Religious Extremists Are Winning the Battle for Bangladesh’s Identity

Religious Extremists Are Winning the Battle for Bangladesh’s Identity
Muslim devotees shout slogans during a protest over an alleged insult to Islam, outside the country’s main Baitul Mukarram Mosque in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Oct. 15, 2021 (AP photo by Mahmud Hossain Opu).

On Oct. 13, as Bangladesh’s Hindu community celebrated a five-day religious festival, an image circulated on Facebook that showed a Quran placed on the statue of the Hindu deity Hanuman. The photo, which was taken at a shrine in the southeastern city of Comilla, was seen by some social media users as evidence of an act of blasphemy against Islam, and it inspired a mob to attack the shrine and several Hindu temples nearby. The incident became the opening salvo of one the deadliest periods of religious violence Bangladesh has seen in recent memory. Since then, mobs have torched and vandalized Hindu homes, places of worship and statues across the country. 

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government has responded by temporarily blocking high-speed internet in several areas, deploying paramilitary units to some 35 of the country’s districts, and arresting scores of people, including activists supporting Bangladesh’s main opposition parties, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Jamaat-e-Islami. The government also sent the state minister for religious affairs, Faridul Haque Khan, to Comilla to tour a damaged temple and meet the affected families. The visit may reassure some constituents that the government is taking the violence seriously, but it is unlikely to be followed by a more considered, long-term policy response. 

This isn’t the first time that Hindus, who comprise just under 10 percent of the population, have been targeted. But this new outburst of violence differs from previous attacks in important ways that raise fresh concerns about the fragility of the secularism that once defined Bangladesh.

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