by Khalil Yousuf
Enraged, anti-Ahmadiyya extremists in their thousands stormed a large stadium in Gazipur District, Bangladesh that had been hired to celebrate Islam and the 100-year centenary of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in Bangladesh. The event was the 89th Annual Convention in Bangladesh and was expected to attract more than 10,000 attendees including 200 overseas guests. Armed with gun powder and other ignitable materials, the extremists calculated that they could cause tens of millions in local currency worth of damage. The rampaging mob did just that. Just three days before the attack, the Jamaat-e-Islami sect had begun to incite the masses into participating in this hate crime.
On 6 February 2013, emptily chanting Allah’s name, self appointed ‘religious’ extremists set fire to tents, audio equipment, chairs, pipe work and banners that had been acquired to celebrate the very God and His Prophet whose name the extremists were chanting. Some would call that irony. In reality it is an alarming wake up call for the authorities in Bangladesh to recognise religious extremism is both illogical and blind.
The Background of Ahmadi Muslims in Bangladesh
The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community set foot in Bangladesh more than 100 years ago when two Bengalis accepted Islam Ahmadiyyat during the time of the founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community who claimed to be the Promised Messiah awaited by all major religions. By 1912, people of considerable influence began joining the Community and it began to amass followers in the thousands. Since then the Community has grown exponentially with 103 local branches and with Ahmadi Muslims living in at least 425 places across Bangladesh. Its peaceful practice of Islam and positive contributions to Bangladesh’s history make it a popular and well liked community among intellectuals and civil society. But that is not the way that politically driven religious extremists see them.
Religious extremism has found a footing in Bangladesh
In 2011, the 87th Ahmadiyya Muslim Annual Convention in Bangladesh was restricted by authorities on the day that the Convention was due to begin despite previously having been given State permission for it to be held. It was a tragic example of the State bowing to extremists (some of whom were part of the State apparatus) being involved in the persecution of a peaceful and apolitical religious community.
In the end, the Convention went ahead at the Community’s headquarters, which whilst causing serious disruption meant that the extremists were ultimately unsuccessful in their efforts.
Just days later, the extremists who had caused the restrictions were given State permission to hold a hate speech conference against the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community at which the Superintendent of Police and the Deputy Commissioner (both of whom were complicit in restricting the Ahmadi Muslim Convention at the behest of extremists) attended as sympathisers, special guests and speakers. Enlivened by the echoing war cries, attendees were heard chanting “burn Ahmadi Muslims properties, burn them down!” Despite their senior positions, instead of preventing the rise of such fanaticism, and to the likely dismay of international politicians, they aligned themselves with the radicals. In doing so, they brought shame to their office, challenged Bangladesh’s constitution and created division amongst Bangladeshis by wrongfully describing the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in the most harmful and derogatory terms. By attending and perpetuating the hate, they were also complicit in the nurturing of arsonists’ desires, who not long after did exactly what they promised.
The Deputy Commissioner at the time did not seem to understand the theology of Islam having admitted in his speech that many have no understanding of Islam at all. Some would call that bizarre, but it is much more than that; it presents a telling insight into both the target audience of the extremists and the political dimension to the extremist groups.
The Bangladeshi Government has made efforts to tackle extremism, which have resulted in a number of arrests (though not in relation to any attack by religious extremists on the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community). It is also true that the Government as a whole is not against the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community or religious freedom. But the steady creep in unpunished and unhindered violence by extremists against religious minorities, and that such extremism is now also infecting the state apparatus means that Bangladesh now finds itself at an important crossroads.
Having gained independence from Pakistan in 1971, the facts suggest that Bangladesh is now importing the very extremism from Pakistan that has made Pakistan into what the Council on Foreign Relations describes as one of the most troubling states in crises. Bangladesh allows this to happen at its peril. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, a terrorism database, 8,953 civilians were killed in terrorist violence in Pakistan from January 2009 to September 2012, compared to around 1,600 civilian deaths from 2003 to 2006. With a Pakistani extremist reported as being central to organising the attack on the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in Bangladesh, authorities must now ask themselves, do they want for Bangladesh’s children the same legacy that these extremists have left for Pakistan? We hope that the answer is a resounding “no”.
Bangladesh’s extremists want two things. First, to persuade Bangladeshis that Islam justifies unrelenting cruelty, sadism and rampant violence which validate the kinds of attacks that have been perpetrated on the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. The violent and farcical interpretations of Islam which the extremists propagate have no connection with Islam whatsoever. The reality is that extremism is never a true reflection of religion. At its heart, such extremists harbour political motives and use religion as a means to brainwash those who can be easily misguided for purely political purposes. The United States Department of State in its 2011 Report on International Religious Freedom says of Bangladesh: “The government and many civil society leaders stated that violence against religious minorities normally had political or economic dimensions as well and could not be attributed solely to religious belief or affiliation.”
