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News Analysis

The Uprising in Bangladesh that the Media Isn’t Covering

Sun, February 24, 2013

Ryan Mauro

Sheikh Hasina" />For the past two weeks, Bangladesh has been experiencing its largest demonstrations in two decades. Anti-Islamist Muslim Tarek Fatah says  it is “the first time ever in the Muslim world there has been a popular uprising against the fascism of Islamist parties.”

Unlike the Arab Spring revolutions, this uprising’s goal is not overthrowing a secular government, but protecting one.

The current government is led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, a female secularist from the Awami League Party. Her party won in a landslide in December 2008, a remarkable—if mostly unnoticed—achievement in a 90 percent Muslim country.

Part of the reason for the victory was the party’s support for bringing justice to those responsible for the killing of hundreds of thousands of civilians in 1971 when Bangladesh broke from Pakistan. The Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI), opposed independence and its student wing was involved in the bloodshed. (Read our interview with Saleem Reza Noor, a Bangladeshi-American, about JEI.)

In 2010, the Bangladeshi government set up the official war crimes tribunal to start prosecutions. Eight of 10 indicted war criminals are from JEI. One of them is Ashrafuzzaman Khan, a former president and secretary-general of the Islamic Circle of North America, a group based in New York with significant links to JEI.

The uprising was sparked when the tribunal sentenced JEI leader Abdul Quader Molla to life in prison, disappointing those desiring his execution. He shouted “God is Great!” and flashed  a victory sign to the cameras with a smile. That image infuriated the anti-Islamist masses, setting off massive protests in Dhaka.

The protests escalated when one of the demonstration organizers, an atheist blogger named Rajib Haider, was hacked to death after he left a 100,000-person rally. JEI denied involvement, but obviously someone who is at least a sympathizer was responsible.

JEI’s chief in the city of Rahshahi has been arrested with explosives and is believed to have participated in an attack on an Awami League Party office there.

“They don’t believe in democracy. They believe in terrorism and practice politics of terrorism,” said Prime Minister Hasina.

In reaction to the popular outcry, President Zillur Rahman approved a law allowing the government to appeal the war crimes tribunal’s sentencing. The new law also permits the prosecution of organizations, instead of just individuals, paving the way for the outlawing of JEI and its student wing. Of course, the Islamists accuse the government of playing politics with the tribunal.

A key question is how JEI (and its sympathizers like the Islamic Circle of North America) will react to being banned. Will they declare jihad and fight or will they adopt the strategy of the Muslim Brotherhood in Mubarak’s Egypt and work underground?

The anti-Islamist uprising in Bangladesh may be part of a broader, anti-Islamist trend that could include a second phase of the Arab Spring. In the first phase, the Islamists won the elections in Tunisia and Egypt. Now, both are suffering a backlash. Tunisia’s government is going through a political crisis following the assassination of a secular opposition leader. Protests in Egypt have erupted in response to the Muslim Brotherhood’ power grab and Sharia-instituting constitution.

Bangladesh isn’t one of the hot spots routinely covered by the media so very few Americans know these protests are taking place, but what’s happening is important. What we are witnessing is the ideological defeat of a major Islamist party in a Muslim-majority country.  Secular anti-Islamists were not only popularly elected, but the population is rising up to demand more action.

It’s important that we pay attention to the bad news we don’t wish to hear, but it’s also important that we pay attention to the good news that the Islamists don’t wish to hear.


Ryan Mauro is ClarionProject.org's National Security Analyst and a fellow with the Clarion Fund. He is the founder of WorldThreats.com and is frequently interviewed on Fox News.
This article may not be republished without expressed written permission from ClarionProject.org