Bangladesh – The New Syria?

Posted: May 9, 2013 in Articles and Updates
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The exact number of dead in Bangladesh following the violent crackdown by the Bangladeshi government on the 5th of May protests, organised by Hefazot-e-Islam, is still unknown. Figures range from 27[1] to 2,500[2], whilst the number of wounded are likely to be in the many hundreds, if not thousands. According to Amnesty International the number of those who have been killed are at least 44[3], whilst an undercover recording[4] of a Bangladeshi police officer who took part in the attack has said that approximately 400 were killed. Diganta TV and Islam TV, the only two private Bangladeshi media channels which were broadcasting the protests live, and whose broadcasting could have helped provide a clearer picture of what took place and the number of dead, were raided[5] and shut-down[6] in the early hours of 6th May. This happened while the brutal attacks on protestors were taking place[7].

The protests organised by Hefazot-e-Islam (a largely apolitical madrasa-based[8] organisation from the Deobandi[9] tradition) was backed by an alliance of 18 political parties led by the main political opposition party, Bangladesh National Party (BNP).[10] The protests came as a response to the government’s failure to meet Hefazot-e-Islam’s ‘13-Point’ demand[11] that was announced by their leader, Allama Shah Ahmad Shafi.[12] Allama Shafi is one of Bangladesh’s leading and most senior Islamic scholars and the Principal of Bangladesh’s largest and oldest Islamic University[13].

The 13-Point demand was prompted by the Shahbag movement. This is a movement that began at the Shahbag Square in central Dhaka, where protestors gathered to demand the death penalty for alleged war criminals that were being tried at the controversial[14] war crimes tribunal. Parts of the movement however, evolved into an anti-Islam movement with some bloggers mocking Allah and Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)[15]. The 13 demands included the restoration of the phrase ‘Absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah’, which was taken out of the constitution during the reign of the present Awami League government[16]; the passing of anti-defamation laws to prevent the mocking of Allah, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), and Islam; and the ending of massacres, indiscriminate firing, and attacks on scholars, students, and the general public.[17]

It was to hone in on these demands that Hefazot-e-Islam organised the ‘Long March’ in April 2013, which proved to be a largely peaceful[18] event involving over 200,000 Bangladeshis across the country.[19] Following this demonstration, Hefazot-e-Islam announced that if the government did not meet the 13-point demand, it would intensify its actions and organise a peaceful ‘siege of Dhaka’ on the 5th of May.

The government did not meet the demands which resulted in the ‘Siege of Dhaka’; this took place however, with permission from the authorities.[20] The ‘Siege of Dhaka’ protests were attended by approximately 500,000[21] Bangladeshis from across the country. After the protest had officially come to an end, a large group of approximately 70,000[22] protestors decided to stay the night at the place of protest (Shapla Square). In the early morning of the 6th of May, at approximately 2:30am, protestors were awoken by the sound of tanks, helicopters, and the presence of 10,000-strong[23] security force that included the paramilitary, police, and the Rapid Action Battalion. Alongside this, electricity was also cut-off from the entire area.[24] Following this, according to multiple reports, brutal attacks on the protestors took place, which included the firing of live ammunition and the usage of water-cannons.[25] Reports claim that the bodies of those that were killed were loaded into trucks and taken away by security forces.[26]Footages of the attack have appeared on the internet, including on some Bangladeshi news channels, which show the terror of that night. One such clip can be found here[27]:
The former president of Bangladesh, Hussain Mohammed Ershad, condemned the attacks saying:

“They held a rally at Shapla Chattar [Shapla Square] taking permission from the authorities. Their rally was peaceful and the responsibility of the incidents that took place outside the rally venue can’t be shifted to Hefajat-e-Islam…Attacks and firing on the Hefajat activists at night in the complete darkness of night are unprecedented.”[28]Despite the plethora of evidence and reports of the killings that have taken place at the Shapla Square, albeit with conflicting reports of the exact number of casualties, the ruling Party’s (Awami League) joint general secretary, Mahbub-ul-Alam Hanif, claimed that there had in fact been no killings at all.[29] Such a conclusion is highly unlikely given the increasing evidence of the killings that took place. Images of the dead from the immediate aftermath of the attacks can be found on many blogs, such as the following:
In addition to such evidences and reports, independent organisations such as Amnesty International has also confirmed that killings did take place; the exact number of the dead is expected to rise as the full scale of the assault comes to light.As state brutality and violence continues to increase, the awareness of the dire situation in Bangladesh is beginning to reach countries and communities around the world. The General Secretary to the UN, Ban Ki-moon, expressed his concern and sadness [30] at the loss of lives and called for an end to the violence. In Egypt, Dr. Mahmoud Ghozlan, the spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, accused the Bangladeshi government of terrorism and fascism[31]. International human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) have also spoken out.Amnesty International’s Deputy Asia-Pacific Director has stated “There must urgently be an immediate independent and impartial investigation into the events, including the police use of force. The perpetrators must be brought to justice.” [32]

