Debates About Religion and Secularism Turn Lethal in Bangladesh: The Case of The Shahbag Movement

January 29, 2017

The murder of blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider during the 2013 Shahbag Movement made visible a “religious paradox” in Bangladesh. What does the Shahbag Movement reveal?

Started on February 5, 2013 at the Shahbag square by the blogger and online activist Network  (BOAN) in Dhaka, the Shahbag Movement is an important chapter in the socio-political history of Bangladesh. Although the Shahbag movement started with demands for justice for the war crimes of 1971 Liberation War, the movement developed into a protest which exposed the underlying tension between religion and state in Bangladesh. At the beginning when thousands of people gathered at the Shahbag square and demanded the capital punishment for one of the accused war criminals Abdul Kader Molla, the sphere of Shahbag was occupied with nostalgia of the glory of 1971 Libaration War, songs, slogans, street mandalas and night long activities

The Shahbag movement sheds light on the  'paradoxes' enmeshed in the socio-political life of Bangladesh. Sara C. White notes how transformations in Bangladesh in terms of economic growth and society do not go hand in hand with the decline of religion as the sociological ”death of religion thesis” dictates. Instead, contemporary Bangladesh demonstrates a 'paradox' of being both 'more modern' and 'more Islamic' at the same time. White notes that the Muslim identity is emphasized in the present social structure of Bangladesh. However, the Shahbag movement indicates that these ’paradoxes’ did not go unnoticed. The Shahbag Movement underlines the need for human rights such as the freedom of expression. However, the movement started with the demands for capital punishment which cannot be justified within a human rights framework.  On the other hand, events that followed such as the murder of the blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider, imprisonment of four bloggers for ’writing against or demeaning the state religion’, mass rally of Hefazat-e-Islam indicate how different ’paradoxes’ between modernity and emphasis on the religious identity in the socio-political life of Bangladesh were waiting to surface. The increased visibility of these paradoxes through the Shahbag movement’s activities, suggests a renewed cultural struggle for identity and individuality based on the idea of Bengali nationalism of 1971.

What is the Shahbag Movement?

 In 2009 the Awami League Government in Bangladesh formed the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) to investigate and prosecute the suspected perpetrators of the genocide that took place in the region in 1971. The Shahbag Movement’s name refers to the mass gathering that took place in the Shahbag Square in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on February 5, 2013. This gathering came about after the Crimes Tribunal sentenced the war criminal Abdul Kader Molla to life imprisonment instead of death. Thousands of people gathered at Shahbag Square and demanded capital punishment for Kader Molla. Rapidly the protest spread to other parts of Bangladesh and continued for several months. While the demand for death might seem to be a very inhuman one, in the context of Bangladesh it remains a legal demand which the activists term as ‘highest punishment’.

One of the crucial moments of the movement is the murder of blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider in Dhaka on February 15, 2013. Haider used to write under the screen name ”Thaba baba” (Saint Claw) and he was vocal in his critique of religious fundamentalism. Haider was hacked to death. Ansarullah Bengali Team were suspected to be responsible for the murder. In similar ways author Humayun Azad and blogger/activist Asif Mohiuddin were attacked before and blogger/activist Avijit Roy and others were killed later. Before the murder of Rajib Haider, a blog named ’Sonar Bangladesh blog’ mentioned Rajib as one of the key figures of the Shahbag movement and suggested that people associated with the Shahbag movement are against religions. Gradually the notion of ‘atheism’ becomes associated with the Shahbag Movement after Rajib Haider was murdered, and four bloggers were arrested for their 'anti-Islamist' posts. These bloggers were well known within the Bengali Blogging community long before the rise of the Shahbag movement. The death of Rajib Haider and imprisonment of the four blog-activists put  the Bengali blogging community in the limelight – albeit with a dangerous shadow

Religion, Atheism and Transgression:

After the murder of Rajib Haider, discussions on religion and atheism dominated the public and political sphere of Bangladesh. Some newspapers claimed that certain bloggers were atheists and published headlines referring to their practice of atheism. This question of atheism is sensitive in the context of Bangladesh, which still has Islam as the state religion. Anti-Shahbag posts continue to shame the youth at the Shahbag square as 'transgressive'. A number of Facebook, YouTube and blog posts suggested the ’immoral’ aspects of the youths participating in the Shahbag Movement and showed how these people were drinking alcohol or smoking or taking drugs in the name of a protest. The ’moral’ judgement added to these narratives indicate at the expectations of behaving according to the norms set by religious standards where drinking alcohol etc. are either not accepted or highly criticised. On the other hand, blogs like Muktomona pushed the boundary of those norms and standards through writings and discussions. Started in 2001 by the late blogger, writer and activist Avijit Roy, was turned into a blog in 2004. It became a platform for free thinking and writing about science and scientific explanations opposed to religious explanations of the universe, and it provided a space where the intimate history of the 1971 liberation war and the idea of secular Bangladesh were revisited by many bloggers. Long before the Shahbag movement came into being, many of its bloggers tried to address the issue of secularism within their local communities through street demonstrations. While talking about secularism, the activists often researched and investigated the history of the formation of Bangladesh, and they claimed that secularism and freedom of cultural expression were the main ideas behind the liberation struggle of 1971.

Cultural Struggle and Attempts to Break Free from the Paradox

The Shahbah movement brings to light the constraints of religion and the dilemmas of articulating identity in the socio-political context of Bangladesh . Pro-Shahbag blogs and the cultural practices at the Shahbag square show an attempt to break free from this 'paradox’ by referring to the glory of the history of 1971 and the struggle for freedom for a secular state. In this regard, memories of the Liberation War of 1971 work as reference points of articulating an identity neutral to religious beliefs, but based on cultural conceptions. The slogans of the Shahbag put forward the concept of Bengali nationalism which was the crux of the Liberation War. The slogan "Tumi key ami key? Bangali Bangali" [who are you who am I? Bengali Bengali] which was later revised as "tumi key ami key adibashi Bangali" [who are you who am I? Indigenous Bengali", indicates the desire for expressing oneself as "Bengali" inclusive of indigenous minority people. The 'Bengali' identity, in this sense, is more inclined to cultural aspects maintaining a neutrality to religions as indigenous minority people have religions other than Islam and Hinduism in Bangladesh. Many religious groups who were opposed to the extremist religious practices were part of the Shahbag movement. The overall attempt was to maintain neutrality to religion and not make any religion of higher status than other beliefs. Some Shahbag -bloggers lost their lives as part of the struggle, but there were also some gains. For instance, religious minorities used the sphere of Shahbag as a space for practicing cultural activities based on minority sects, such as Bauls who combine religious practices of both Vaishnava Hindus and Sufi Muslims. In this sense, the Shahbag movement encompasses a variety of cultural and political activities both online and offline. It is not that the Shahbag movement is anti- religious. Rather, I would argue that the Shahbag movement gradually came to represent an urge for a freedom, which enables individuals to practice their diverse beliefs without threats or negative sanctions.