Conflict Alerts # 201, 10 December 2020
In the news
On 8 December, the High Court in Bangladesh issued a directive to the Awami League government to take appropriate legal and punitive actions against the culprits involved in damaging the sculpture of Father of the Nation Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The court has also asked the Director-General of Bangladesh Islamic Foundation and the Khatib of Baitul Mukarram national mosque to take necessary steps to build awareness that monuments, statues, portraits, and murals of Mujibur Rahman are symbols of the country's independence and not contradictory to the religion.
On 7 December the madrasa students were arrested and remanded in prison for defacing a sculpture of Mujibur Rahman in Kushtia district. They were inspired by the "fatwa" issued by Hefajat-e-Islam, earlier on 5 December, against the construction of idol or sculpture. Hefajat-e-Islam, a coalition of several Islamist groups, said "construction of idol or sculpture of any living being is forbidden in Islam. The government should take responsibility to demolish the idols and sculptures in the country."
Issues at large
First, the role of Hefajat-e-Islam. The vandalism and the fatwa come in the backdrop of the Awami League's decision to build the sculpture of Mujibur Rahman marking the celebration of 'Mujib Borsho' (100th birthday of the Father of the nation). Several Islamist groups have in the past publicly disgraced any form of idol worship or construction, most notable has been the removal of the Lady Justice idol from the Supreme Court premises in 2017. A domestic debate is underway in Dhaka in favour of or against the construction, while Hefajat-e-Islam has used the confusion to propagate its stance on sculptures. The written statement by 95 muftis and maulanas goes in line with the role that Hefejat has come to play in the country to define the norms and rituals of an Islamic society.
Second, trends of radicalization and the role of political Islam. Since the killing of blogger Rajib Haider in 2013, Bangladesh has struggled to contain the forces of extreme voices and spate of violence on independent thinkers. The 2016 series of blogger deaths followed by the July 2016 Holey Artisan café attack by neo-JMB, 2017 suicide bombing in Sylhet and the recent protest march by Islami Andolan Bangladesh against President Macron's statement indicate a strong influence of the radical groups on young minds and shrinking public space for religious and cultural tolerance. A small group is owing allegiance to AQIS (Ansar Al Islam) and the Islamic State (neo-JMB) while other Islamist groups have expanded their role politicking the religion. At least one-third of Hefajat leaders have direct links with Islamist political parties that took part in elections alone or under the BNP-Jamaat alliance.
Third, a soft response from the State. The vandalism of idols as an expression of intolerance have continued in the country, and the government have mostly appeased with such several instances. It is only with the current defacing of the Father of the Nation who is also the founder of the ruling party that government has vowed action amid the anti-sculpture campaign.
The vandalism of the sculpture was of a person who sought to symbolize an "imagined community" with precedence to linguistic, cultural and secular norms. However, the fault lines in the society have become increasingly visible amid political-religious extremism and violence. The civil society, on the other hand, has also resisted such religious and cultural chasms with notable protests for freedoms and expression such as the Shahbag, the students' protests in the Dhaka University, or criticizing punitive laws curbing freedom to express. The government's sudden hardening of stance against Hefajat might not hold good if the vandalism was not against Mujib.