Secular Uprising in Bangladesh

Why I support Shahbag!

Having keenly observed the Tahrir Square revolution and the eventual victory of Muslim Brotherhood and Islamists in Egypt, I no longer get easily impressed by crowd-sourced movements. A multitude of activists, connected primarily via Facebook, as well as progressive bloggers had gathered on Bangladesh streets demanding death penalty for a war criminal called Abdul Kader Mollah. As a campaigner against the death penalty, I could not support these protesters in this particular demand of theirs.


Most people protesting at Shahbag and demanding the death penalty for Mollah were born after the 1971 war following which East Pakistan gained independence from Pakistan, forming the nation of Bangladesh. However — thanks to secular writers and artists, who strove to keep aflame the emotions and perceptions associated with the ‘71 war, through books, plays, films and performances — these protesters are by no means ignorant about the genocide carried out during the war by the Pakistan Army, along with local religious militias affiliated with the Islamist outfit, Jamaat-e-Islami. After Islamization started in earnest in Bangladesh during the mid ’80s, many of these protesters have also witnessed how Islamists murdered progressive people, violated people’s human rights, oppressed women, and tortured non-Muslims in the name of Islam. After decades of maintaining silence, their patience has worn thin; they have finally started to rise in rebellion against the status quo. As more people joined the crowd, they have started demanding death penalty for all tried and convicted war criminals.
A Bangladesh tribunal recently sentenced Abdul Kader Mollah, a Jamaat-e-Islami leader, to life imprisonment for his war crimes, but the Shahbag crowd could not be happy with this verdict. Based on previous experience, they are apprehensive that Mollah would be released if the political party-in-opposition, a known ally of Jamaat-e-Islami, were to win the next election.

It is important to remember that in present Bangladesh, not all Islamists are war criminals; however, all war criminals are Islamists – who, at one time, did not want the separation from Pakistan, a country based on Islam. The Shahbag movement gained interest for me when some protesters started demanding a ban on Jamaat-e-Islami, as well as on all the religious schools, banks, clinics and other amenities that were created with money collected from Middle Eastern Islamists, whose express desire was to turn the erstwhile-secular Bangladesh into a country of Islamists.


Those who are familiar with my writings know that I am not in favor of banning and censorship, in general. Yet, I supported banning Jamaat-e-Islami, because in Bangladesh this political party is nothing more than a terrorist organization, led by known war criminals who raped, maimed and killed people by the thousands in 1971. On top of that, in the last 40 years, they have been committing an even more serious crime by systematically destroying the country via Islamization. And yet, perhaps driven by the necessities of realpolitik, they have been pardoned, favored, accorded respect, honored, and empowered by the worthless politicians and military since the Bangladesh gained its Freedom. Some of these war criminal Islamists, who were stoutly against the independence of this nation, were made into Members of the Parliament, ministers, and once even a President of the independent Bangladesh.

The inequities of Jamaat-e-Islami did not end with Mollah’s life imprisonment sentence. Delawar Hossain Sayedee, one of the most notorious criminals belonging to Jamaat-e-Islami, was handed a death sentence by the tribunal, after almost a month of non-stop protests at Shahbag. After the verdict was issued, Sayedee’s Islamist followers vandalized cities, burned down Hindu and Buddhist temples, killed innocent people, along with policemen. There is no doubt that in today’s Bangladesh, the Islamists are much more powerful and ferocious than ever.


The Islamists have gained unbelievable strength in Bangladesh over the years. They have been showing off their strength by harassing, abusing, stabbing and murdering anyone who rose in dissent against their atrocities, including progressive bloggers. They stabbed Asif Mohiuddin, an atheist blogger, a month ago; in the recent past, they brutally killed Rajib Haider, another atheist blogger and one of the organizers of the Shahbag movement.

Islamists have also taken to the tactic of calling all the bloggers and protesters at Shahbag ‘atheists’. This has discomfited and scared the folks at Shahbag; most of them are Muslims, and they had cast their lot with the Shahbag crowd with no bigger-and-better agenda than merely to ask for the hanging of war criminals, perhaps because they sought closure via revenge. Now that the Islamists have called them atheists (that dirty, dirty word!), many of them are now falling over themselves trying to prove they are pious Muslims. Therefore, instead of saying, “They are atheists and have the right to criticize religion, but no one has the right to kill them, just like no one has the right to kill religious people for being religious!”, the so-called liberal and secular people at Shahbag are bleating placatory statements, such as “Jamaat-e-Islami goons are trying to prove that bloggers are atheists, but they are not atheists; they are good people.” As if atheists are not good people!

People attend mass demonstration at Shahbagh intersection, in Dhaka

It is very alarming that the word ‘atheist’ is being considered as a filthy, obscene word in Bangladesh, and the liberal people refrain from doing anything in support of the freedom of expression of atheists. They must know that Islam should not be exempt from the critical scrutiny that applies to other religions as well; in their mind, they must understand that Islam has to go through an enlightenment process similar to what other world religions have already gone through, by questioning the inhuman, unequal, unscientific and irrational aspects of religion. If the Shahbag movement can’t make people understand this simple but necessary idea, then real change would never occur, even if all the war criminals are hanged. I know that even the atheists at Shahbag would say, the time for this idea has not arrived yet. However, I earnestly hope that people would soon evolve, and be enlightened enough to realize that there is no real difference between the Islam of the 7th century and the Islam Jamaat-e-Islami practices to this day.

Sadly, the very nature of Bangladesh has changed greatly. Ordinary people have been alarmingly indoctrinated into the ways of Islamists. Many more women are veiled, and more men go to mosques to pray, than ever before. I lost the hopes I had for Bangladesh many years ago, but some of those were rekindled by the Shahbag movement. I truly hope that the Shahbag movement will turn into a positive political movement for a true democracy and a secular state – a state which affirms a strict separation between religion and state, and maintains a uniform civil code, a set of secular laws that are not based on religion, but instead, on equality, and an education system that is secular, scientific, and enlightened.

A war is needed in Bangladesh, a war between two diametrically opposite ideas — secularism and fundamentalism; between rational, logical thinking and irrational blind faith; between those who strive to move forward and those who strain to push themselves backward; a war between modernism and barbarism, humanism and Islamism; between innovation and tradition, future and past; between those who value freedom and those who do not.

Let us encourage people of Bangladesh to transmute their nation into a secular country without poverty, illiteracy, ignorance, superstitions — free of religionism, fanaticism, fascism, barbarism; a country without crimes and corruption!

All sane and secular people should support the Shahbag movement, because it is a rare and immensely difficult movement in an Islamized country. I am not sure whether they will eventually manage to have Jamaat-e-Islami proscribed, particularly because the Bangladesh government is likely to be afraid of losing the considerable financial support that come from the Islamic countries. Western support may not be forthcoming, because not many Western secular countries are interested in Bangladesh, often seen as a nation stuck in a quagmire of over-population, poverty, illiteracy, and ignorance. Once a thriving community of vivacious, affectionate, creative people, this unfortunate country is now drowning in Islamism and may soon be submerged in the Indian ocean.

I also hope that if the Shahbag movement, in its present form, fails to achieve its goals now, the brave and enlightened people associated with it will not be permanently disillusioned or disheartened, and will renew/repeat their efforts until their dreams come true. A trend must be set. People need to get angry. I am painfully aware of the evil powers which once attempted to eliminate me, and with whom the pro-Islamist government ultimately colluded to throw me out of Bangladesh, my own country, 20 years ago, never to allow me in again. Therefore, I know how much I would love to see hundreds of thousands of angry, passionate young people with a vision rise against that insanity, and usher in real change, a new era.