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Bangladesh is in the throes of a spring of its own. The Shahbag junction in Dhaka is its Tahrir Square. Like in many Arab Spring countries, the battle there is between the Islamists and the liberals, and has acquired violent proportions and triggered mass protests which have almost paralysed the capital city. The outcome of this revolution will decide the political future of the country.
The young in Dhaka are revolting over the war crimes trials of members of Jamaat-e-Islami, who are accused of working against the country during the independence struggle in 1971. More than 100,000 Bangladeshis poured onto the streets yesterday to demand death penalty for those found guilty of war crimes in the 1971 conflict, and also to protest the killing of one of their leaders, Rajib Haider, an architect and a key figure in organising the demonstrations and a blogger who wrote under the pen name Thaba baba. Haider was attacked outside his home on Friday night after returning from a 100,000-strong rally in Shahbag Square and his family said he was killed for standing up to the Jamaat-e-Islami party and drawing people to the protests.
It might be surprising that such virulent anti-Islamist protests are happening in a Muslim country, but a look at history will put things in perspective. Anger against Islamists is deep-rooted, as they are accused of helping Pakistani occupiers during the freedom movement, who, according to reports, are said to have formed death squads to slaughter the intellectuals, engineers, administrators and teachers who could make an independent Bangladesh work.
The current protests will make life extremely tough for Islamists and will deepen divisions among groups. State minister for law Qamrul Islam said the disbanding of Jamaat ‘is a public demand and it’s just a matter of time when Jamaat will be banned from politics.’ Banning the organisation, though within the power of the government, will not solve the problem. What the country needs is reconciliation, not confrontation. Anti-Islamists need to take their struggle to the people, not to the streets, which can be done by educating people about an ideology which they consider inimical.
As with other popular revolts, Bangladeshi liberals too are in two minds about the curret uprising. On the one hand, they cannot fail to admire the determination of the youth to state loudly and clearly that “religion-based politics had poisoned society”, as Zafar Sobhan, editor of the Dhaka Tribune put it. On the other, the demonstrators are calling for the death penalty which is not supported by most liberals in the world.
The government needs to handle the current crisis with common sense and vision and not with shortsightedness and emotions. •