Photo: Saiful Islam

Photo: Saiful Islam

The whole country is still in a standstill after the Long March and Dhaka rally of Hefazate Islam. Hefazate Islam, a conglomerate of several thousands Madrassahs across the country, announced this long march program to press their 13 point demand. Their 13 point demands are the following,

1. Reinstate the phrase ” Complete trust and faith in Allah” in the constitution and abolish all laws contradicting the dictates of Quran and Sunnah.
2. National Parliament must pass new law with provision of highest capital punishment for blasphemy.
3. The Murtad atheist bloggers who are leading Shahbag movement and speaking ill of prophet Muhammad ( SM) and Islam must be punished and all the anti Islam campaign must be stopped.
4. In the name of freedom of speech and free society, all the indecent and immoral activities, free mixing between man and woman, adultery, practice of alien culture like candle lighting and foreign cultural aggression must be stopped.

5. The religion averse education policy must be cancelled and teaching of Islam must be made compulsory from elementary to Higher Secondary level of education.
6. The Kadianis’ must be declared non-muslims and all their campaign and conspiracy must be stopped.
7. The transition of Dhaka, the city of Mosques into the city of statues and setting up statues at road intersections and college university campuses must be stopped.
8. All restrictions and obstacles to prayers and other religious activities in all the mosques including national Mosque Naitul Mukarram must be stopped.
9. All sorts of mockery and negative portrayal of Islamic dress code and Islamic culture in public culture including Radio and TV shows must be discouraged.
10. All the anti Islamic activities of the NGOs and proselytization campaign by Christian Missionary in different parts of the country, especially in Chittagong Hill tract, must be stopped.
11. Mass murder, state repression, attacks and indiscriminate shooting at unarmed madrassah students and Touhidi population must be stopped.
12. The state campaign of fear on the Madrassah students and teachers, Alem Ulama, Imam – Muazzin must be stopped.
13. All the fake cases lodged against Alem, Ulama, Madrassah students must be withdrawn, jailed alem Ulamas must be released and the injured and the killed must be compensated by the government.

These demands are enough to send a shiver through the spine of any sane sensible Bangladeshi. These are simply outrageous. These demands along with the widely publicized news that a few female journalists were beaten by the Hefazate Islam mob are enough make any progressive person very fearful about the future of Bangladesh.

However, rather than getting overly worried and taking these demands and actions on face value, it would be prudent to take a bit more nuanced view of the phenomenon. This is not a black and white binary. We all know that Shahbag was not a movement of athiests and Shahbaag activists were not up to exterminate Dari Tupi religious politics and we also know that only an extreme minority of Shahbag movement leaders organizers are athiests. And also many Shahbaag supporetrs believed that Shahbaag phenomenon was not all about hanging Quader Molla. Similarly when we analyze Hefazate Islam’s recent onslaught we have to remove the black and white binary goggles from our eyes. Its a major problem that we hardly mingle with madrassa crowd and we do not know them much. Although, with scattered incidents like that invoving Ekushey TV journalist, a monster in being created in Hehazate Islam by our popular media and social media, , most young men and Madrassah students of Hefazate Islam movement are not as ideologue as we believe they are.

Hefazate Islam is an umbrella organization of thousands of Kawmi madrassahs united together by the dean of Madrassa education in Bangladesh, nonagenarian Mr. Shah Ahmed Shafi. Only what Mr Shafi did to this movement is to give the madrassah based movement a leader to be united under. Without him thousand fractions would never have been able to get along for too long. The dominant perception of Mr Shafi in Chittagong and among Madrassa circle is that whatever he believes in, how orthodox he may be, he is not a political player. He feels it is his religious responsibility when he thinks ‘basic tenets of Islam’ or the status quo is at stake.

For nearly three quarters of a century he committed himself on building, flourishing and eventually leading the high impact organization called Hathazari Boro Madrassah. Despite being the best facility in Bangladesh, the relative discrimination these Madrassah students face is stunning.

Look at the first google map image below. The bigger blue line rectangle is Chittagong University( CU) area, about 1800 acres. The smaller rectangle is Darul Uloom Madrassah area AKA Hathazari madrassah, situated on about 4 acres land.

Total number of student at Chittagong University is 22,000 and total number of students at Hathazari madrassa is 50,000.

CU has its own train station, own train ( Which the students love to set fire every time something happens in or out of the campus that they do not like ), train service from downtown Chittagong, own bus service from Chittagong city several times a day. Students study free and live in the dorms ( All are architectural marvels) in extremely subsidized rates.

Hathazari CU area
Compared to CU students, Hathazari madrassa students have barely nothing. Living in Jail is better than their dorms. There hardly is any government grant, most of their living and education expenses come from donations of private citizens.

If one can incite these madrassa students, who can be angrier than them?

© - J A Akash

© – J A Akash

The above photo shows co-education in a Madrassah in Hathazari.

The Hathazari Madrassa played vital role in modernizing Madrassah education. From 16 th century curriculum, this Maolana Shafi and his predecessors brought it up to 20th century. In Bangladesh, hundreds of groups have quota in University, medical school admissions and government jobs, Madrassah students do not have any such quota.

There is a great demand for Imams and Muazzins in 3 million mosques in Bangladesh. There are also demand for Islamic scholars in schools and colleges as religion teachers. This madrassahs are catering to those demands.

See the young kids studying in this picture? These is their class room cum dorm room. From 7 Am to 4 PM it is their class room, after that it becomes their dorm room. Look at their rolled beds. This is how this madrassah accommodate 50,000 full residential students in such a narrow place.

 © - J A Akash

© – J A Akash

This photo below shows older graduate students studying in class. These are young men from marginal societies in Bangladesh. They could not afford to get conventional education. They would have been Rickshaw Pullers and daily laborers in rural farmlands without madrassah education. They would have been nobodies in our society.

© - J A Akash

© – J A Akash

Most of them are not fundamentalist zealots. I can bet a majority of these students and teachers will opine in favor of mainatining the status quo of moderate Muslim majority country. If one seriousy looks into their voting record, one will be amazed to see that most of these students and teachers probably voted for Khaleda Zia’s party, some voted for Sheikh Hasina’s party, and very few voted for Jamaat or Islami oiko Jote.

In recent Hefazate movements, what we are seeing is a reaction to possible progressive secular overreach. To this group, Shahbaag movement was perceived as an attack on their core values and core job/ livelihood security. That overeach probably created a perception among this part of our society that the hundreds of years status quo is under serious threat.

Madrassah is the last opportunity for this hundreds of thousands of students and teachers. This education brings them a social respect and gives them food to survive. These Madrassahs students will go and fight in the streets if their teacher ask them to do so.  But they are NOT up for a protracted taliban style war. Give it a few weeks time to cool down, these students will go back to their hard hungry life at Madrassah in favor of the century old status quo. All four political players in Bangladesh i.e. Awami League, BNP, JP and Jamaat understand this. I hope our cultural leadership will also understands this fact sometimes very soon.

Let the status quo of our moderate muslim majority statehood with equal respectful right of religious, ethnic and linguistic minorities be maintained as it did over the last century. If we try to push it in the name of cultural war on backwardness, we will incite an unwilling but very powerful enemy we will never be able to win over.