Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Massive Protest Movement Emerges against Islamists in Bangladesh

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Massive Protest Movement Emerges against Islamists in Bangladesh

Article excerpt

A protest that has at times swelled into the hundreds of thousands entered its ninth day today in Bangladeshs capital, touched off by the outcome of a war crimes trial that has awoken an astonishing struggle over this country's identity and the role that religion plays in its fractious politics.

God is Great, cried out Abdul Qader Mollah, as he was sentenced to life behind bars on Feb. 5 in Bangladeshs controversial war crimes tribunal. Known as the "butcher of Mirpur," Mr. Mollah was convicted of heinous crimes committed in 1971 during the countrys blood-soaked independence struggle from Pakistan. He has also been one of the leaders of the largest Islamist party here, the Jamaat-e- Islami.

After the sentencing, protesters gathered in downtown Dhaka, crying foul that Mollah had not received the death sentence. This soon galvanized a vibrant protest movement against the ongoing influence of conservative, politicized Islam in one of the world's most populous Muslim nations.

The current movement is aimed very explicitly at the Jamaat's role in 1971, says Zafar Sobhan, editor of the Dhaka Tribune. But it was clear that the future that the youths protesting ... envision is one without Islamist politics, returning to Bangladesh's secular roots, and recognition that religion-based politics had poisoned the society.

They don't want to see the Jamaati-style Islamism either gain further currency in the society or more power politically, he says.

Crowds continued to grow all week after the verdict. Soon a junction previously known simply as Shahbagh had become "Shahbagh Square," in reference to Tahrir. The calls of the protest morphed from macabre lynched effigies to calls for Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) to be banned and associated businesses boycotted.

Us pushing for the death sentence is the tip of the iceberg; this is a way to begin to unravel religion from politics, says founding protester and blogger Asif Moihuddin, who was recently stabbed by Islamist thugs because of the content of his blog.

The 1971 independence struggle pitted indigenous Bengali identity against those wishing to remain a part of Pakistan, a country founded with an Islamic identity. …

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