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Opportunism catching up with Bangladesh’s Awami League

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Hefazat-e-Islam activists block Dhaka-Chittagong highway by setting tyres on fire while observing a dawn-to-dusk strike, in Shanarpar, Narayanganj, Bangladesh, 28 March, 2021 (Photo: Suvra Kanti Das/ABACAPRESS.COM).

In Brief

The government of Bangladesh has launched a crackdown on the Islamist advocacy group Hefazat-e-Islam. It follows violent protests against the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan.


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India is a vital ally to the government of Bangladesh. The protests embarrassed the government, which was ready to celebrate both independence and the centenary of the birth of Bangladesh’s founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman — also the father of current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

The protests were led by Hefazat-e-Islam but saw participation by students in Dhaka. Government offices and private property were burned down in Chittagong and Brahmanbaria in Eastern Bangladesh from 25–27 March 2021. Seventeen protestors died in clashes with law enforcement agencies. Hundreds of activists and top leaders of Hefazat-e-Islam have been detained.

Hefazat-e-Islam is an Islamist movement based in Qawmi Madrasas. Bangladesh has two distinct madrasa education systems, Qawmi Madrasas, which are not regulated by the government, and Alia Madrasas, where the curriculum is provided by the government along with funding.

Hefazat-e-Islam formed in January 2010 to protest the Women Development Policy draft and other policies they perceived as anti-Islamic. The group came to prominence in 2013 when it staged violent protests in Dhaka demanding that the government enact a blasphemy law that would sentence critics of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad to death.

Since 2013, Hefazat-e-Islam has established a more productive relationship with the government. Frequently, the government of Bangladesh has pandered to Hefazat-e-Islam. It removed a Lady Justice statue from the Supreme Court following Hefazat demands. The government has recognised degrees from Qawmi Madrasas as equivalent to Master’s degrees. The government also removed works by secular and minority authors from national curriculum textbooks at the insistence of Hefazat-e-Islam.

In return, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina received a grand reception in Dhaka and the honorary title ‘Mother of the Qawmi’. This was an important endorsement before the 2018 parliamentary elections in Bangladesh. Shah Ahmad Shafi, the then chief of Hefazat-e-Islam, had a good working relationship with the government. In return for concessions, Hefazat did not publicly oppose the Awami League government.

The relationship with the government changed drastically after Shah Ahmad Shafi died on 18 September 2020. Before his death, Shafi had been forced to resign from his post as director general of Hathazari Madrasa in Chittagong, the base of Hefazat-e-Islam.

Following Shafi’s death, more hard-line leaders — who were against the government — were given leadership roles. Leaders who had a good working relationship with the government were excluded from the new management committee. The group also severed all unofficial communication channels with the government. The first public evidence of a change in policy was the group taking a public stand against building statues of former president Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, an emotive issue for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

After that, the government still attempted to negotiate with the group rather than use force. The government moved for punitive action after the violent protests in March. Since then, the government has arrested 434 people and filed 56 cases over the ‘Brahmanbaria mayhem’ alone.

Hefazat-e-Islam leaders speak in sermons against the government and Bangladesh’s secular judicial system. They call for a revolution and for the establishment of an Islamic state under Sharia law in Bangladesh. Joint Secretary General of Hefazat-e-Islam Mamunul Haque is one of the most notorious preachers of the organisation. He is known for his fiery sermons that he spreads online through Facebook and YouTube. He has a verified Facebook page with 1.2 million followers. Videos of his sermons generate millions of views.

The government has become increasingly authoritarian and intolerant of criticism. Recent actions by Hefazat-e-Islam might be seen as a challenge to its leadership. The protests were a challenge to one of the core principles of the government, close friendship with India. This challenge would be seen as completely unacceptable to the government.

While the Awami League allowed Hefazat-e-Islam to become a powerful force by seeking an opportunistic partnership to secure support among religious voters, the government has reversed course and is cracking down. Yet it has not yet withdrawn any of the concessions it gave the organisation. It would be difficult for the government to completely rid itself of a relationship with Hefazat-e-Islam or support for Islamism. The religious right is a force to be reckoned with and the Awami League is not in a position to dismiss its views completely. In this scenario, a religious right that works with the Awami League and not against it seems like the government’s ideal solution. The government might go for a carrot and stick approach, the carrot being policy concessions and the stick being detention.

In reaction to the crackdown, Hefazat-e-Islam recently dissolved its central committee and removed leaders with political connections. Leaders met with Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan to negotiate an end to the crackdown. Yet the government remained silent about the subject of the meeting and has not released Hefazat-e-Islam activists. The authoritarian predisposition of the Awami League government demands a Hefazat-e-Islam that doesn’t challenge its rule or embarrass it in front of important foreign allies.

Mahir Abrar is a lecturer at the American International University-Bangladesh and an independent consultant on international relations, trade and security.

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