Hefazat-e-Islam and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Bangladesh
Author: Roshni Kapur, Singapore
Islamic fundamentalism and violence are on the rise in Bangladesh. Anti-France demonstrations, violent demonstrations during the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and communal violence in Comilla to prove the influence of radical Islamists, especially Hefazat-e-Islam. The rise of hardline Islamic forces poses a challenge to the Bangladeshi government as to whether it will protect its secular principles or continue its patronage policy.
Hefazat-e-Islam was formed in January 2010 in Chittagong under the leadership of Ahmad Shafi to backup Islam against alleged anti-Islamic policies and to end secularism. The creation of the group was sets off by the draft Women’s Development Policy of 2009 which proposed to give women equal inheritance rights. The group is made up of Sunni Islamists and their extensive network of madrasas and their supporters. Although Hefazat-e-Islam is not a political party, the leaders have openly pushed for political and legal reforms. The group publicly opposed the secular justice system, called for a revolution and the establishment of an Islamic state in Bangladesh under Sharia law.
In 2013, Hefazat-e-Islam proposed a 13-point program, including gender segregation, freeing imprisoned Islamic scholars and opening more space for. They protested against secular activism, such as demands for the execution of Jamaat-e-Islami leaders.
The group’s widespread appeal to the general public forced the government to capitulate, but Hefazat-e-Islam also proved to be a useful political weapon. The Awami League government used the group to counter the political power of its main political opponent, the Bangladesh National Party, and another radical group called Jamaat-e-Islam.
The government gave in to Hefazat-e-Islam’s demands, including the arrest of some secular activists on the grounds that they were carrying out “anti-Islamic” activities. In 2017, Dhaka commissioned Pick up of 17 stories and poems by secular and non-Muslim writers drawn from Bengali textbooks at the request of the group. The same year, the government deleted the Lady Justice statue from the Supreme Court following objections from the group. The following year the government pass a bill recognizing Dawra-e-Hadith – an academic program delivered by a large madrassa controlled by Hefazat-e-Islam – as having the same academic qualifications as a master’s degree in Islamic studies.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was given the title “Mother of the Qawmi” – in reference to Hefazat-e-Islam’s Qawami madrassa – seen by some as an endorsement of her party ahead of the 2018 parliamentary elections. The former leader of Hafazat-e-Islam Shah Ahmad Shafi had a good working relationship with the government. However, a plus hard faction under the leadership of Junaid Babunagari came to power after Shafi’s death in 2020. The faction cut off all unofficial communications with the government. Despite deteriorating ties, the Awami League government still tried to engage the group instead of suppressing it.
Bangladesh only amended his stance in March 2021, arresting hundreds of Hefazat-e-Islam members and supporters for orchestrating large-scale protests during Modi’s visit celebrating 50 years of the country’s independence. Government offices and properties were damaged in Chittagong and Brahmanbaria in the east of the country. Violence persisted beyond Modi’s visit when a train and Hindu temples were attacked in Brahmanbaria. The violent protests resulted in the deaths of 11 people and were seen not only as a threat to the government’s legitimacy but also to its bilateral relations with India.
Yet the Awami League government could not afford to completely dismiss Hefazat-e-Islam and the group’s claims given the country’s large conservative constituency. The government emboldened the group by giving in to their demands to Islamize Bangladeshi society. The need to appeal to conservative voters made the group a more powerful force.
The latest round of violence against the Hindu community in October 2021 raises concerns about growing religious intolerance. The violence was linked to allegations of blasphemy which arose when images of a Quran were placed on a statue of Hanuman at a shrine in Comilla distributed on Facebook during Durga Puja. Alleged blasphemy has become an emotional issue where even the most vague allegation has resulted in communal violence. The Comilla incident raises fears that groups such as Hefazat-e-Islam could easily galvanize extremists to target minority groups.
Although Bangladesh has now adopted a zero-tolerance approach to extremism, efforts are lacking to counter the violent ideology and behaviors of non-state actors. The conventional approach to counterterrorism is insufficient to prevent ideologically motivated violence from occurring in the first place. The government must go beyond military and law enforcement efforts. It should consider initiatives involving engagement, prevention, deradicalization and rehabilitation to reduce Islamic fundamentalism in the country.
Roshni Kapur is an independent researcher based in Singapore.