An Islamist group that demands the death penalty for “atheist” bloggers who insult Islam and wants men and women segregated in public is gaining support in Bangladesh, a secular Muslim democracy in South Asia.
Hefazat-e-Islam, a coalition of Islamic hard-liners, has called on that the government to implement its 13-point agenda, which includes abandoning policies that empower women.
Almost 4 million women form the backbone of the garment industry in Bangladesh, which is the world’s second-largest supplier of clothes. Most finished products are exported to the United States and Europe.
“Hefazat wants to basically put women back in the Stone Age,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
Hefazat-e-Islam burst onto the scene in February in an angry response to activists’ demands for the death penalty for members of another Islamist group, Jamaat-e-Islami, convicted of committing war crimes during Bangladesh’s war for independence in 1971.
Hefazat-e-Islam draws its support from thousands of Islamic schools known as madrassas. Its spiritual leader, Allama Shah Ahmed Shafi, is based in Chittagong, south of the capital, Dhaka.
Hundreds of thousands of people turned out in response to Hefazat-e-Islam’s call for a nationwide protest May 5 to press the government to implement its demands.
Hefazat-e-Islam’s rise has caused alarm in Bangladesh.
“People are scared by Hefazat’s demands,” said Julfikar Ali Manik, a senior journalist based in Dhaka who reports on Islamic militancy.
“We know Pakistan and Afghanistan suffered, and are still suffering, from Islamic terrorism, so Hefazat’s demands were a shock for the secular forces.
“We cannot say this is not a big threat, because the problem is the political patronage for Hefazat.”
The the group receives support from the Jatiya Party and Bangladesh’s main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which is led by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia.
Some analysts see Hefazat-e-Islam’s nascent popularity as a consequence of judicial pressure on Jamaat-e-Islami.
“The growing strength of Hefazat-e-Islam is a direct result of the proceedings of the war crimes tribunal,” said Lisa Curtis, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed’s government established an International Crimes Tribunal to try those accused of joining the Pakistani army in a campaign of rape and murder against Bangladeshis fighting for independence from Pakistan in 1971.