Fundamentalism on trial in Bangladesh

There’s been violence in Bangladesh yesterday and today with at least five people reported killed in clashes between protesters and police. The protests follow the conviction by a war crimes tribunal of Islamist leader Ghulam Azam, on charges including (according to the BBC’s account) “conspiracy, incitement, planning, abetting and failing to prevent murder.”

Azam, a former leader of Jamaat-e-Islami who apparently is still regarded as its spiritual head, was sentenced to 90 years imprisonment. Prosecutors had demanded the death penalty, but the judges said they were lenient on account of his age (he’s 90). His supporters are furious at the verdict, while opponents are almost equally angry about the fact that he won’t be executed.

The charges relate to Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence, but members of Jamaat-e-Islami say they are more related to current politics than historical wrongs. There have been allegations that proceedings of the tribunal have been tainted by political bias. Azam is the fifth defendant to be convicted, with more to come.

The same controversy lay behind the anti-blasphemy protests organised by fundamentalists back in April. The supposedly “blasphemous” bloggers were political opponents of the Islamists, who were demanding the death penalty for the accused war criminals. As I said then, “it’s unlikely the fundamentalists would be on trial were it not for the fact that they fought on the losing side.”

To understand what’s going on, it’s necessary to say something about the historical background, although it goes back half a century.

When British India was partitioned after the Second World War between majority-Hindu and majority-Muslim areas, the Muslim state, Pakistan, was composed of two non-contiguous parts: West Pakistan, which we now know as just Pakistan, and East Pakistan, which is now Bangladesh.

West Pakistan was where the wealth and power were concentrated, and the East Pakistanis increasingly came to feel that they were getting a raw deal. In 1970 the Awami League, the political vehicle of the East Pakistanis, won a parliamentary majority, but the Pakistani military refused to accept the result. Fighting soon broke out, Bangladesh declared its independence, and India eventually intervened to defeat Pakistan in a short but brutal war.

For Muslim fundamentalists the war and the separation of Bangladesh from the rest of Pakistan were traumatic events, since they involved acknowledging that nationalism was more significant than religion; the fact that Bangladeshis were Muslims did not prevent them seeking Indian assistance to resist their fellow-Muslims from the West. So it’s not surprising to find that some fundamentalists supported the anti-independence side in the war and were implicated in atrocities committed by the Pakistani army.

It’s all a long time ago, but not so long that some of the guilty parties can’t be brought to account.

Every attempt to prosecute war crimes suffers from the accusation that it represents “victors’ justice”. Realistically, it could hardly be otherwise. It’s also true that prosecutions only happen when the political will is there: in this case, the return of the Awami League to government in 2008 was the essential precondition for anything being done.

But a politically-motivated action may still be the right action in the circumstances. If Azam and the others are guilty of atrocities then they should be punished, regardless of the fact that their opponents’ motives are less than pure.

If the Bangladeshi people think that Islamic fundamentalism should take priority over human rights, they have the opportunity to express that view at the ballot box. The fact that they haven’t done so (Jamaat-e-Islami only managed 4.6% of the vote at the last election) probably sets a good example for other countries dealing with a troubled past.


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