On Monday, 100,000 students, arm-in-arm, took the streets to protest the rise of Islamic extremism in religiously-conservative Bangladesh. The students hailed from hundreds of colleges and universities and gathered in the capital Dhaka to collectively condemn the recent terror attacks against innocents. Thousands of teacher and professors also joined the protest, lending their voices to the cause in a symphony of solidarity.
“Bangladesh stands against terrorism,” the students chanted, raising the volume with each successive rallying cry. “We want peace; no place for terrorism.”
According to the Associated Press, “The organizers said they particularly wanted students to lead Monday’s protests because the suspects in last month’s attacks were mostly students and young men.”
As the next generation of Bangladesh’s leaders, these students are working to revive the country’s secular founding traditions in an effort to slow the metastasization of Islamist ideologies and prevent the sort of theocracy-driven social malaise that has become all too common in the region.
But the country’s Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, has been ambivalent about instituting wholesale secular reforms. For years, Bangladesh's constitutional protections have been toyed with and amended several times depending on the prime minister’s temperament. Although Hasina recently “reinstated the principle of secularism,” she refused to relent on Islam’s supreme standing in the country. Contradicting her own apparent endorsement of “secularism,” she “also reaffirmed Islam as the state religion,” according to Reuters.
Bangladesh’s tumultuous history with religious liberties dates all the way back to its founding in 1971 when it split from Pakistan. “Bangladesh's 1971 constitution originally declared all religions were equal in the eyes of the state,” notes Reuters. “However, military ruler Hussain Mohammad Ershad amended it in 1988 to make Islam the state religion.”
With all its shortcomings, Bangladesh is still holding on to its own brand of secular democracy. “Bangladesh, a Muslim-majority nation of 160 million people, is a parliamentary democracy based on British common law,” explains AP. “Many local Islamist groups want to introduce Islamic Shariah law.”
The Islamic State has yet to establish an operational base in Bangladesh; however, the group’s imperial expansion into Libya and Pakistan may change that.
As a result, students are fighting back in hopes of slaying the beast of Islamism before it gains a firm and permanent foothold in the country.
“We stand against any sort of extreme form of ideology. We denounce terrorism,” Tanvir Shakil Joy, one of the event organizers, told AP. “I feel encouraged to see that so many students, both male and female, have joined the protest today.”
Monday’s protest echoes another democracy-minded protest in the region that occurred nearly four decades ago. It’s almost uncanny recalling the day when 100,000 Iranian women protested the compulsory hijab in the wake of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s rise to power.
The New York Times managed to obtain the few remaining images of that counter-revolutionary moment. “The date was March 8, International Women’s Day, and the image shows women from all walks of life — nurses, students, mothers — marching, smiling, arms raised in protest," reports The Times. "More than 100,000 of them.”
Iran’s Islamic regime has attempted to erase this memory from history, destroying nearly all available reminders of feminist insurrection prior to mullah-mandated and institutionalized repression campaign against women.
“We want peace; no place for terrorism.”
Students in Bangladesh
The students of Bangladesh don’t wish to follow in Iran’s footsteps. They want to be free, free from the shackles of Islamist dogmatism. Who knows how many more millions and millions of people are out there relegated the sidelines of the Islamic world, waiting for an opening, a single moment to take to the streets and hurl back all the garbage fed to them by self-righteous clerics and self-proclaimed holy men. As James Baldwin once said, “It took many years of vomiting up all the filth I’d been taught about myself, and half-believed, before I was able to walk on the earth as though I had a right to be here.”
Even Iran is not beyond redemption. In 2009, the people initiated the Green Revolution, in hopes of undercutting the power of the mullahs. While the clerical elite ultimately shut down the nascent movement using batons and guns, a powerful message was still sent: We’ve had enough.
Perhaps it’ll be another decade, maybe two. But one day, what happened in Bangladesh on Monday will animate the public squares of every theocratic capital of the Islamic world. 100,000 strong spread out like wildfire. The Islamists and despots will, of course, deploy their tanks and thugs to weed out the rebels. But it won’t matter. Thousands and thousands of people, arm-in-arm, drowning out the sterile sound of the muezzin, will descend on Tehran, Riyadh, Ankara, and elsewhere, sacrificing life and limb as they've done many-a-time to win back their freedom. And there won’t be a damn thing anybody can do to stop it.