Will Religious Instability Destroy Bangladesh?
Bangladesh was born in 1971 after India intervened in Pakistan’s civil war, which resulted in the independence of what was known as East Pakistan. The new state’s politics were violent too, punctuated by military rule, which pushed to Islamicize the secular state. Bangladesh today is nominally democratic, but politics is bitterly fractious and violent.
Moreover, Islamist tides are rising. Like a number of other majority Islamic states, such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, a once relaxed social atmosphere has grown more intolerant. While the country never was truly liberal, it largely accepted those who were. But both private and public attitudes have shifted. On the rise is fundamentalism, accompanied by the demand that others be forced to comply. Private violence has become the norm as the government increasingly plays the Islamic card for political purposes.
In early January blogger Asaduzzaman (Asad) Noor was arrested for authoring allegedly blasphemous posts. He is known for criticizing persecution against Hindus. The twenty-five-year-old had been on the run and was arrested at Dhaka Shahjalal International Airport while attempting to leave the country.
Last January the head of an Islamic seminary accused him of defaming Islam. Demonstrators then targeted him. Inspector Mohammad Shahidullah explained that “The charge against him is that he hurt religious feeling by mocking Prophet Mohammad and made bad comments against Islam, the prophet, and the Koran on Facebook and YouTube.” Noor faces a minimum of seven years and up to fourteen years in prison.
His arrest reflects the government’s increasing efforts to appeal to Islamist sentiments. In 2013 four bloggers were arrested after being targeted by nationwide protests for alleged atheism. The prime minister’s son explained: “We don’t want to be seen as atheists.” They were later released. The following year an online activist was sentenced to seven years in prison for posting songs satirizing the prime minister and other political figures. Since then hundreds of Bangladeshis have been arrested for alleged online offenses, though few appear to have been ultimately convicted and imprisoned.
Less lucky have been those targeted by Islamic extremists. About a dozen bloggers and others have been killed over the last couple of years, often hacked to death in gruesome fashion. Some people targeted by radicals have fled the country. Moreover, terrorists have become active in Bangladesh. Last year militants killed twenty-two customers, most foreigners, at a Dhaka café. The security problem continues to grow, and some seventy Islamic radicals have been killed by the government.
Bangladesh has the world’s fourth largest Muslim population. Roughly 90 percent of Bangladesh’s population profess Islam; 9.5 percent is Hindu. The remaining Bangladeshis are primarily Christian and Buddhist. But like India and Pakistan, Bangladesh began as a secular government. Although Islam is the state religion, the government officially prohibits favoritism toward any faith. According to the constitution: “the State shall ensure equal status and equal rights in the practice of the Hindu, Buddhist, Christian and other religions.”
However, the atmosphere has grown more difficult for all religious minorities. The basic idea of a secular state is under attack by political Islamists who want Islamic if not violent rule. Some extremists would simply extirpate other faiths.
Bangladeshi law prohibits “deliberate and malicious” intent to insult religion as well as language that “creates enmity and hatred among the citizens or denigrates religious beliefs.” Last year the Ministry of Information created a program to monitor the media, including blogs, which it blamed for encouraging religious conflict. Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan said bloggers “should control their writing” and not hurt “any religion any people’s beliefs, and religious leaders.” Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed announced: “It’s not at all acceptable if anyone writes against our prophet or other religions.” In the aftermath of the murder of two atheist professors, she said that “they have no right to write or speak against any religion,” that “you have to honor the social values, you have to honor others’ feelings.”
Outside observers fear for the future. The State Department notes in its most recent religious liberty report that “the government made some progress in arresting and indicting attackers of bloggers from previous years, although top officials continued to blame writers for offending religious sentiments. According to religious minority groups, the government continued to discriminate against them in property disputes and did not adequately protect them from attacks.”
Worse, however, has been the rise in private violence. Noted the State Department in 2016: “Terrorist organizations claimed responsibility for a significant number of attacks, many of them fatal, against multiple religious minorities. There were at least twenty-four individuals killed in the attacks including members of the country’s Hindu, Christian, Buddhist and other minority communities. Terrorist groups also targeted religious converts, Shia, and individuals who engaged in activities deemed atheistic.” Hindus constituted the bulk of victims, including, according to State, “priests, temple workers, teachers, and businesspeople.”