Gita Sahgal on Bangladesh and East London

Gita Sahgal explains the situation in Bangladesh, at Open Democracy. (The page is almost unreadable, unfortunately – it’s got so much junk on it that only an average-length paragraph is visible at a time, which is irksome.)

The mass populist uprising occupying Shahbag in Dhaka, calling for ‘maximum punishment’  (the death penalty) for war criminals, was sparked by the triumphant V sign made by a convicted man. He saw his life sentence as a victory.  At first, the political parties courted the Shahbag movement, with the government promising to rush through legislation that  reflected its main demands – allowing the prosecution to challenge the sentence to make it harsher, and amending the law to enable  the Jamaat e Islami  to be put on trial as an organisation. The Jamaat-e-Islami, the largest Islamist political party in Bangladesh, responded to the conviction and death sentence of the Deputy leader of the party, Delawar Hussein Sayeedi, with a country-wide campaign of violence, with particularly vicious attacks on religious minorities, including killing Hindus and destroying temples and homes. Christian Bangladeshis also reported attacks, but in some cases people were too afraid to make an official report.

Abroad, the conviction was referred to as ‘judicial murder’, to capitalise on the revulsion against the death penalty. But Western criticism of the Tribunal process failed to note also that peaceful opposition to religious fundamentalism was met by death threats, assault and murder. All  opposition to them was labelled ‘atheists’, and a label that seemed intended to provoke mass revulsion, promote extra-judicial killings as well as create a climate for  laws criminalising blasphemy.

 Rajib, a young blogger, activist and professed atheist who was targeted online and then murdered,  has become an iconic figure in the movement. The fundamentalists have gone after a number of individual bloggers, beating people up and issuing death threats online or on mobiles. Labelling people as atheists, whether they are or not, puts them at risk of attack, and the bloggers have been targeted as atheists by both Muslim fundamentalists and the government.

I would like to see Scott Stephens explain how that comports with his claim that there is such a thing as “the humble insistence on the ineffability of the will of God in Islam.” If there is, why is it so utterly lost on such a huge number of the followers of Islam? Why are so many of those followers so thoroughly convinced that they know exactly what the will of god is?

In their defense, atheists, humanists and secularists  and declared April 25 anInternational Day to Defend Bangladesh’s Bloggers. With some more protests planned on 4th May in deference to the tragedy currently gripping Bangladesh.  The young bloggers need all the support they can get, for another fundamentalist group has arisen out of nowhere with a familiar list of fundamentalist demands.  On April 7 this group, Hefazat e Islam, staged a mammonth “long march” of half a million people to protest against the mixed sex, peaceful, candlelit gatherings in Shahbagh.  They made 13 demands,which contain many of familiar obsessions of fundamentalists. Apart from demanding a defamation law with the highest punishment ( in other words making blasphemy punishable by death) , Hefazat wants to declare Ahmadiyas to be non-Muslim, attacks practices such as candle lighting and putting up sculptures, opposes sexual mixing and “promotion of Islamophobia among the youth,” wants compulsory Islamic education at all levels and an end to “ungodly education, inheritance laws and unIslamic laws generally.”  Christian and other NGOs are attacked for proselytizing  and “an immediate and unconditional release of all detained Islamic scholars” is demanded.

There again – people (men) who are clearly convinced that they know god’s will and that they are authorized to impose it on anyone who disagrees. Where’s the effing ineffability in that?

These demands are nothing new to Bangladesh, where Islamists have been trying to get a blasphemy law passed since the early nineties, when they went after the writer Taslima Nasrin.

Two decades of cluelessness about the ineffability of god’s will.

And it’s happening in London too.

The conflict between Bangladeshi secularists and fundamentalists has spread to London’s East End where, on Feb. 8th, at Altab Ali Park, young demonstrators supporting Shahbagh clashed with men from the Jamaat-dominated East London mosque.  For older anti-racists, the scenes were remniscent of decades old battles where the police simply protected the aggressors ‘freedom of speech’ and right to threaten and intimidate.

Ah yes the “free speech” right to threaten and intimidate. We’re well familiar with that.

Thousands of leaflets have been distributed from the East London Mosque and across the world labelling prominent bloggers as atheists. Sermons have been read attacking atheists, Hindus and suggestive statements made regarding sexual assault. In Bangladesh, fundamentalists  paraded a banner which said, ‘we demand the death penalty for atheist bloggers because they use obscene language to criticise Allah, Mohammed and the Quran.’  Statements such as these, along with murderous attacks on atheist and free thinking bloggers, need to be considered alongside the leaflets identifying named individuals as atheists and accusing them of insulting religion, to see whether they amount to incitement to  murder. Fundamentalists consider it an obligation for believers to kill apostates; a recent Moroccan fatwa makes this very clear, as does the experience of an atheist from Bangladesh, applying for asylum in Canada.

It’s a very strong current we’re swimming against.

Update: h/t Unrepentant Jacobin on Twitter.


  1. theobromine says

    CFI Ottawa and friends joined the international protest – about 20 of us marched 2.5km from the Department of Foreign Affairs to the Bangladesh High Commission (or at least across the street from the office building which houses said High Commission, since that was as close as we were allowed to get)..

    Some declined to join us saying that it was insensitive to protest the mistreatment of a few bloggers in view of the hundreds who died in the recent building collapse. But I would ask why the Bangladesh government is so concerned about insults against imaginary beings when real people are dying due to their inaction with respect to workplace safety standards?

  2. great1american1satan says

    I’ve recently come to the view Islamophobia is a real thing, as it plays out in a country like the USA. In a country where islamist shitbarons can hold a country down in a wave of bloody-fisted horror, I don’t think that’s a reasonable word to bandy around. Fuck those fucking fucks.

    Oh noes. I used obscene language against the humble servants of Allah. I guess I gotta die.

    I do fear death, insofar as I like life, but it offers a sweet consolation. In not existing, I won’t have to be aware of the existence of shit like this.

  3. great1american1satan says

    That was grammatically sad. Apologies for that. Fuck god. No apologies for that.

  4. sailor1031 says

    We’ve said it before – ‘islamophobia’ is entirely the wrong word to use. A phobia is defined as an irrational fear. Fear of islam is, on the other hand, all too rational and justified. We need to coin a new term.

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