Bangladesh PM’s Moves Toward Powerful Muslim Group Raises Eyebrows

Pulack Ghatack
Dhaka
2017-04-21
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170420_Awami-Hefazat_620.jpg Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (left) meets with leaders of the conservative Hefazat-e-Islami group at her official residence in Dhaka, April 11, 2017.
Star Mail

Updated at 4:23 p.m. ET on 2017-04-21

Bangladesh’s secular ruling party is trying to garner votes for upcoming elections through recent concessions to the hardline Hefazat-e-Islami group, according to the opposition and rights groups, but Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina insists she’s not mixing religion with politics.

Hasina, who heads the Awami League, met with Hefazat chief Allama Shah Ahmed Shafi and hundreds of other representatives of the influential group at her residence last week, and virtually endorsed their call for removing a statue of a Greek goddess of justice that stands outside the nation’s Supreme Court.

Hefazat and other conservative Muslim groups said the statue is unbefitting for predominantly Muslim Bangladesh and they have staged mass demonstrations against it, including one that drew thousands of people to the streets of Dhaka on Friday (see video below).

During the meeting with Hefazat on April 11, Hasina also assured them her government would recognize degrees from the thousands of Qwami madrassas – Islamic boarding schools – which the group runs, surprising secular groups who regard the move as another attempt at Islamization in Bangladesh, whose constitution guarantees secular rule. In addition, the prime minister agreed to make some changes to public school textbooks as demanded by Hefazat.

The decisions to side with Hefazat, which has called for gender-segregated workplaces and tough blasphemy laws, arose amid tensions between hardliners and secularists in Bangladesh.

The Awami League is forging a “compromise with the fundamentalists, conservative, anti-women and anti-liberation groups or with groups linked with them” to retain power, said Sultana Kamal a former adviser to a previous caretaker government, describing the recent moves by Hasina as “very unfortunate.”

“This is a very inferior type of politics. This will put the Awami League in danger and they will create a debacle for the country,” she told BenarNews.

Awami, the party that led pro-independence forces in the 1971 war against Pakistan, known here as the Liberation War, has taken a position against the people by making such concessions, Kamal suggested.

Khaleda Zia, Hasina’s bitter political foe who leads the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), has accused the prime minister of courting votes from hardline Muslim groups ahead of general election in 2019.

“Hasina has been mixing politics with religion,” Zia said.

The PM shot back.

“I follow religious guidelines, but I do not mix politics with religion,” Hasina said.

The prime minister denied that her decision to recognize the Qwami certificates was tied to upcoming elections.

PM defends action on madrassas

As many as 1.4 million, mostly poor, students attend some 70,000 Qwami madrassas in Bangladesh. Until now, the certificates issued by these non-formal schools have not much currency on the job market because they are not considered up to the standards of modern curriculum in public schools.

“Recognition of the Qwami madrassa certificate will bring jobs to lakhs [hundreds of thousands] of students. There is no politics in it,” Hasina said.

Some leaders of her party commended this concession as a smart and practical one.

“Recognition of the Qwami Madrasa certificates is a good move. This is not meant for votes. What’s wrong with it if this increases Awami League votes?” Col. Farid Khan, a member of the party’s presidium, told BenarNews.

The leader of the Workers Party, an ally in the ruling bloc spearheaded by Awami, said such concessions toward conservative Muslim groups could backfire on Awami League by causing progressive members and voters to quit the party.

“An alliance with Hefazat would shrink the progressive forces and harm people’s secular and democratic spirit,” Rashed Khan Menon, the head of the Workers Party and civil aviation minister, told BenarNews, adding, “there should be a combined resistance against it.”

Another Awami ally, Dilip Barua, chief of the Samyabadi Dal party, warned that Hasina’s concessions to Hefazat could stoke militancy.

“Hefazat-e-Islam’s philosophy is the basis of militant political ideology. Rooting out militancy is not possible through compromising with Hefazat,” he told BenarNews.

Awami-Hefazat pact?

Meanwhile, Obaidul Quader, Awami’s general secretary, denied that the party had formed a pact with Hefazat.

“Awami League has not aligned with Hefazat. Politics is being pursued considering the reality,” he told local journalists.

The spokesman for Hefazat agreed.

“We don’t have any political pact or understanding with them. We are not a political party, and we also don’t have any political ambitions,” Hefazat Press Secretary Mawlana Munir Ahmed told BenarNews.

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