A Bangladeshi Islamic group vowed to enforce a shutdown across the country yesterday 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 city of Chittagong, rallied as many as half a million supporters in central Dhaka on Saturday. Roads in the capital were almost empty yesterday and a number of bus services to the city were not operating. Private businesses were shut, while government offices opened.
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, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed on 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.
Besides the demand for tough laws to punish those it sees as maligning Islam and Prophet Mohammed, Hefajat is seeking the release of Islamic scholars and madrasah students detained by police since deadly protests erupted over the tribunal’s rulings.
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, it says
“Bangladesh is at a critical juncture,” Meghna Guhathakurta, a researcher on international relations, said in a telephone 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 ruling 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 BBC.
“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.”
The government earlier this month said current laws protecting religious sentiment would be amended to allow harsher punishments.