legacy of Bangladesh's Islamic figurehead

The 'sea of humans' at the funeral of Hefajat's leader shows his hardline ideology won't wither away

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The rise, fall and legacy of Bangladesh's Islamic figurehead

Thousands of followers of Shah Ahmad Shafi offer his funeral prayers in Chittagong on Sept. 19. (Photo: AFP)

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“Death answers all questions” is an old saying, but it is often confusing and cynical.

With the saying in mind, it becomes extremely difficult to analyze the rise, fall and legacy of Shah Ahmad Shafi, Bangladesh’s most known and controversial Sunni Islamic cleric who died last week.

Shafi was buried in Chittagong on Sept. 19 and his funeral turned into literally a “sea of humans” with tens of thousands of followers despite restrictions on public gathering due to Covid-19, showing his huge fan base in the South Asian Muslim-majority country.

Shafi, believed to be over 100, died at a hospital in capital Dhaka on Sept. 18 following various age-related illnesses for months. His death drew condolences from President Abdul Hamid, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and opposition parties.

Shafi was the founding leader of Hefajat-e-Islam (Protectors of Islam), the country’s largest radical Islamic group, and chairman of state-recognized but self-regulated Bangladesh Qwami Madrasa Education Board that oversees about 25,000 madrasas.

Since 1986, he was the director general of Al-Jamiatul Ahlia Darul Ulum Mueenul Islam Madrasa, the country’s largest madrasa and popularly known as Hathazari Madrasa. Shafi was forced to resign from the post recently following three days of violent protests by some 3,000 students opposing the alleged corruption and authoritarianism of leaders and teachers led by Anas Madani, Shafi’s son.

The violence forced the government to deploy thousands of police and border guards to avert any possibility of clashes between two rival groups vying for control of this influential Chittagong madrasa and the umbrella group Hefajat.

Shafi has been one of most radical, controversial and divisive Islamic leaders in Bangladesh due to his various statements and stances that go against the nominally secular constitution and largely pluralistic character of the country.

Anti-women stance

Shafi shot into national politics in 2010 when he led the formation of Hefajat-e-Islam in protest at the government’s national women’s development policy, which sought to ensure equal rights and dignity for women including inheritance rights and the elimination of all forms of discrimination for the first time.

Hefajat termed the policy un-Islamic and vowed to “wage a nationwide war” if the government moved ahead with it without making major changes. It forced the government to adopt a curtailed policy with sweeping changes as demanded by the radical group.

Shafi opposed and mocked the education and employment of women in Bangladesh on various occasions.

In a speech in 2013, Shafi described women as a "mouth-watering fruit like tamarind" and, quoting the Quran, he said that women should stay at home and their primary duty is to take care of the family and children. He rebuked parents of female garment workers for sending them to factories to be “spoilt.”

On Jan. 11, 2019, he urged parents of Hathazari Madrasa students not to send their daughters to schools. "Don't send your daughters to schools and colleges after grade 4 or 5. If you send your daughters after that, they will become disobedient and elope with men," he said.

Deadly blasphemy rally

On May 5, 2013, Hefajat, under the influence of anti-government and Islamist political parties, held a rally in Dhaka with about half a million supporters that made 13 staunchly Islamic demands that effectively sought to roll back Bangladesh to the Middle Ages.

Under the guidance of Shafi and other leaders, the group courted Islamist politicians to save once-powerful Islamists facing war crime trials for their deadly roles during Bangladesh’s War of Independence from Pakistan in 1971.

Together they sought to vilify and annihilate secularists and bloggers who waged the Shahbag Movement in Dhaka for months, seeking the trial and punishment of war criminals and a ban on religion-based politics.

The demonstrators demanded Sharia and blasphemy laws and execution of atheist bloggers for defaming Islam and Prophet Muhammad. They refused to leave Dhaka without a “concrete promise” or “fall” of the ruling Awami League government.

The rally turned extremely violent and demonstrators clashed with police attempting to flush them out of the city. Dozens of shops and offices were vandalized and set on fire. About 50 people died.

Starting from 2013, about 50 people including atheist bloggers, writers, academics, LGBT activists, religious minorities and foreigners were murdered by members of banned Islamist terror outfits pledging allegiance to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

While Hefajat was not directly blamed for the attacks, the rally was seen as a trigger for violence against secularists and liberals, forcing dozens to flee the country for Europe and America to save their lives.

Islamization of textbooks

Among Hefajat’s demands have been mandatory Islamic education at primary and secondary levels and scrapping of the popular national education policy of 2010.

In 2017, following its objections, the government education board removed 17 popular poems and stories by non-Muslim and secular writers from Bengali textbooks which were deemed “atheist and un-Islamic” and replaced them with articles with Islamic views.

Liberal Muslims including academics, cultural activists and Christian leaders deplored the move as “appeasing radical ideology” for political interests.

The move sparked a popular backlash from progressives and academics, forcing the government to reinstate the articles.

Shafi also strongly resisted a government attempt to bring Qwami madrasas under state regulation and oversight.

Targeting minorities and cultural feasts

On several occasions Shafi and his group described Islamic sect Ahmadis as kafirs (infidels) and demanded the government declare them non-Muslim officially.

Hefajat, under the influence of other radical Islamic groups, also falsely accused Christian NGOs and missionaries of luring and converting people in remote areas, mostly in restive Chittagong Hill Tracts. Fearing a backlash, Christians remained tightlipped about such accusations.

Shafi also denounced traditional celebrations of Bengali New Year, the country's most popular cultural festival, as un-Islamic and having Hindu-origin customs.

In 2017, Hefajat forced the government to remove the statue of Lady Justice (Greek goddess Themis) from the premises of the Supreme Court in 2017, terming it “immodest and unholy.”   

Neutralization and fractures in the group

Following a heavy government crackdown in 2013, Shafi and Hefajat maintained a low profile for years and cozied up with the ruling Awami League government due to alleged buy-outs of senior leaders including Shafi.

The government also recognized degrees provided by Qwami madrasas and allowed madrasa students to apply for government jobs.

However, the courting of the government didn’t go down well with some leaders, particularly those with anti-government views and those seeking reforms in Hefajat’s top-down and authoritarian structure. There were also allegations of corruption and abuses against the group led by Madani, Shafi’s son.

The split and tensions continued for months as Shafi remained hospitalized, while the violence at Hathazari Madrasa, which is also the headquarters of Hefajat, forced him to remove his son from the post of assistant director and to resign himself from the post of director general.

Following Shafi’s death, analysts believe Hefajat might split into two, raising fears for further division, polarization and clashes.

For years, millions of Muslims regarded Shafi as a supreme spiritual leader who roused them with strong words. They blindly believed he was no less than a prophet protecting Islam from the onslaughts of secularism.

The huge funeral rally for Shafi shows his ideology won’t wither away even with his death, whether the group he founded remains one or splits.

That’s the real danger and threat for progressive and secular forces who want to keep the long-held culture of harmony and pluralism alive in Bangladesh.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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