That presents a real challenge because second, the extremists want Bangladesh to institute the same anti-Ahmadiyya laws that have been condemned by the international community and which have caused thousands of instances of violence, killings and the wholesale deprivation of civil rights for millions of Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan. That is despite article 28 of Bangladesh’s Constitution which states: “The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race caste, sex or place of birth”.
Pakistan is disintegrating into extremism, is Bangladesh next?
Whilst their demands are absurd, the fact is we find in Bangladesh a potential challenge by such religious extremists to the Constitution of Bangladesh; a constitution which is diametrically opposed to the persecution of any religious minority in principle let alone in law.
Such challenge to the constitution is precisely what the extremists managed to achieve in Pakistan – and what a catastrophe that has been for Pakistan.Established in 1947 under the leadership of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, much like Bangladesh, Pakistan was intended to be a secular state; a nation of freedom for people of every faith. Soon after Jinnah’s death, that vision began to be eroded and in 1949 the Objectives Resolution initiated a progressive detachment from secularism, dangerously combining religion and politics as extremist religious groups such as Jamaat-e-Islami began to embed themselves in political spheres, hijacking secular and policy driven politics.
That deterioration continued and on 6 September 1974, Z.A Bhutto, the then Prime Minster (and father in law to the current President, Asif Ali Zardari) presided over a change to Pakistan’s constitution which declared Ahmadi Muslims as non-Muslim. It was such a serious event that The Guardian, a UK newspaper, wrote an article on 9 September 1974 calling the mass excommunication “a unique event in the 1400 years history of Islam”. This is despite the preamble to Pakistan’s constitution which says: “adequate provision shall be made for the minorities freely to profess and practise their religions and develop their cultures”. In one disastrous swoop the seeds of religious apartheid in Pakistan were sown.
The parallels between Pakistan’s history and changes in Bangladesh from 1975 are uncanny. With the killing of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and many top-ranking political leaders in 1975, much like in Pakistan, those who seized power at the time found extreme Islamic groups to be useful political allies. They began combining religion, politics, society and the state; political parties, such as Jamaat-e-Islami began to build party structures.
Jamaat-e-Islami is one of those militant groups intent on establishing a pure Islamic state based on Shariah as interpreted by its firebrand founder Maulana Maudoodi. Jamaat Islami opposed the war of Bangladesh in 1971 as it did the establishment of Pakistan and credible reports suggest it actively collaborated in the genocide that took place during the 1971 war. Some of their leaders now face trial for war crimes. Now, the same extremist groups that are bringing Pakistan to its knees are forcing Bangladesh towards the very same trajectory.
Why Bangladesh must resist extremist demands
The facts speak for themselves; forty years after Pakistan’s establishment, the misuse of religion for political purposes through the institution of anti-Ahmadiyya legislation in 1984 known as Ordinance XX, has proved to be calamitous for Pakistan in many ways. I name just three.
Firstly, depriving Ahmadi Muslims of their identity in 1974 and then criminalising their association with Islam through Ordinance XX ten years later set a dangerous precedent, setting in motion a debilitating conquest by fundamentalist groups to ban Pakistan’s minorities. Having succeeded in declaring Ahmadis as non-Muslim, extremists took heart and began to target the Shia and Sufi Communities. In January 2012, more than 80 Shias were murdered in twin bomb attacks. In May 2010, 86 Ahmadi Muslims were also murdered in twin bomb attacks. They were praying in their Mosques at the time. There have been countless incidents of murder before, during and after these incidents. In almost all cases, no one is convicted for such crimes.
In October 2012, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights held the Second Cycle of the Universal Periodic Review, a four yearly exercise which examines the human rights records of all United Nations Member States. There were 164 draft recommendations (Pakistan is to report its comments on these by February 2013). Among them were recommendations to “repeal discriminatory blasphemy laws against religious minorities and ensure that there is no impunity for those who commit hate crimes. To repeal the blasphemy law and respect and guarantee freedoms of religion or belief and of expression and opinion for all, including Ahmadis, Hindus and Christians” (paragraph 122.32 UN Doc: A/HRC/WG.6/14/L.10.). So, the pandemic of persecution of minorities in Pakistan has not gone unnoticed and in terms of religious freedom at least, Pakistan has become one of the foremost global pariahs.
It is precisely these condemned laws which Bangladesh’s religious extremists want in Bangladesh. Bangladesh simply cannot afford to make the same mistake. If a neighbour’s house is set on fire, it would be foolhardy to allow it to burn thinking that one’s own house is safe. Extremism is much the same. Today, extremists target a peaceful religious community in Bangladesh, tomorrow what is to stop them attacking the organs of state? Very little. That is because extremist ideologies have only one way – their way.
