We work at the grassroots level throughout the Muslim World to counter violent extremism before it takes hold, to promote tolerance and understanding, and to foster better relations with the United States.
I woke up from stress dreams this morning resenting my alarm more than anything. I hauled myself groggily into the early morning 6:30 am van, the unfortunate sign that it’s a hartal (political strike) day. On hartal days, the vans to the university run as early as possible since the strike calls for a complete shut down of the country, especially of any transport systems. Vans such as ours are typically targeted for breaking the hartal because they are a sign of the rich. Any other hartal day I would simply rickshaw in to work, but on this morning the Bengali professors joined us, a sure indicator that this hartal was serious. As we bumped and bounced our way to school I had to remind myself to try to let go of my resentment and consider the real political weight of this particular moment.
Currently, in Shabagh Square in Dhaka, a hopeful, restless movement of Bengali youth have set up their very own Tahrir/Tianamen Square in protest of the recent War Crimes Tribunal. This tribunal, set up in 2008 by the Prime Minister Sheik Hasina, aims to try and prosecute the leaders who committed mass rapes and killing during Bangladesh’s Liberation War in 1971. The atrocities committed during the Liberation War have historically been overlooked and paid little attention to in Western scholarship and politics. While this tribunal is certainly a step in the right direction, it also violates international law and standards for fair trials. Because of this, and the government’s refusal to bring the tribunal in line with international standards, many claim that the tribunal is simply a way for the ruling party, the Awami League, to undermine the opposition (Jamaat-e-Islami and the Bangladesh National Party) before the elections next year. Jamaat-e-Islami is a conservative Islamic party that historically opposed Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan. Now, it remains in Bangladesh as an independent political party that calls for Islamic democracy. Because of its historic ties to Pakistan and collaboration with Pakistani forces during the Liberation War, however, most of the potential war criminals under trial are also current Jamaat-e-Islami leaders.
At present, the central political tension revolves around the recent sentencing of Quader Mollah to life in prison, one of the initial verdicts to come out of the tribunal. For many (especially those camping out in Shabagh Square), life in prison seems too lenient. In a country with a high rate of political corruption and two vehemently opposed political parties, life in prison may really just mean life in prison or until the opposition is voted in to power and releases you again. The movement in Shabagh Square has now come to represent those who call for the death sentence for war criminals and for a ban on Jamaat-e-Islami.
Those critical of the movement, however, claim that calling for capital punishment is counter-productive and beside the point. They claim that the real focus should be on calling for political reform to address corruption, impunity, and the lax implementation of law, starting with bringing the War Crimes Tribunal up to international standards. Some see the shouts of “death, death,” in Shabagh Square as repulsive and inhumane, claiming that seeking death as revenge for death is unproductive. In conversation with a Bengali student excited about the movement, however, she revealed to me that the calls from Shabagh Square are for more than just capital punishment. According to her, the leaders of the movement are trying to fight for an end to corruption, political reform, and fair trials in the next year.
Now, it seems that the time for guitar playing and camping out in Shabagh is over. As one Bengali professor put it, “[the Shabagh movement] must either hold their ground and face the violence [of Jamaat-e-Islami] or disband.” The intensity of the movement recently increased with the murder (most believe by Jamaat-e-Islami) of Ahmed Rajib Haidar, a young blogger supporting the Shabagh movement. Sheikh Hasina herself visited the home of Ahmed Rajib Haidar and promised his family that those responsible would be brought to justice. Just yesterday, a conveniently timed amendment was made to the International Crimes (Tribunals) Act of 1973 to allow for an appeal against any verdict of the tribunal, mostly meaning that those protesting may now appeal Quader Mollah’s life sentence to push for his capital punishment instead.
And this brings us to date. Now, Jamaat-e-Islami, furious at the government and Shabagh movement’s position against them have called for all out confrontation and a nation-wide hartal today. While they have never truly been able to penetrate Dhaka, due to the strong liberal stronghold of Dhaka University, they have historically found more support in Chittagong, where the population is more conservative. Usually, these political parties operate largely through young groups of university students who some say act as their “thugs,” for Jamaat-e-Islami this is the youth organisation Islami Chhatra Shabir. Tactics in the past few days have seemed to mostly amount to lighting the random bus on fire and vandalizing cars. But Jamaat-e-Islami has been known to provoke confrontation with security forces and police as well. The protestors, shaken by the murder of their blogger comrade, now call for increased security forces and protection around Shabagh Square and blame the government for not doing enough to support them.
The politics of it all is a bit overwhelming for a non-Bengali like me. Though the current protests are focused on the War Crimes Tribunal, there are all sorts of larger political, historic factors that shape the tensions. What this means for us and our safety as expats, I’m not sure. Certainly we are not the focus of any unrest and it seems that as long as we use common sense, stay away from large angry crowds, and accept that there will be some limits to our mobility we will be fine. Mostly, I’m really interested in being here at such an important political moment for Bangladesh. It has forced me to educate myself about the current political situation, and to be far more aware of how politics affects people’s daily lives here. After all, there’s nothing like learning through lived experience, right?