Bangladeshi Islamists Protest Amid Demand for Blasphemy Law

A Bangladeshi Islamic group bid to enforce a shutdown across the country today as it demands the government introduce new anti-blasphemy laws to punish bloggers it says have defamed Islam.

Hefajat-e-Islam, a radical group based in the southern seaport city of Chittagong, rallied as many as half a million supporters in central Dhaka on April 6. Roads in the capital were almost empty today and some bus services to the city weren’t operating. Private businesses were shut, while government offices opened. Clashes were reported in Chittagong.

Hefajat’s protest is backed by another Islamist outfit, the Jamaat-e-Islami, whose leaders are on trial for war crimes committed during the country’s independence struggle in 1971.

It was those hearings that sparked the present crisis in Bangladesh. As the first verdicts were delivered this year, online activists and youth groups gathered in the capital’s Shahbag square and, through postings on Facebook and other social media, called for those found guilty by the tribunal to be sentenced to death.

As crowds swelled in Shahbag, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed Feb. 17 empowered judges hearing the war crimes cases to punish any organization whose members were involved. The move sparked reports the government was preparing to ban Jamaat, an extremist group which sided with Pakistan during the war.

“The atheists have been publicizing anti-Islamic propaganda in different ways, including academic syllabus and writings on blogs under government support,” Rafiqul Islam Khan, acting secretary general of Jamaat, said in a statement. “The country’s Islam-loving people are united against the anti-Islamic government,” he said.

Police Wounded

At least 14 people, including four policemen, were injured as Hefajat activists attacked members of the student wing of the ruling Awami League in Chittagong during the shutdown, the Daily Star reported. Some suffered bullet wounds. Train services were halted on some routes, according to the newspaper.

About 500 people marched through Dhaka in protest over the group’s demands, Sirajul Islam, officer in charge of the police station at Shahbag, said.

Besides the demand for tough laws to punish those it sees as maligning Islam and Prophet Muhammad, Hefajat is seeking the release of Islamic scholars and madrassah students detained by police since deadly protests erupted over the tribunal’s rulings.

Religious Agenda

It has also called on the government to adopt much of its religious agenda, such as stopping “foreign cultural intrusions, including free mixing of men and women,” making an Islamic education mandatory for all children, and preventing the placing of “idols” across Dhaka, which it called a “city of mosques.” Foreign non-government organizations that the group accuses of carrying out conversions to Christianity must be curbed.

“Bangladesh is at a critical juncture,” Meghna Guhathakurta, a researcher on international relations, said in a phone interview yesterday. “The government sees the Shahbag movement at one end of the spectrum and Hefajat-e-Islam is at the other end,” Guhathakurta said. “And the Awami League is taking a middle path.”

At least 30 organizations representing human rights activists, citizen’s groups and journalists condemned the actions of Hefajat, the Daily Star reported.

Hasina rejected the Islamists’ demands in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation. “We don’t have any plan” to change the country’s laws, she told the BBC. “We don’t need it. They should know that existing laws are enough.”

Murder, Rape

The government earlier this month said current laws protecting religious sentiment would be amended to allow harsher punishments.

Today’s Hefajat-backed shutdown will be followed by a 36-hour strike called by the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its key ally, Jamaat, starting tomorrow.

At the end of British colonial rule in 1947, East and West Pakistan were separated by 2,000 kilometers (1,241 miles) of Indian territory. Pakistani troops in 1971 attempted to quell a nationalist uprising in the east that was triggered by the jailing of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who had led his Awami League to victory in elections. The war ended nine months later with the creation of Bangladesh after Indian forces helped defeat Pakistan’s army.

In a sign of the widespread anger the alleged mass murders, rapes and abductions four decades ago can still provoke, the Shahbag protest site drew bloggers, writers, singers, teachers, students, and the country’s cricket team. Police say the gathering has at times swelled to 100,000 people.

While Hasina, Sheikh Mujibur’s daughter, says the tribunal is about righting an historic wrong, opponents have called the trials politically motivated.

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