Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), one of the largest political parties in the country, is now taking its cue from Hefazat-e-Islami Bangladesh (HIB), it seems. It plans to hold a big gathering in Dhaka where its chairperson Khaleda Zia is going to give a speech. It interestingly coincides with the HIB’s Dhaka seige programme where it plans to lay seige at all the entrance points of the capital to bring home its 13-point demand. Some of the HIB’s patrons wanted the group to stage a sit in for a day or two after its April 5 grand rally at Shapla roundabout in the capital, which the HIB top brass politely rejected, surprising those who thought the organisation was politically immature. Instead, it went for the May 5 seige, and a few big gatherings across the country.
It is clear now that the HIB wants to spread its wings and wants to bring under its shadow as many ordinary people as it can. Even though the group calls itself a non-political entity, there is no denying that the manner in which it has chalked out its programme smells of a long-running ambition that can be associated with the next general election.
It is quite difficult for an elected government to deal with the HIB, for whatever the political parties say, at the end of the day all of them use religion–Islam to be precise–to get votes. And the parties need the support of those who wear taqiyah on their head, don a beard around their chin and give the Friday sermons (sometimes even fiery) in thousands of mosques across the country. The HIB primarily belongs to the qawmi madrasa paraphernalia and their graduates take up jobs in madrasas by becoming teachers or join mosques as muezzin or imam.
The HIB steadfastly follow the sunni-hanafi school of thought, which is far away from Salafi/Ahle-hadith. Most of the Salafis are peaceful. But from Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jemaah Islamiyah– all the major extremist groups that use Islam as an ideology follow an extreme interpretation of the salafi path. Most of the Salafis in Bangladesh have their own mosques and consider many religious practices that HIB imams follow as reprehensibly innovative and hence must be shunned. It is interesting to note that, after the astik-nastik (believer-atheist) debate broke out centring the Shahbag movement, Salafis in Bangladesh, known as Ahle-hadith, talked against the ‘atheist bloggers’, which prompted many to believe that they might shelve their differences with the HIB and forge an alliance with the group. It did not happen as the Salafis in the country mysteriously became silent.
There is hardly any possibility of the HIB to go in the line of the Jamiatul Mujahideen Bangladesh. What is worrying, however, is the HIB’s future plan. In the run up to the 9th Parliamentary Election in 2008, some Salafis in the country formed Islamic Democratic Party, with the intention to participate in the election, which had to be abandoned as the then Election Commission did not approve of its formation. But denying that to the HIB, a hardcore sunni-hanafi group with no apparent terrorist record, will be difficult. The HIB leadership knows that and it has time and again emphasised on its Deobandi-Tablighi character.
In a country predominantly Muslim, even secular politicians paste posters on the walls showing them praying or holding both their palms together in the holy mosque of Ka’ba. Military generals who seized power also used religion. But, the country has never experienced something like Hefazat-style Islamic nationalism before. The emergence of the HIB is also a sign that Bangladesh has become highly polarised. The urban Dhaka middle class on one hand and on the other is the poor and members of the middle class of relatively small towns. The group, prior to its Dhaka seige programme, is holding one big procession after the other across the country to cash in on its newfound image as much as it can.
The BNP and Jatya Party (JP) are supplying those who are joining the HIB gatherings across the country with water, watermelons and cucumbers, to get political mileage. Both the parties think they are using Hefazat. It might actually be the other way round. The rise of the HIB spells danger for all the political parties in the country, especially those who talk about secularism. Presently the HIB is playing with both the big parties in the country. Sometimes, its speeches go in the BNP’s favour; sometimes it tries to balance–one of its leaders, on one occasion, has even called Sheikh Hasina netri (leader), and prayed for her. The HIB leaders, in its speeches, do not put blanket blame on the Awami League (AL)–they blame the ‘nastik-Left’ of the party, saying these people are harming the AL. This is political brinkmanship, which shows that Hefazat is playing its cards rather too well. The BNP taking its cue from the HIB might as well be a small beginning. There can be a lot more to come. That is a scary prospect for many of us.
This article was first published in The Daily Star on May 3, 2013