Bangladesh’s next persecuted minority

Posted in politics, Rights by jrahman on February 27, 2012

Ahmadiyyas are a heterodox Muslim sect that has been present in Bangladesh for over a century, quite peacefully it seems for much of the time.  This changed during the middle of last decade, when a relatively little known group called Khatme Nabuwat Movement violently protested against the sect.  The government of Khaleda Zia bowed to the protesters, and the sect’s literature were banned in 2004.

I haven’t the slightest interest in the theology of the sect’s belief.  What concerns me are the fundamental rights of Bangladeshi citizens to profess their faith, enshrined in the Article 41 of the Constitution as thus: every citizen has the right to profess, practise or propagate any religion and every religious community or denomination has the right to establish, maintain and manage its religious institutions.

What concerns me is that in the post-15th Amendment secular Bangladesh, Ahmadiyyas might once again face persecution.  Indeed, low level persecution in the form of intimidation has already begun at local levels — there was an incidence in Tangail last year.  I fear worse are yet to come.

Firstly, consider the threat from Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s largest Islam-based party.  It’s of course currently under siege on the war crimes issue.  As it happens, targeting the Ahmadiyyas has been one weapon in Jamaat’s armor for over half a century now.  Way back in 1953, Maolana Maududi, Jamaat’s founder, led riots against the sect in Lahore, cementing Jamaat as a force in the Islamist politics of Pakistan, while setting the scene for Pakistan army’s first foray into politics.

Fast forward couple of decades, and playing the Ahmadiyya card, Jamaat led protests against the government of ZA Bhutto.  Not to be out-Islamicised, Bhutto passed a constitutional amendment that declared the sect non-Muslim.  A few years later, facing further political difficulties, Bhutto banned alcohol — even though his fondness for the stuff was the stuff of legends.  None of these could save Bhutto, who was ousted and hanged by Gen Zia-ul-Huq.  The general was supported by Jamaat, and relevant for this post, issued the draconian Ordinance XX.

I suspect some readers will start thinking at this point ‘fearmongering about Pakistan-isation’.  And they’d be right, up to a point.  Bangladesh isn’t Pakistan.  Jamaat in Bangladesh is far weaker than it’s in Pakistan.  It doesn’t have the same kind of patronage in the army.  And the army itself is not under the sway of radical Islamists.  So perhaps the worst that could happen is that Jamaat, or its local leadership under names such as Khatme Nabuwot or some derivation thereof, tries to create trouble at local levels.  And while of course we should be alert about these developments, we shouldn’t be too alarmed.

Perhaps.  But perhaps not.

I would be far more relieved if not for the other potential threat — a far more powerful one than Jamaat — facing the Ahmadiyyas.  I am, of course, talking about the Awami League.  It’s abundantly clear that the ruling party in Bangladesh has a difficult political task ahead of next year’s election.  Difficult, but not impossible.  Just like ZA Bhutto four decades ago, AL could be tempted to play the Ahmadiyya card to woo the mullah vote.  Anyone believing that this is anti-AL paranoia should recall the infamous Fatwa Pact of 2006, whereby AL promised Khelafat Majlish, a small Islamist party, that the sect will be declared non-Muslim by a future AL government.

And finally, I would be a lot more relieved if this issue received a bit more air time.  It has become abundantly clear over the past few years that whereas every transgression — from the persecution of minorities, to alleged corruption, to political violence, to the gagging of media — of the last BNP government received thorough and deserved condemnation, there is a lot more caution when it comes to criticising AL.  Perhaps it’s because people who can and should speak out are biased — BNP’s sins are unforgivable, AL’s are mere mistakes that should be forgiven.  Or perhaps it’s because the fear of reprisal is that much higher under AL — if Dr Yunus’s American friends couldn’t save him, who’ll risk their neck for some minority sect?

Whatever it is, if others don’t join New Age in the vigilance on this issue, I fear the future for the Ahmadiyyas, and all Bangladeshis, will be bleak.

(Thanks Naeem for making me aware of the issue).


