The arrest on May 26 of 140 secular activists in Bangladesh is the latest in a string of incidents indicating a disturbing shift towards Islamic fundamentalism in the East Asian parliamentary democracy.
The activists were rounded up by police during a demonstration against the government's removal of a statue outside the Supreme Court building in the capital city, Dhaka. They were charged not only with holding an illegal gathering and obstructing justice, but with the attempted murder of the law enforcement agents dispatched to quell the protest.
The statue was a depiction of "Lady Justice" -- the Greek goddess Themis (and Roman Justitia), blindfolded and holding a scale -- this one wearing a sari. As soon as the iconic, universal symbol of jurisprudence was erected last December in the Bangladeshi capital, fundamentalist groups began to protest, on the grounds that the piece of art was "un-Islamic" and constituted idol-worship.
The Supreme Court of Bangladesh, in Dhaka. (Image source: F2416/Wikimedia Commons)
Although secularism is enshrined in the constitution of Bangladesh, a Muslim-majority country, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been accused -- with good reason -- of accommodating Hefazat-e-Islam, an Islamist lobby group comprised of madrassah educators and students, which has called for the enacting of blasphemy laws. The group's leader, Allama Shafi, is infamous for demanding the death penalty for atheists and anyone defaming Islam. He is also known for referring to women in derogatory terms, while urging parents not to educate their daughters past the fourth or fifth grade.
In a meeting in early April with Shafi and other Islamic scholars and imams, Prime Minister Hasina not only succumbed to the demand that Lady Justice be taken down, but said that she herself had been unhappy about its placement outside the Supreme Court. Within a few weeks, the statue was being taken down -- in the middle of the night.
The ensuing protest in the streets and on social media by Bangladeshis bent on maintaining their country's separation between mosque and state turned out to be effective, however, in spite of the mass detention of demonstrators. On Sunday evening, the statue was returned, albeit a few hundred yards from its original location, in a place less visible to the public.
Shafi's response was both swift and sharp. "Do not play with our religious beliefs, national spirit and heritage," he said, aiming his anger at the government. "Do not push the country towards the curse of Allah through such anti-Islamic activities."
Indian journalist and managing director of Republic TV Arnab Goswami wrote on Sunday that Hasina's accommodation of Shafi and his Islamist cohorts should come as no surprise, given the country's political trends in general, and Hasina's maneuvers in particular.
Goswami cites, for example, the government's recent capitulation to Hefazat-e-Islam's demand that certain secular content be removed from Bandladeshi textbooks. In January this year, that demand was met by the Bangladeshi Education Ministry, which deleted more than two dozen pieces of literature written by non-Muslims from elementary school books. The government then announced that it was distributing the new books for free, causing many parents and teachers to consider the move political -- to curry favor with Hefazat-e-Islam and garner votes from all sides in the next general election, slated for late 2018/early 2019.
Despite denials on the part of the National Curriculum and Textbook Board that Hefazat-e-Islam was behind the editorial changes, altering the public-school curriculum had been listed in the group's 2013 13-point plan -- a list of demands -- for bringing Sharia law to Bangladesh, along with a threat that if Hasina's government did not comply, it would not be able to maintain its power and would lose the next election. In addition, Shafi happily took credit for the new books. "After our long struggle and rally," he said, "the authorities could finally understand the gravity of the issue and brought changes in the textbooks."
This is mild compared to the Bangladeshi government's timid reaction to a spate of violent Islamist attacks on secular intellectuals, bloggers, religious minorities and LGBT activists, which have been carried out during the past four years. Since 2013, dozens of people have been slaughtered, many with machetes. Although ISIS claimed responsibility for many of the brutal killings, no formal investigation into the murders was ever launched.
Instead, Hasina took the opportunity to arrest more than 11,000 people, only 145 of whom were Islamist terrorists. The rest were charged with crimes such as theft and drug-dealing, indicating that it might have been part of Hasina's crackdown on critics since her election in 2008. To thwart her decades-long arch-rival, Khaleda Zia, Hasina dismantled the caretaker electoral system and began taking steps to consolidate her authoritarian rule. These, according to the Asia-Pacific current affairs magazine The Diplomat, have included silencing her critics by attacking the media and accusing opposition parties of being behind the slayings, such as that of an LGBT magazine editor in April 2016.
The statue of Lady Justice may have been restored to what should be its rightful place outside the Supreme Court, but the incident highlights the broader issue of how increasingly hard it is for justice to be preserved in a Muslim-majority country where fundamentalists are gaining momentum.
Ruthie Blum is a journalist and author of "To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama and the 'Arab Spring.'"