Bangladesh’s next persecuted minority
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).