The AHRC assert that although they don’t agree with the demands of Hefazot-e-Islam, “Our concern, however, is for the right of everyone to participate in protests. At all times the sacredness of the right to life must be respected…The violence that is going on in Bangladesh must stop now. The international community has a moral as well as a legal obligation to intervene, which could save lives and could prevent the situation from deteriorating further. The United Nations must take all necessary actions, most importantly through the office of the Secretary General to bring an immediate end to the bloody impasse that has befallen upon the country.”[33]

In the UK, protests, lectures, and sermons highlighting the issues in Bangladesh have been on-going within recent months. However, much of this has been largely confined to the Bangladeshi Muslim community. The protests in the UK against the Bangladeshi state and police brutality have almost exclusively been made by those from the Bangladeshi community. We have not yet witnessed the protests being joined by other sections of the Muslim community in the UK, nor by the wider non-Muslim communities, in the scale that we often witness in relation to other atrocities around the world. This is perhaps due to the lack of awareness of the situation in Bangladesh.  This may also be due to the fact that the state brutalities in Bangladesh may not be seen as severe as it is in other parts of the world, such as Syria. Should we wait, however, until the situation becomes as extreme as Syria before realising the need to raise awareness and help bring some justice to the country?
This needs to change. We have a moral obligation to fight oppression and wrongdoing wherever we witness it and in whatever capacity we can, as per the Prophetic instruction “Whoever of you sees an evil must then change it with his hand; if he is not able to do so, then [he must change it] with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then [he must change it] with his heart. And that is the lowest [level] of faith.”[34]Furthermore, we have an added religious obligation of fighting oppression that is meted onto our fellow brethren in faith. The Prophet (pbuh) said, ”The Muslim Ummah is like one body. If one part of the body feels pain, then the rest of the body goes into sleeplessness and fever.”[35]
There is, nonetheless, a gradual increase in the number of non-Bangladeshi Islamic scholars and institutes in the UK who are raising awareness of the issues in Bangladesh. We will, therefore, hopefully witness a greater awareness and concern amongst all the various ethnic Muslim communities in the UK.  The Muslim community must come together, as it often does on issues of social justice, to put pressure on the Bangladeshi government to stop its brutality and seek justice for all those that have been murdered by government forces.Below are some of ways that we may help the situation in Bangladesh:1. Apply pressure on the UK government to investigate what exactly took place at the Shapla Square attacks. As the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) has said in their 7th May press release, the UK “Foreign & Commonwealth Office [needs] to investigate the matter as a priority and demand an explanation from the Bangladesh government, a member of the Commonwealth. UK licence-fee payers will also want to know why the BBC has not covered the issue with fairness in recent months and days.” [36]

2. Raise awareness of the issue amongst your family, friends, mosques, and social networks. Without this general raising of awareness, we cannot expect to see Muslims of all backgrounds coming together on this issue or joining together in protests. Raising awareness can take many forms such as online social networking, blogging, organising/joining protests, and organising events.3. Monitor the news and discussion programmes on UK-based Bangladeshi channels and if bias or false reporting takes place, complain to the channels in writing. If warranted, also file a formal complaint with OFCOM, the body that regulates the UK broadcast media and which has the power to fine and/or shut down channels if found to have breached their code of conduct.
4. It goes without saying that we must make dua (supplications) to Allah, who is the Source of all peace and security, to bestow peace and security in the land of Bangladesh.
With the tragic event that took place at Shapla Square, an event described by the Economist as a “massacre”[37], continued violence will undoubtedly follow as a result. It appears that Bangladesh may well be heading towards the situation we see in Syria. Let us therefore act now, and not wait for Bangladesh to become another Syria.

[34] Recorded in Saheeh Al Muslim
[35] Recorded in Saheeh Al Bukhari

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