Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators mobilized for the ninth successive day this week in Bangladesh’s capital to protest the verdict of a trial of a major Islamist leader accused of atrocities during the 1971 war of independence.
The trial of Abdul Quader Mollah, a leader of Jamaat-e-Islami, the largest Islamist party, has “awoken an astonishing struggle over this country’s identity and the role that religion plays in its fractious politics,” according to reports:
After the sentencing, protesters gathered in downtown Dhaka, crying foul that Mollah had not received the death sentence. This soon galvanized a vibrant protest movement against the ongoing influence of conservative, politicized Islam in one of the world’s most populous Muslim nations.
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood protested against the verdict against Mollah, widely known as the “butcher of Mirpur.”
The protests “are not an antireligious movement; we are not against Islam,” says one activist. “We are against intimidation in the name of Islam and religion interfering in politics.”
“The current movement is aimed very explicitly at the Jamaat’s role in 1971,” says Zafar Sobhan, editor of the Dhaka Tribune. But “it was clear that the future that the youths protesting … envision is one without Islamist politics, returning to Bangladesh’s secular roots, and recognition that religion-based politics had poisoned the society.”
“They don’t want to see the Jamaati-style Islamism either gain further currency in the society or more power politically,” he says.
As in Tunisia, following the recent killing of a prominent secular leader, “the political upheaval in Bangladesh….is pulling the country into a head-on collision between its secularist and Islamic camps,” notes analyst and community activist Muhammad Abdul Bari:
Civil society works as the eyes and ears of a nation: it must be politically conscious, but neutral or at least non-partisan…..The danger for any country, old or new democracy, is the polarisation of its politics and politicisation of its civil society.
Sadly, civil society in many Muslim countries is not that effective. Over the last few decades only a handful of these nation-states have been able to cross the threshold of political peril and improve the socio-economic conditions of their people by means of representative governance and the rule of law.
Distinguishing the religion of Islam from the ideology of Islamism will be a key factor in enhancing the political impact of civil society, observers suggest.
“Us pushing for the death sentence is the tip of the iceberg; this is a way to begin to unravel religion from politics,” protester and blogger Asif Moihuddin, recently stabbed by Islamist thugs, tells Christian Science Monitor.