The protesters were from Hifazat-e-Islam (“Protectorate of Islam”), an extreme Islamist group made up of teachers and students from the country’s rural madrassas who seek the impose an extreme version of Islam across the country and undo its long history of secularism. They formed in 2010 in the city of Chittagong in response to a proposed law that would have given women equal rights in regard to inheritance, and have since broadened their demands into a 13 point manifesto which includes among other demands a ban on public mixing of the sexes and a anti-blasphemy law that calls for the death penalty for any defaming of Islam.
The May 6 protests were specifically targeted at the decisions of the war crimes tribunals, which since 2010 have been set up to try alleged war criminals from the 1971 war with Pakistan. Almost all of these trials have been aimed at the leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh’s Islamic political party which had sided with Pakistan in 1971. When Abdul Quader Mollah, Jamaat’s assistant secretary, was sentenced to life in prison, many secular groups congregated, protesting the decision and calling for the death penalty. Hifazat’s May 6 protest was a response to these secular protesters, as well as to the decisions of subsequent tribunals that have called for the execution of other Jamaat leaders.
Jamaat’s alleged crimes date back to 1971, during Bangladesh’s bloody war for independence. During the partition of India in 1947, Bangladesh was a part of Pakistan despite being geographically isolated and was known as East Pakistan. Ethnic and linguistic differences, however, fostered an independence movement which culminated in the 1971 war. For nine months the Bangladeshi nationalists fought the Pakistani army until India intervened on the Bangladeshi side. The government of Bangladesh puts the death toll from this war at 3 million, in addition to widespread rape and torture by the Pakistani army.
Though Jamaat was opposed to independence in 1971, it has denied any involvement in the atrocities committed, and has accused Prime Minister Hasina of using the tribunals as a way of eliminating political opponents in Jamaat. In an interview with Al Jazeera, Salman al-Azami, the son of one of the Jamaat leaders on trial, says that the government is attempting to transfer the crimes of the Pakistani army onto its political opponents. “If you look at the people being tried,” he says, “they are all opposition leaders.” He notes that some members of the government, and specifically the Home Minister, also have a history of collaborating with Pakistan during the independence war, but that these individuals haven’t been put on trial because they are not from the opposition party.
In reality Jamaat is a party with limited political influence, holding only 2 of the 300 seats the parliament. Some members of the government, as well as many of the secular protesters have therefore accused Jamaat of founding and funding Hifazat-e-Islam as method of wielding social influence in the face of their waning political influence. Hifazat’s 13 point manifesto mirrors Jamaat’s own aim of establishing in Bangladesh an Islamic State on the basis of Sharia law. Most troubling, however, is Hifazat’s connection to the Afghani Taliban. According to an interview he gave in 2004, Maulana Habibur Rahman, a leader of Hifazat and the organizer of the May 6 Dhaka protests, traveled to Afghanistan in 1988 and met with various Taliban leaders as well, as with Osama bin Laden.
Ironically though, despite the anti-democratic nature of many of Hifazat’s demands, it is the government of Prime Minister Hasina that has come under the greatest international scrutiny regarding the incidents of May 6 in Dhaka. The actual death toll remain difficult to measure as much of the media present at the incident has been kept silent by the government. This press crackdown has only inflamed those who characterize the government’s actions that day as a massacre and ironically led human rights groups across the world to sympathize with the plight of the radical Islamists.
In addition to making radical Islamists sympathetic to the world, Prime Minister Hasina has managed to irritate secular protestors as well through a half-hearted attempt to meet Hifazat’s demand for an anti-blasphemy law. After meeting with Hifazat officials on April 6, she ordered police to arrest four bloggers described by Hifazat as “atheists” a move which far from calming religious tensions within the country has only further galvanized secular protesters.
Ultimately, the government will have to decide where it stands on the issue of Hifazat’s Islamic demands, which have placed it in a paradoxical position. At a time when it is being heavily criticized internationally for suppressing the Islamic voice of its people, the worst thing it could do would be to listen to that voice, which sadly cries out for an even more repressive government.