Every day since early February, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have massed at an intersection in Bangladesh’s bustling capital city. But unlike the Tahrir Square and Occupy Wall Street movements, they’re not calling for the overthrow of the government or greater economic equality.
The rallies, led by youths and fueled by social media, are demanding the death penalty for those who took part in war crimes during Bangladesh’s bloody battle for independence from Pakistan more than four decades ago.
In 2010 Bangladesh set up a court to bring justice to those who have been accused of crimes committed during the war of 1971. So far, the court has indicted 10 people. Seven of them are top leaders of Bangladesh’s largest Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami. The Jamaat acknowledges that it opposed Bangladesh’s struggle for independence, but says there has been a smear campaign launched against it.
But the protestors are asking for more. In the fourth most populous Muslim country in the world, the peaceful movement is also trying to achieve something remarkable: a ban on extreme fundamentalist parties.
In a piece published on The Asia Foundation’s website, Awrup Sanyal, a Dhaka-based writer, wrote that the Shahbag movement has “opened up space for discussions on subjects that until now were considered taboo or avoided altogether.”
Such subjects include, according to Sanyal, fundamentalism in politics; secularism; unaccountability; inclusiveness irrespective of religion and ethnicity; contradictory historical narratives; boycotting of businesses; and the spirit of the 1971 independence movement.
Writer Saad Z. Hossain says Shahbag is a “visceral rejection of fundamentalism.”
These are days of possibility for this nation. The call for change is a call of the people for a new hope, an opportunity for the gospel. Pray for the nation, its people and the church. The nation needs light and hope.