The Indian subcontinent is going through turbulent times as religious extremists try to demand that religious dogma drive each country’s legal system and social mores. Pakistan has been subjected to vicioius blasphemy laws. India has seen the rise of Hindu nationalists and Hindu-Muslim clashes, Sri Lanka has seen militant Buddhists, led by monks, attack ethnic and religious minorities, most recently the Muslims.
And now Bangladesh has erupted in violence as Islamic militants demand the death penalty for those who insult Islam, the hanging of atheists, and the imposition of religion-based laws on what is ostensibly a secular state. Oddly enough the rioting Islamists set fire to bookstores that contained thousands of copies of the Koran and other religious books. The country already has blasphemy laws that have been used to harass writers but these Islamists want even harsher punishments.
Ben Arnoldy of the Christian Science Monitor has a good article that gives the background to recent events in Bangladesh, which he says is a reaction to a push by a younger generation for a more secular society.
Some reasons for Bangladesh’s ferment include the country’s women-driven economic growth and a younger generation’s secular view on the country’s war for independence. At the moment, upcoming elections due to be held by January are also stirring the pot.
The country is currently headed by a center-left party with a secularist bent known as the Bangladesh Awami League. The opposition is led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), a center-right party that emphasizes Islamic identity. The recent events grabbing global headlines have been amplified within Bangladesh by the competing factions.
Bangladesh’s political turbulence began in February with street protests over a court decision drawing hundreds of thousands. A war crimes tribunal handed a life sentence to a leader of the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party for crimes he committed during Bangladesh’s war of independence from Pakistan. Crowds that gathered to call for the man to be put to death touched off something much bigger, the Monitor reported at the time:
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.
“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.”
The secularist spirit of what would become known as the Shahbag movement this spring seemed to redound to the ruling party’s benefit and posed a challenge to the opposition BNP and fringe Islamists further to the right.
So the Islamists are now fighting back and once again we see the struggle between modernity and the backwardness represented by religion.
This is a very important struggle. If the Islamists manage to impose their will on a country like Bangladesh, it will encourage similar moves in other Islamic countries.