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.
Bangladesh became part of Pakistan when British colonial rule of India ended in 1947. The country, then known as East Pakistan, won independence with India’s help in December 1971 after a war against what was then West Pakistan.
The tribunal so far has sentenced four Jamaat-e-Islami leaders for their roles in war crimes. Three of them — including the party’s assistant secretary-general, Mohammad Kamaruzzaman — have been sentenced to death.
The verdicts sparked violence across Bangladesh.
“The war crimes tribunal has opened a can of worms in Bangladesh by emboldening secularists to step up pressure on the Islamists,” Ms. Curtis said. “In response, the Islamist parties are pushing back more vehemently than ever, viewing the current situation as a threat to their strongly held religious beliefs.”
Bangladesh is bracing for more violence in response to a verdict, expected this month, in the war-crimes trial of Ghulam Azam, the former leader of Jamaat-e-Islami.
A combination of war-crimes verdicts, impending executions and an opposition committed to toppling the government is expected to produce several more months of instability in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh also is reeling from the collapse of a garment factory that killed more than 1,100 people on the outskirts of the capital, Dhaka, last month.
“Everything that could go wrong politically in that country is set up to go wrong in the foreseeable future,” Mr. Adams said.
The Bangladesh National Party has said it will boycott elections, expected later this year, unless a caretaker government is put into place to oversee the vote. Islamist parties such as Jamaat-e-Islami manage support only in the single-digits of the percentage of votes in elections.