It was in March 1953, the heyday of the Khatam-i Nubuwwat movement, when after weeks of turmoil the regional government of Punjab finally collapsed, as many supporters of Pakistan’s ruling party, the Muslim League, joined the ranks of rioters responding to the government’s reluctance in declaring Ahmadis as non-Muslim by burning down government establishments, looting stores, and lynching a few Ahmadis. Sixty years and a few thousand kilometres apart, thousands of protesters, led by Qwami madrasa teachers, amassed at Shapla Square in the capital city of Bangladesh. The protesters refused to vacate the premises until the government met their demands—one of which was to enact a blasphemy law that should include a provision for meting out death penalties to those who insult Islam and its prophet Muhammad. The Bangladesh government chose to be expedient; it drove out the protesters, albeit not without casualties. It also cracked down on secular bloggers and arrested a few of them under a quasi-blasphemy law, better known as Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act.
Today, when it comes to the stance on blasphemy, the Awami League government positions itself cheek by jowl with hardline Islamists. It not only capitulated to many, if not all, of the demands of Deobandi-Qawmi leaders, but also conveniently failed to stem the tide of the targeted attacks carried out against those whose names appear on the list of blasphemers—a list that government officials produced in collaboration with Islamist ideologues and later circulated publicly. In the past seven years, several secular bloggers, writers, and publishers were hacked to death in broad daylight; others were forced to go underground or seek refuge abroad, all of whom, despite their myriad differences in worldviews, are frequently identified in Bangladesh as enemies of Islam. Nowadays, the word ‘free-thinker’ carries a pejorative connotation; those who identify themselves as free-thinkers are banished from both community blogs and book fairs.
The Qwami Islamists were never content, however. Like a young predator buoyed by the success on its first hunt, and with the Awami State apparatus in their thrall, Islamists prowl mosque compounds, prayer halls and religious congregations; exhort their coreligionists to join them on their next foray. Seven decades ago the fires that tinged the cityscape of Lahore with a charcoal hue now gleam on the faces of Islamists in Bangladesh. They would not sit idle until the government meets their 13-point demand that includes the clarion call for declaring the Ahmadis as non-Muslims. Today, they seek to transform the quite steam of Ahmadi-phobia, which steadily pooled in the Sunni Muslim psyche, into tsunami waves. There is every chance that, once such waves strike Bangladesh’s dilapidated Ahmadiyya establishment, they might not recede and instead go on improvisatory tangents—towards new and unexpected targets.
Only a smattering of knowledge in South Asian history is sufficient to realise that religious movements in this region are often imbued with political aspirations. When a modern state apparatus that lacks even a modicum of religious authority is pressurised to excommunicate an entire group of people, it calls into question the religious sincerity of those who place such demand. Today, the Hefazat-e-Islam Bangladesh spearheads the anti-Ahmadi agitation in Bangladesh. As a conservative foil to the more modern mainstream Islamist groups and political parties, it claims to be politically neutral and yet meddles in state affairs frequently. Its leaders claim the sole prerogative to interpret Holy Scriptures and exclusive access to religious truth, at least in the Bangladeshi context; aping the medieval papacy, they venture to excommunicate anyone who offers different connotations of the sacred words. Since Islam’s birth, its scholars have never held a unanimous opinion vis-à-vis the boundaries of Muslim identity. Yet, Hefazat leader Ahmad Shafi harbours no scruples in his vitriol against the Ahmadis and, instead, displays certitude in claiming them to be non-Muslims. The zealots who exhumed the dead body of an infant and later threw it on the street—her only crime was that of being born into an Ahmadi family—acted at the instigation of Ahmad Shafi. The Hefazat leader first broached the idea and therefore has no grounds for denying culpability.
Since the juggernaut of Awami authoritarianism crushed the mainstream political opposition, anti-democratic forces like the Hefazat-e-Islam have filled the void—bent on changing the very fabric of Bengali identity and culture. The Awami League and Hefazat-e-Islam may seem like strange bedfellows; still, it’s the Awami League’s dogged tenacity to holding onto power that explains why it continues to accommodate these intransigent bigots even if they would never vote for the Awami League in national elections. Then again, the Awami League has no record of holding free and fair parliamentary elections. Its lack of democratic credentials has forced the Awami League to retreat in the lee of cowardice, members of its philistine top brass turning up at anti-Ahmadi demonstrations occasionally, barely recognisable in their hangdog demeanours when caught on camera—clinging to their seats like parasitic arachnids, nonetheless. The Awami League has accommodated too many destructive forces on its ark and has trimmed too much of its sails. It may weather the storm by once again bowing down to the Qwami hoodlums. Once again, a vulnerable minority would be sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. Sooner or later, however, the Awami ark would find itself scuppered and, that too, by the allies of convenience it invited onboard. One only needs to consult the history books: precedents of how these fanatics usurped the governments that at one time made the mistake of accommodating them.