Keeping the faith

Bangladesh's violent battle for secularism runs along old faultlines

The collapse of Rana Plaza had seen a temporary truce between Islamist and secular forces in Bangladesh, as the country came to terms with a mounting death toll. Now the battle has resumed with renewed ferocity. On Sunday, Hefazat-e-Islami, a newly formed Islamist group, organised a march on Dhaka, reiterating the demand for a strong anti-blasphemy law. On Monday, violence spread and at least 37 were killed as the police pushed back on the agitators. This latest chapter of violence is part of the battle for the political soul of Bangladesh, triggered by the Shahbagh protests in February, with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's government struggling to maintain its secular authority against the onslaught of fundamentalist groups. But even this battle runs along older faultlines

Secularism had been one of the four founding principles of the Bangladeshi constitution adopted in 1972. Successive military regimes chipped away at these principles through a gradual Islamisation of the constitution, and by recognising religion-based politics. It was not until 2011, after Sheikh Hasina came to power, that the four founding principles were restored to the constitution. The 2011 amendment, which continued to recognise religion-based politics and Islam as the state religion, left both sides of the political divide dissatisfied. Then came Bangladesh's Shahbagh moment, which crystallised secular and Islamist positions in the country. The protesters had demanded death for those guilty of war crimes in the Liberation War of 1971, which includes several members of the hardline Jamaat-e-Islami. In retaliation, Islamist groups, backed by the Jamaat and the country's main opposition, the Bangladesh National Party, asked for an anti-blasphemy law that would mean death for the Shahbagh bloggers, on the grounds that they had insulted the Prophet. Against all odds, Sheikh Hasina has vowed to maintain secularism as state policy.

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