Where politicians in Bangladesh accede to such demands by following Pakistan into the same inferno that Pakistan currently finds itself in, Bangladesh might find itself on the same Triple ‘S’ downward spiral which Pakistan is embroiled in, from which Bangladesh might not recover.
That Triple ‘S’ spiral of rampant Sectarianism, a scarcity of Symbolism, and a lack of Security is symbolic of Pakistan’s woes since it began to marginalise Ahmadi Muslims and Pakistan’s minorities.
Sectarianism has now become an acceptable way of life in Pakistan with commonplace attacks on Christians and Hindus. But the most frequent attacks occur against Shias and Ahmadi Muslims. Ahmadi Muslims being possibly the only community to be denigrated, marginalised and indeed criminalised by legislation since South African Apartheid such that thousands of them have been killed and injured because of their faith. The lack of Symbolism of a unified and interdependent Pakistan (which does not discriminate against anyone who is not a Sunni) amongst government institutions, police forces, the judiciary, voting authorities and educational institutions perpetuates a disturbing “us and them” mentality which legitimises persecution at grass roots level.
The consequence of both is an almost total absence of Security and in some parts of Pakistan, plain anarchy.
Secondly, the almost free reign that has been given to extremist elements in Pakistan has emboldened them. Now, they export their terror and extremist ideologies to Indonesia where Ahmadi Muslims are brutally killed and Christians and Hindus have been callously attacked. They are doing the same and becoming more emboldened in Bangladesh too.
Although Bangladesh’s secular status has been epitomised in the 1972 Constitution prohibiting political use of religion, these facts tell us that militant organisations have taken root in Bangladesh. Because Police and State authorities take little or no action against them (indeed, as we have seen sometimes, they are aligned with them), militants have been able to engage in the bombing of temples, churches, political rallies and cultural functions with relative impunity. The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community has been attacked on a number of occasions including just months earlier when 15 Ahmadi Muslims were injured as two homes and a Mosque were looted and set on fire. No-one has been convicted of such crimes.
That leads me to the Third point.
Whilst there remain some 4 million Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan, the relentless persecution of Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan has resulted in a tragic brain drain. Their widespread persecution has caused many to leave Pakistan and travel to the West. In Germany, USA, Canada, UK and elsewhere Ahmadi Muslims have educated themselves and their children, started businesses, joined the civil service, become politicians, highly successful global businessmen, doctors, lawyers, engineers and journalists. Ahmadi Muslims are highly educated, entrepreneurial, organised, loyal and obedient people. Whereas Pakistan’s only Nobel Laureate and its first Foreign Minister were both Ahmadi Muslims, now Ahmadi Muslims take their seat in politics elsewhere. Ahmadi Muslims’ global reach has seen them loyally representing other countries instead of the country of their parents’ origin. Most recently, an Ahmadi Muslim was appointed as a member of the House of Lords in the United Kingdom also serving in International Development. Ironically, it was an Ahmadi Muslim member of the British House of Lords as Her Majesty’s Lord in Waiting who recently welcomed the current President of Pakistan to the United Kingdom during a visit for trilateral talks between the United Kingdom, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Many would argue that it is a terrible shame that it was not an Ahmadi Muslim of such calibre representing Pakistan on the world stage.
Bangladesh is also endowed with a plenitude of Bangladeshi Ahmadi Muslims who are successful and valuable to the nation. It would be a tragedy for Bangladesh if it were to allow extremists to drain it of its Ahmadi Muslim intellectuals in the same imprudent way as Pakistan has done.
Sheikh Hasina’s Bangladesh Government has made efforts to tackle extremism and that should be recognised. But giving a diabetic two sugars in a cup of tea rather than four doesn’t take away from the problem. In the same way, a little progress on tackling extremism whilst welcome is simply not enough. Much more needs to be done to tackle religious extremism and protect the minorities that are affected by it. The authorities in Bangladesh must now put the future of Bangladesh first by putting in place adequate resources to deal with the problem of violent religious extremism decisively. A hard fought struggle for freedom and independence should not result in handing power to the very extremists whose ilk fought against Bangladesh’s independence in the first place, or indeed any others. Bangladesh must root out violent religious extremists wherever they are hiding, whether that be in towns, villages, jungles or within the State apparatus. Bangladesh must ensure that its constitution remains supreme and inalienable, that democracy and justice prevails, and that the extremists who seek to harm the unity of Bangladesh are arrested, prosecuted and punished appropriately. @KhalilYousuf