Friday, April 19, 2013

Shahbag v Hefajat: Where does the soul of Bangladesh lie?

This is an article of mine published on Thursday 18 April in the op-ed section of New Age looking at what two surveys say about the relative support in Bangladesh of the Shahbag and Hefajat protestors.
Shahbag v Hefajat
Where does the soul of Bangladesh lie? 
by David Bergman

WHERE does the soul of Bangladesh lie? Is it with the men and women who protested in Shahbagh in their thousands for weeks on end in March, or it is with the men in white caps who took over Motijheel on April 6? 
Or, to put it another way, do more people in Bangladesh want to live in a modern secular country, in which fundamentalist politics plays no or very limited role, where 1971 war criminals are hanged, and in which vigorous attempts are made to get woman to play an equal role? 
Or do they prefer the kind of country which Hefajat-e-Islam would like to create in which conservative Islamic values are at the fore, male-female comingling is outlawed, and which shows very limited interest in the war crimes trials. 
Perhaps, at least in the context of Bangladesh, Shahbagh on the one hand and Hefajat on the other are nearer the extremes of thinking about the role of religion in the country — with most people somewhere between the two. But, even if so, in which of the two directions is the pendulum swinging? 
At the beginning of the Shahbagh protests, with the wall-to-wall media coverage it was difficult not to imagine, particularly if living in Dhaka, that Shahbagh represented the zeitgeist of Bangladesh, and through its demands about war criminals, reflected the views of most of the country. 
This view was apparent in Sheikh Hasina’s statement suggesting that the International Crimes Tribunals should ‘take the people’s desires into account’ in relation to their main demand of hanging those on trial for war crimes.

However, an unpublished national opinion poll undertaken by Org-Quest Research Ltd for a national newspaper suggests a more complex story.

On February 5, 2013, Abdul Quader Molla was convicted of five offences involving crimes against humanity and was sentenced in two of those offences for life imprisonment.

Between February 8 and 15 — 4 to 10 days after the conviction of Molla and with Shahbagh providing wall-to-wall media coverage — Org-Quest, a well-respected independent firm undertook a poll. It interviewed by phone 3,000 people in 30 districts of which 744 were urban and 2,256 were rural. The interviewees were, the firm said in its report, ‘nationally representative’. 
One of the questions the poll asked concerned people’s view on the decision by the court to sentence Molla to imprisonment and whether or not they supported the death penalty. It found that whilst 43 per cent of those questioned about the Molla verdict supported Shahbagh’s central demand for imposition of the death penalty against Molla — 55 per cent did not. 2 per cent of respondents said that they did not know or refused to respond.
The 55 per cent of people who were not in favour of the death penalty were divided between 40 per cent who were satisfied with the life-term imprisonment, 9 per cent who thought Molla should have been acquitted, and 6 per cent who thought that he should have received a sentence which was less than a life term.

This suggests that whilst the central demand from Shahbagh for hanging had significant minority support, it did not, at least at the time the poll was taken, have majority support.

The poll cannot obviously be seen as a judgement about Shahbagh’s wider set of values and demands — but it certainly represents a dent in those arguing at that time that Shahbagh was representative of the country. 
But what about Hefajat-e-Islam who on April 6 was able to fill the city area of Motijheel full of its supporters protesting in favour of its 13 demands that included its most eye-catching one — an ‘end to all alien cultural practices like immodesty, lewdness, misconduct, culture of free mixing of the sexes, candle lighting.’ 
How widely held are its views? 
Hefajat-e-Islam is primarily composed of people who went to quomi madrassahs. These are privately funded schools — perhaps more appropriately described as seminaries — which only provide an Islamic religious education.

The quomi madrassahs teach only a very small proportion of the total numbers of students in Bangladesh

A study by the World Bank in 2009 which undertook the first ever comprehensive survey on religious schools in Bangladesh found that the ‘number and share of Quomi madrasas in both the primary and secondary sector is much lower than what is portrayed in the popular press.’ 
The study found that the quomi madrassahs students only constituted 1.9 per cent of the total primary school enrolment and 2.2 per cent of the total secondary school enrolment in Bangladesh. 
Whilst the numbers going to these religious seminaries are small, the total number of madrassah students in Bangladesh is larger — 13.8 per cent at the primary level and 19 per cent at the secondary level. However, it should be noted that most of the non-quomi madrassah students go to Aliyah madrassahs which operate with the support of government funding, and follow a modern curriculum alongside their religious teaching. 
This would suggest that whilst the show of strength of the Islamists on the Saturday appeared impressive, it represents at the most a small minority segment in Bangladesh, and nothing more. 
But even if Hefajat itself is very small, what about the wider support in this country for its values? Support of religious parties in the recent general elections is an interesting guide for this. 
The biggest Islamic party in Bangladesh is Jamaat-e-Islami, but the level of support in the country is small. In June 1996, having contested 300 constituencies, the party won three seats with 8.61 per cent of the vote. In 2001, contesting only 30 seats, the party won 17 seats with 4.28 per cent of the vote and in 2008, contesting 39 seats, they won two seats with 4.7 per cent of the vote.

The national vote for Jamaat-e-Islami and other religious parties is certainly less than 10 per cent. 
Bangladesh is, therefore, far from heading for any kind of Islamic revolution; its status as a ‘moderate’ Muslim country remains very much intact.

At the same time the Shahbagh movement should appreciate that its apparent wide support in Dhaka and in the urban areas is not reflected in the rest of the country. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Org-Quest poll showed quite a sharp rural/urban divide. Of the 43 per cent who supported the death penalty for Molla, 63 per cent were urban, and only 37 per cent were rural.

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