9 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Diganta said, on February 28, 2012 at 5:24 am

    I don’t know if you aware of this, if you want to obtain a Pakistani passport and want it as a Muslim then you have sign under a declaration that says Mirza Ghulam Ahmad Qadiani was imposter.
    “I consider Mirza Ghulam Ahmed Qadiani to be an imposter nabi and also consider his followers, whether belonging to the Lahori or Qadiani group to be non Muslims.”

    This is the highest level of state-sponsored persecution of minorities I have ever seen.

  2. tacit said, on February 28, 2012 at 5:31 am

    Could you link to the New Age articles?

  3. Raihan said, on February 28, 2012 at 3:55 pm

    Oh my! why don’t you post a blog on Sagor-Runi case instead? Bull-shit-ness knows no limit.

  4. fug said, on February 28, 2012 at 4:46 pm

    Weird post. But understandable. I suppose its the only way of liberally addressing Awami nuthood, through asserting the Ahmedi identity.

    Muslims have the right of self definition. Contestations with the Ahmadi community should only go so far as to prevent categories of masjid and Muslim from being abused. We the Muslims of South Asia haven’t managed this situation very well.

    I think, and I hope, that you over egg the pudding. Exposing and mitigating Ahmadi deviance from Islam has never been a biggie for religious folks in Bangladesh. A small subcategory, and a film maker. Personally I think the Ahmadi leadership could take the route of the Bahai one.

    I went to Gambia last year, and the border folks thought we were Ahmadi missionaries. Speaking to local people, I discovered strange activities like paying locals to attend their friday prayer gatherings.

    • উদয়ন said, on March 5, 2012 at 4:28 am

      I don’t know enough about this whole issue, but surely the Ahmadiyas have the right of self-definition as well. And as long as they aren’t competing for state patronage, I don’t see why the government has any role in the definition debate. I don’t think there is a single major religious group that has a monolithic identity that is agreed upon by all who define themselves as belonging to it – the most prominent example right now might be the Mormons and how conservative Christians in the US view them given how the election is progressing.

      In a truly pluralist and secular state (ie, one where the state does not interfere in religious matters, NOT one where the state abolishes or discourages religious practice by any or all individuals) surely this would be an irrelevant debate in the context of the post. And those that wanted to debate it – as long as there was no violence or violation of secular laws – could continue to do so as they pleased.

  5. উদয়ন said, on February 29, 2012 at 12:25 pm

    Incidentally, I noticed that in the Prothom Alo / Bhorer Kagoj / Daily Star coverage of the Hathazari incidents, there was a blanking out of the communal angle, and events were described as “a trivial matter” or “তুচ্ছ ঘটনা”. Couldn’t work out whether this was calculated censorship – or a naive attempt to calm tempers?


    “clashes between two groups of locals over a trivial matter”
    “The feuding groups vandalised several structures and torched a few as well.”

  6. Rumi said, on March 4, 2012 at 10:25 am


    What happened in Hathajari was a very minor skirmish followed by full scale minority persecution. Media, both electronic and print, refrained from covering this event. Even the law enforcement agencies, who have shown unprecedented enthusiasm and ruthlessness in trampling anything perceived to be anarchy of opposition parties– esp anything with slightest smell of Jamaat shibir– were mysteriously tolerant.
    Media blockade of the event is puzzling. Electronic media may have been told to keep off, but if print media wanted to give the event due coverage, government hardly had any tool to stop them from publishing it.

    I am sure if we ask any leading editor why they killed this news, they will tell that it was their Social responsibility to keep the news from causing further spread of violence. I feel that is a cheap shot on their side. This same editors were extremely righteous, progressive, pro-oppressed, pro-minority when post poll violences of 2001 saw some minority persecution.

    This incidence presses home the point again that in Bangladesh anti BNP hatred or anti-AL hatred supersedes all other possible drive / passion. This time the news did not get headlined in Prothom Alo or Daily Star because the editors do like to brand BNP -Jamaat as anti minority political forces. AL faring similarly does not go along with the way they like Bangladeshis to perceive these two political parties.

  7. On the BSF atrocities « Mukti said, on March 7, 2012 at 10:13 am

    […] No, I don’t either.  Just like some of our progressives-seculars become concerned about minority persecution only when BNP is in power, some nationalists and defenders of sovereignty care about BSF […]

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: