In recent weeks Bangladesh was back in the international headlines due to large demonstrations organised by a number of Islamist groups protesting the French President Emmanuel Macron’s stance on the right to publish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.
According to the police 50,000 people attended the protests as they tried to reach the French embassy in Dhaka, while organisers claimed there were more than 100,000 protestors. What we do know is that the march was two kilometres long.
Macron’s comment that Islam was “in crisis” and his defence of the “offensive” caricature, which Muslims say is an insult to their prophet, has prompted a global backlash, with many Muslims across the world holding protests and calling for a boycott of French products. The march in Bangladesh which ignored coronavirus social distancing rules carried effigies of Macron. The current secretary general of Hefajat, speaking as the main speaker at the rally demanded closure of the French embassy in Dhaka within 24 hours.
The protests were undoubtedly the largest gathering in Bangladesh since May 5th 2013, when Hefajat-e-Islam, one of the two main organisers of the current protests, brought thousands of their supporters in Dhaka to lay siege on the administration.
Though the Dhaka siege was at that time broken with the use of heavy force, the Awami League government has over the years reached out to the leadership of the Islamist group. In fact, the relationship prospered with certain mutual reciprocities. In return for the government granting their principal demand involving the recognition of madrasa qualifications in tandem with university degrees, they extended their unequivocal political support to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s re-election bid in 2018. Hefajat also bestowed her with a unique title of “Kawami Mother” recognising her contributions to Kawami madrasas.
Despite its recent history of supporting the government, Hefajat is currently facing an internal power struggle following the death of their founding leader Allama Shah Ahmed Shafi. Many of his associates believe his demise has brought them an opportunity to reshape the direction of the organisation and distance itself from the government, especially on issues like relations with India and policies they think are not consistent with conservative interpretations of Islam. Most prominent amongst those critical of the past leadership are Moulana Nur Hossain Kashemi, whose party is in alliance with the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), and the secretary general of Hefajat Maulana Junaid Babunagari.
The anti-France protest was the first show of the organisational capacity and strength of Babunagari, believed to be the frontrunner in succeeding Allama Shafi as the Hefajat chief. The issuance of an ultimatum for shutting down the embassy certainly reflects Babunagari’s belligerent characteristics for which he is well-known and which has given him quite a significant following among madrasa students. Many observers say that the developments in France have given Hefajat an opportunity to reorganise and transform itself into a political force which may eventually fill in the vacuum created by the government’s misguided policy of decapitating its traditional opponent, the BNP.
The other main Islamist organisation involved in the marches was the Islami Andolon which is led by Peer of Charmonai Mufti Syed Mohammad Rezaul Karim. It is understood to be close to the government as they rarely face any obstacles in holding their political programmes.
Although it was only Islamist organisations that protested in Bangladesh, social media suggests that the anger towards France had wider reach throughout the society.
For many looking from the side-lines, the protests were a particular matter of intrigue as, due to years of government’s curbs on political dissent, it was a rare sight to see such huge crowds on Dhaka’s streets. The BNP has repeatedly been denied permission to hold any public meetings in the country and its attempts to bring out any impromptu rallies have been met with brutal force by law enforcing agencies.
Indeed, it was astounding to see the sight of police officers — who were deployed to stop the march proceeding towards the embassy — praying alongside the protestors. This was in very stark contrast with their combative, aggressive and politically partisan conduct with which they normally tackle protests. Human rights groups and foreign governments in recent years have criticised the brutality and harshness in dealing with the opposition and dissenting voices.
The change in government policy towards these protests — along with comments like that of Leakot Hossain Khoka MP, belonging to Jatiya Party which is an electoral ally of the government, who said he would “kill” President Macron if he got the chance — has not gone unnoticed in Western capitals, particularly in France. The National Rally head Marine Le Pen, has urged the government to impose a ban on immigrants from Bangladesh and Pakistan. In a tweet she falsely claimed that “demonstrators in Bangladesh had called to behead our ambassador”. Another French politician Virginie Joron called for a boycott of readymade garments from Bangladesh.
In response the Bangladeshi Foreign Minister AK Momen wrote a letter to the French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian reassuring him that “It’s our long-standing policy to have respect for each other.” Without referring to the calls for goods’ boycotts from both the Islamist protesters and the French politicians, Momen said religion and business should not be mixed up.
In fact, the government had a lot to lose had they tried to stop the protests on this issue and much to gain by allowing the Islamists to proceed. Why take on the Islamist right over issues that were not directly relevant to Bangladesh, in no way threatened the government but which many Bangladeshis had strong feelings about? And allowing the protests provided the government an opportunity to provide the appearance that they believed in the rights of freedom of assembly and speech — something that one is unlikely to see when the BNP and their partners seek to hold their own mass demonstrations in Dhaka or elsewhere. Indeed, allowing the Islamist parties to protest in this manner unhindered certainly gives the appearance that they have replaced the BNP as the new opposition to the Awami League government.●
Kamal Ahmed is an independent journalist.
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