Appeasing hard-line Islamic groups by conceding to their demands for what seem like symbolic reforms or minor policy shifts is a counterproductive dead end. Rather than quelling demands, clerics become emboldened and portray such concessions to followers as validating and thus empowering. Such unelected religious hard-liners are pressuring Bangladesh’s elected government to embrace Islamic values as they define them, resorting to street protests and inciting violence to achieve their aims.
Secularists may believe that appeasement is a one-way road to perdition, but the current secular government lead by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League party is in election mode and overly eager to make concessions to broaden its appeal. During a recent visit I met with academics, journalists and a prominent novelist who shared their misgivings about the current state of play.
This year the banned religious-based party Jamaat-e-Islami, along with other Islamic groups, condemned part of the nation’s traditional April new year celebrations known as Pohela Boishakh as haram, or forbidden in Islam. These celebrations, recently awarded UNESCO World Heritage status, include the raucous and colorful procession known as the Mongol Shobhajatara, which features dancing and large carnival floats depicting animals, dragons and other motifs careening through the crowds. This is what Jamaat leaders object to, in addition to intermingling of the sexes, alleging that the parade includes “anti-national cultural elements” because it celebrates Hinduism and the birth of Krishna.
Religious hard-liners believe this is yet another manifestation of what they view as a conspiracy to destroy Bangladesh’s Islamic heritage and culture. The government maintains that the event has nothing to do with religion or promoting alien culture. Displaying a large sun, Dhaka University’s contingent in the parade denounced the rise of Islamic militancy and called for fellow citizens to shun religious demagogues.
“The sun stands for our call to come to the light shunning the darkness,” a university administrator explained. “Militancy wants to drag us into the darkness. This time, we are calling for people to ignore the call of darkness and look towards light.”
Earlier this year, in the wake of the 2016 UNESCO designation, the government awarded public servants a festival bonus and made participation mandatory for all educational institutions. Following the subsequent Islamic backlash, the ruling Awami League caved in by canceling the party’s participation in the procession.
It has backed down on other fronts as well. The government issued revised school textbooks that cut 17 poems and stories that Islamic hard-liners deem atheistic to appease the radical Hefazat-e-Islam, a group that has lobbied for such changes since 2013.
The divide between Islamist and secular Bangladeshis appears to be widening, with vigilante radicals hacking bloggers to death with machetes because they espouse liberal values deemed antithetical to Islamic precepts. Target lists with names of prominent secularists are also circulating in efforts to shrink the public space for intellectuals and pundits through intimidation.
In this context, the government’s accommodating approach to radical Islam troubles champions of secularism like K. Anis Ahmed, the celebrated writer, prominent businessman and patron of the arts. He helped found the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB), organizes the Dhaka Literary Festival and has provided space for the reopening of the Holey Artisan Bakery, site of the nation’s worst terrorist attack in 2016. It is a powerful symbol of a defiant secular Bangladesh identity that militant clerics target. I know he takes the chilling atmosphere seriously as an armed bodyguard hovered while we chatted.
In his view, the main trauma defining Bangladeshi identity is the 1971 war for liberation from Pakistan, which claimed some 3 million lives in what was East Pakistan. Problematically, leaders of Islamic groups that collaborated with the Pakistani Army in this genocide have only recently been held accountable for their role in the atrocities. Today’s Islamists seek to portray these leaders as martyrs and victims of a political witch-hunt, but Ahmed maintains they were traitors belatedly subject to justice.
Ahmed worries that Bangladesh is sliding in the wrong direction. He expressed disappointment over how the government has made major concessions without getting any quid pro quo. It appears that the government is gifting one concession after another to religious hard-liners in order to broaden its support in the run-up to the 2019 elections, but Ahmed is skeptical about whether this will actually work. He spoke of the decline in democratic institutions and their inability to curb extremists, lamenting that the dwindling space for tolerance bodes ill for the nation.
Despite such reservations about the current government’s tactics, Ahmed made clear that the Awami League “is infinitely better than the alternative.” The alternative is the dark force of Islamists who seek to eradicate secularism and tolerance and establish an Islamic state. While the battle to remove the goddess of justice statue from in front of the Supreme Court in Dhaka may seem trivial, Ahmed argues that it is about the larger issue of the rule of law being sacrificed to mob pressure and who is the sovereign — the elected government or militant clerics. So whether it is the statue, the parade or textbooks, each seemingly a minor issue, they are the thin edge of the wedge that is fracturing society and its secular identity. He thinks the government’s short-term electoral tactics carry the seeds of long-term catastrophe and worries that by allowing militants to position themselves as aggrieved victims, it is unwittingly bequeathing validation to them and their claims.
The blogger killings in 2015 and the 2016 bakery massacre are part of an intensifying battle against secularism that resonates with disaffected youth from across the social spectrum seeking meaning in life. Ahmed rhetorically asks, “What’s more appealing than self-sacrifice for a glorious cause?” This is what keeps counter-terrorist experts awake at night, trying to separate the purifying glory of religion from the purifying glory of death.
And now the government has moved to recognize previously unauthorized Islamic schools known as qawmi madrassa. The curriculum is antediluvian and shortchanges science, but professor Salimullah Khan of ULAB thinks it’s a gamble worth taking as a way to remove a grievance and help mainstream this popular educational institution for the destitute while improving graduates’ prospects. The dawra degree issued by these madrassa will be recognized as equivalent to a university master’s degree in Islamic or Arabic studies, allowing graduates to take civil service examinations for which they appear poorly prepared, perhaps sowing the seeds of another exploitable grievance.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.