NEITHER has Hefajat-e-Islam made a call for an anti-blasphemy law as part of its 13-point demand nor is it against all bloggers, blogging or ‘free speech’. It is demanding punishment for only those bloggers who have insulted Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), making continuous derogatory remarks and particularly projecting a pornographic character of him. It could be handled by the government through enactment of a new ‘defamatory’ law in accordance with Article 39 of Bangladesh’s constitution and international norms set after the Danish cartoon controversy. Aggrieved by such acts of some bloggers, Hefajat has clearly identified those who committed the crime and already submitted a list with specific names to the home ministry. The presumption and prejudice that Hefajat is against free speech, blogging and critique of any issues of religious, social, political and cultural concerns related to Islam is far from truth. Human rights organisations have expressed their concern because the 13-point demand includes a ‘law providing for capital punishment for maligning Allah, Islam and Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and engaging in smear campaigns against Muslims.’ However, the issue of death sentence is related to the broader human rights debate globally [http://www.thedailystar.net/beta2/news/pm-responds-to-hefajat-demands/]. Neither the government nor any credible national media ever reported that Hefajat-e-Islam is demanding anti-blasphemy law. International media such as the BBC, while taking the interview of Sheikh Hasina, after the April 6 Hefajat long march, asked if she was going to enact an ‘anti-blasphemy’ law. She categorically denied such possibility. It can be noted that there was no reaction from Hefajat against such a statement from the prime minister. They only continued with their demands for punishment of those who defamed Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).
It is unfortunate that the Al-Jazeera reporting on the May 5 ‘Dhaka siege’ and May 6 ‘massacre’ by the government claimed that the rampant killing by the government was over the demand for a ‘blasphemy law’ and that the government was trying to preserve secularism in a country of majority Muslims. This was giving a prejudicial negative image of Islamic groups such as Hefajat and a ‘false’ and hypocritical use of ‘secularism’ by the government to suppress their demands. In the fateful late night to early morning of May 6, brutal operation by the police, the Rapid Action Battalion and the Border Guard Bangladesh, along with armed cadres of the ruling party, led to the mass killing of innocent Hefajat activists. It is also incorrect, as the Al-Jazeera pointed out that Hefajat demanded that the ‘offenders should be tried under Islamic law’. If were the case Hefajat had no justification to appeal to the government. It is also absolutely false that Hefajat as an organisation wants to establish an Islamic state. In the broadcast clip of Al-Jazeera, a demonstrator in the Hefajat procession was shown demanding Islamic state as if it was the organisational position. It is not part of the organisation’s 13-point demand. Such reports only help to solicit the western liberal support for the present regime, and can encourage the government to justify their policy of repression, human rights violation and crime against humanity. The blacking out of the area (switching off power in the area and not allowing presence of independent media), attacking the tired and sleepy demonstrators from three sides and shooting them to death were possible once it was established that these were Islamists and against the norms of civilisation and predominant values of liberalism. The media was kept away and two private channels Diganta TV and Islamic TV were shut early Monday.
The prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, admitted that the crimes committed by the bloggers are already punishable by the existing provisions of the Code of Criminal Procedure and the recently enacted ICT Act (2006). Surprisingly, the four arrested bloggers were not charged accordingly but were only charged under section 54 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. The government could have easily responded to Hefajat-e-Islam, amicably debated and resolved the issue from the perspective of defamation and public order. Instead, the government deliberately allowed the discontent to grow into a massive popular outburst resulting in the brutal ‘massacre’ and the late-night-to-early-morning ‘mass murder’. The killing of ulemas and people belonging to mostly rural poor folks took place in the heart of the commercial district of Dhaka city, hiding the brutality from the city dwellers.
Why such repression and brutal measures and rampant violation of human rights? This is essentially to prove to the western governments and their liberal taxpayers that the government is hard against the Islamists and they are the only ‘secular’ force to deal with jihadists, the Islamist terrorists. Al-Jazeera is reinforcing this wrong message. The hard-line policy of the government lacks prudence, foresight and pragmatism and totally disregards the consequences that are going to affect not only Bangladesh but the whole of the subcontinent and eventually the global order. The May 6 ‘massacre’ and killing of innocent and unarmed demonstrators is definitely going to be a turning moment in Bangladesh politics. It is unfortunate to see that Al-Jazeera’s coverage does not contribute positively to help understand the nature of Hefajat’s movement and the scopes to bring them into the fold of democratic polity.
To speak generally, the quick, lazy and convenient portrayal of the rise of Hefajat as a Taliban-type movement in a derogatory xenophobic sense is a grossly mistaken judgement, if not a propaganda, attuned to the rhetoric of US-led war against terror. Bangladesh is not a tribal or feudal society and a Taliban-type movement has no social, economic or institutional basis, unless it is precipitated by the failure of governance and state building. The Deobondi Islam and the quomi madrassah education have a strong ethical and moral grounding and the politics it could generate may contribute positively against the processes of social exclusion generated by unrestrained free market theology. The present political crisis is the result of the failure of the development policy and reducing the political process into an exercise of mere election. People are demanding the right to be heard, visible and participants in social, political and cultural processes that has been denied to them for the past 42 years. Repression, killing and violation of human rights do not solve but complicates the situation.
