Hefazat-e-Islam was formed in January 2010 in Chittagong under the leadership of Ahmad Shafi to safeguard Islam from alleged anti-Islamic policies and to end secularism. The group’s inception was triggered by the 2009 Women Development Policy draft that proposed giving equal inheritance rights to women. The group is comprised of Sunni Islamists and their vast madrassa network and supporters. Although Hefazat-e-Islam is not a political party, the leaders have openly lobbied for political and legal reforms. The group publicly opposed the secular judicial system, called for a revolution and creation of an Islamic State in Bangladesh under Sharia Law
In 2013, Hefazat-e-Islam came up with a 13-point agenda, including gender segregation, releasing imprisoned Islamic scholars and opening more space for. They protested against secular activism such as demands for the execution of Jamaat-e-Islami leaders.
The group’s widespread appeal among the general public forced the government to capitulate, but Hefazat-e-Islam also proved to be a useful political weapon. The Awami League government has used the group to counter the political power of its main political opponent, Bangladesh National Party, and another radical group called Jamaat-e-Islam.
The government has conceded to Hefazat-e-Islam’s demands, including arresting some secular activists on the grounds that they were pursuing ‘anti-Islamic’ activities. In 2017, Dhaka ordered the removal of 17 stories and poems by secular and non-Muslim writers from Bengali textbooks following demands by the group. In the same year, the government removed the Lady Justice statue from the Supreme Court following objections from the group. The following year the government passed a bill recognising Dawra-e-Hadith — an academic degree program given by a top madrassa controlled by Hefazat-e-Islam — as having the same academic credentials as a master’s degree in Islamic studies.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina received the title ‘Mother of the Qawmi’ — referring to Hefazat-e-Islam’s Qawami madrassa — seen by some as an endorsement for her party prior to the 2018 parliamentary elections. Former Hafazat-e-Islam chief Shah Ahmad Shafi had a good working relationship with the government. However, a more hardline faction under the leadership of Junaid Babunagari has come into power following Shafi’s death in 2020. The faction cut off all unofficial communications with the government. Despite the deterioration in ties, the Awami League government still tried to engage the group instead of cracking down on them.
Bangladesh only changed its stance in March 2021, arresting hundreds of members and supporters of Hefazat-e-Islam for orchestrating wide ranging protests during Modi’s visit celebrating the country’s 50 years of independence. Government offices and properties were damaged in Chittagong and Brahmanbaria in the eastern part of the country. The violence persisted beyond Modi’s visit when a train and some Hindu temples were attacked in Brahmanbaria. The violent protests resulted in the deaths of 11 people and were not only seen as a threat to the government’s legitimacy, but also its bilateral relations with India.
Still, the Awami League government could not afford to completely dismiss Hefazat-e-Islam and the group’s demands given the sizeable conservative constituency in the country. The government has emboldened the group by ceding to their demands to Islamise Bangladeshi society. The need to appeal to conservative voters has made the group a more powerful force.
The latest round of violence against the Hindu community in October 2021 raises concerns of growing religious intolerance. The violence was related to a blasphemy allegations that were raised when images of a Quran placed on a Hanuman statue in a shrine in Comilla circulated on Facebook during Durga Puja. Alleged blasphemy has turned into an emotive issue where even the vaguest allegation has resulted in communal violence. The Comilla incident raises worries that groups such as Hefazat-e-Islam can easily galvanise hardliners to target minority groups.
Although Bangladesh has now adopted a zero-tolerance approach to extremism, efforts are lacking to counter violent ideology and behaviors by non-state actors. The conventional approach to countering terrorism is insufficient to prevent ideologically motivated violence from taking place in the first instance. The government needs to go beyond military and law enforcement efforts. It must look at initiatives involving engagement, prevention, deradicalisation and rehabilitation to reduce Islamic fundamentalism in the country.
Roshni Kapur is an independent researcher based in Singapore.