Shahbag calling for an inclusive secular nation in Bangladesh. By Murad Makhmudov and Lee Jay Walker


Shahbag in Bangladesh is shedding light on the tyrannical forces of religious oppression and the fifth column of militant Islamism. At the same time, Shahbag is demanding the imprisonment and proper sentencing of individuals who took part in the massacres of innocent people. This applies to the dark days of 1971 during the War of Independence (Bangladesh Liberation War) from the clutches of Pakistan.
The junction in Dhaka named Shahbag resembles the power of Tahrir Square in Egypt. Yet while the dark forces of the Muslim Brotherhood hog the headlines in the media and the Obama administration keeps the door open to this militant Islamist organization; Shahbag is not being highlighted enough in the same mass media.
Nick Owen wrote about Shahbag in The Observer (UK media group). He states that “Theirs is a grassroots uprising for the most essential and neglected values of our age: secularism, the protection of minorities from persecution and the removal of theocratic thugs from the private lives and public arguments of 21st-century citizens.”
Nick Owen continues by commenting that “The young in Dhaka have revolted over the war crimes trials of members of Jamaat-e-Islami. That useful leftwing term “clerical fascist” might have been invented to describe what they did. In 1971, the oppressed
“eastern wing” of Pakistan rose against its masters to form Bangladesh. The Pakistani army responded with a campaign of mass murder and mass rape, which shocked a 20th century that thought it had seen it all.”
Yet, while the people of Bangladesh ( were struggling to break free from the Pakistan yoke, the Islamists literally stabbed the Bangladesh people in the back. Therefore, Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh (JIB) and other Islamist militant groups set about creating several death squads in order to crush Bangladesh at birth. This must never be forgotten because it is abundantly clear that Islamist militants desired to crush the voices of freedom on behalf of Pakistan from day one. The brutal outcome of this reality was the slaughter of the intelligentsia, killing teachers, attacking religious minorities, murdering engineers and slaughtering anyone deemed progressive or a threat to their Islamist ideology.
Bangladesh from the very start was based on a strong nationalist identity which shaped itself around the Bengali language and the rich history of this part of the world. Also, the secular nature of Bangladesh didn’t sit well with Islamist groups which despise the multi-faith identity. Therefore, various sinister militant Islamist groups desired to crush these progressive forces.
David Lewis, professor at London School of Economics, states that “When Bangladesh split from Pakistan in 1971, the Pakistan army extracted a terrible price. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed – some estimates put the figure as high as three million – in a coordinated military crackdown that led to mass killings of civilians, targeted assassinations of intellectuals, and the systematic use of rape. During these killings, the Pakistan army found willing collaborators in the form of a minority of Bengalis who did not wish to secede from Pakistan, a viewpoint that has lived on amongst JIB and its supporters.”
Therefore, the Shahbag protests which have erupted desire to heal the wounds of 1971 by holding individuals accountable for their crimes against the people of Bangladesh. It is noticeable that you have major participation from the youth of Bangladesh. Also, women are playing a significant role within Shahbag because this movement belongs to the masses. Of course, while much is directed towards the past in relation to the brutal massacres of 1971; it is equally clear that this movement wants to prevent the militant Islamist fifth column from posing a threat to secular Bangladesh. This reality means that atheists, Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus – and the cross spectrum of Bangladesh society – are represented within the noble objectives of Shahbag. At the same time, Shahbag wants Bangladesh to move forward based on progressive forces and the need to clamp down on corruption and other important areas of society.
If you look at modern day Pakistan then this nation involved itself in supporting international jihadists in the 1980s and 1990s in Afghanistan; which in turn destabilized many parts of Pakistan. Today you have frequent terrorist attacks aimed mainly against the Shia community but also targeting Ahmadiyya Muslims, Christians, Hindus, and Sikhs. The knock on effect of this is a major drug problem in Pakistan and women have been forced into the shadows in many parts of this nation. Therefore, modern day Pakistan is blighted by sectarianism, a draconian legal system which supports institutional discrimination against minorities, a plethora of terrorist groups, the brutal murder of young girls for studying and various intrigues by the ISI.
Bangladesh therefore can see the “militant Islamist mirror” in Pakistan and how destabilization can happen if militant Islamist groups begin to hold sway. This is based on poisoning society by spreading religious indoctrination and spreading hatred towards all religious minorities. It is also essential to keep Gulf petrodollars at bay because Salafi forces from this part of the world desire to crush progressive Muslim forces in order to spread militancy, backwardness, and to put women back into the shadows.
David Lewis states that “Although JIB was banned in the new country after 1971, it was slowly rehabilitated over the decades by opportunistic military governments and by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP): to the dismay of many Bangladeshis who had lived through the Liberation period, BNP included JIB as its coalition partner in the 2001-06 government.”
Shahbag demonstrators who speak out against injustice and the need to preserve the secular identity of Bangladesh face many dangers. Earlier this year Ahmed Rajib Haider was brutally murdered (other attacks have happened). Therefore, the violence and intimidation of Jamaat-e-Islami and other militant groups is all too real – and the same applies to forces which may seek to create mayhem and instability based on internal or external intrigues.
The voice of Shahbag needs to be heard in Bangladesh and internationally because this grass roots movement is based on inclusiveness. At the same time, the world needs to be made aware that militants within Jamaat-e-Islami – and other Islamist groups in Bangladesh – think nothing about brutally murdering their opponents. Of course, this isn’t surprising given the legacy of militant Islamist groups in the brutal massacres and mass rapes of 1971.

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