In a press briefing on May 3, Sheikh Hasina tried to refute the arguments in the 13-point Hefajat demand by ambiguously claiming that many of those already stand implemented according to the existing laws and legal arrangements. Although in a stance of refusals and denial, she still had to admit to the pervasive systematic practice of the culture of hatred by Bangladeshi secularists while portraying the characters of religious people and the religious, social and cultural practices of Islam. Such evidences are replete in Bengali dramas, novels, stories and other media and genres. An evil character is always portrayed by the image of an Islamic religious person with his beards and outfits such as tupi, long dresses and lungi or pyjamas. These are constant insult and humiliation not only to the ulemas and religious people but to the majority of the rural people and the urban poor and their culture. The ceaseless practice of class and cultural difference has constantly brutalised the feelings and the sense of social exclusion by the large majority of the population, who are already economically deprived, exploited and forced to survive outside the perimeter of law and justice by a lopsided developmental model. It is based on export-oriented industrialisation with the concurrent economy of exporting labour-slaves and earning remittance, benefitting only the upper hierarchy of society. The development fund that has been poured into Bangladesh has created a class of upper class beneficiaries who are mostly insensitive to the cultural concerns and the political aspirations of the deprived and exploited masses.
In this context, it is important to understand that Hefajat’s appeal is not necessarily grounded in literalist interpretation or the so-called fundamentalist reading of the theological scripts and traditions, but articulating the grievances of poor and the socially excluded. This is obvious in their eagerness to reinterpret their demands in the light of public criticisms and their willingness for dialogue and debates in media including talk-shows of the televisions. Their strategy has always been, since they became visible in the political scenario of Bangladesh, to articulate the concerns of the deprived without losing moral and political legitimacy derived from Islamic theology. This was done earlier by other Islamic tendencies, but Hefajat-e-Islam’s success in mobilising the large number of people is mainly due to the powerful moral legacy, agency and legitimacy of Deoband School and the religious and community-based social role of quomi madrassahs for the poor. The 13-point demand is an initial reactive response against Sheikh Hasina’s alliance with those bloggers who insulted their beloved prophet (PBUH) and the recent constitutional changes brought about by 15th amendment by which the ‘complete trust and faith in Allah’ has been deleted. The popular religious nature of the 13-point demand has been the ground for rapid mobilisation and organisational image building. The subsequent explanations and the strong support for the trade union rights of garment workers and to their demand of the minimum monthly wage of Tk 8,000 clearly demonstrate the class leaning or class nature of Hefajat. It can be easily understood that the young women who are working in the export sectors are from the families of the poor families, whom Hefajat represents.
One does not need to be superbly intelligent to understand the propaganda against Hefajat that they are against women coming out of their homes in order to engage in the socioeconomic and political arena. Propaganda continued despite the fact that Hefajat-e-Islam has repeatedly explained their position. With regard to the ‘unrestrained mixing of the sexes’, they were making purely cultural and moral critique of the so-called ‘modern’ and ‘liberated’ lifestyles of women and men. Such moral critique of ‘modern’ lifestyles is available aplenty in the daily discourse and social and cultural criticism of ‘modernity’ among seculars.
Still, one may reasonably criticise Hefajat or, for that matter, any secular discourses as well, for singularly targeting women and not equally criticising the modern lifestyles of men. Indeed, patriarchy is inherent in the modern egocentric society and in the cultural construction of man and woman. Capitalism releases woman from the personal dependence and control of her husband and brothers mostly to make her a wage slave to the capital or merely consumers of the products of transnational companies. The ideal ‘woman’ is constructed by the advertisements of the transnational companies. Capital is not gender neutral, as we generally assume. It is understandable that the moral and cultural critique of the modern egocentric lifestyles coming from the Hefajat-e-Islam is dictated by the overall dynamic of the capitalisation process of Bangladesh society and less to do with Islam or theology. Despite this obvious reality, the concerted propaganda to undermine the legitimate concerns of the Hefajat by the mainstream national media and some non-governmental organisations became the major hindrance to initiate any meaningful dialogue to address the crisis of social exclusion.
It is true that the development goals of the country could not be fulfilled without active participation of women, particularly rural and urban poor women. Women have advanced in many fields including education and have been in different professions along with men. However, it is also true that women’s empowerment in political decision making is yet to be attained and their security in the public sphere is constantly threatened by the commodification of women in the ‘modern’ lifestyles. Women’s movement is strong enough to deal with any forces that would push them back to their homes.
While a section of the national media is engaged in disinformation because of the domestic political condition, objective reporting from Al-Jazeera is not an over-expectation, particularly because of its credibility and professionalism. Occluding the nature of the current crisis of Bangladesh hardly helps the people or the policymakers in making informed judgement and decisions. The first and urgent task now is to condemn the massacre and the human rights violation of the present government and forcing the authorities to reveal the real number of people killed and injured in the fateful early hours of May 6. This is where we should concentrate now and not distract the liberal perception by implying that since a group demands anti-blasphemy or Islamic state, which they are not, we can massacre and kill them.