Dhaka, Bangladesh – Addressing a sea of crowd from a pick-up van, Junaid Babunagari on Monday noon delivered a stern message: “We want the Bangladesh government to shut down the French embassy in Dhaka within 24 hours.”
Babunagari, secretary-general of Hifazat-e-Islam – one of the biggest Muslim political groups in the country – further said: “[French President] Emmanuel Macron should beg for forgiveness.”
The crowd of some 50,000 people, almost wholly comprised of young people decked in white kurta [tunic] and topi [cap] voiced their appreciation in unison. “Allahu Akbar [God is great],” they shouted, “We will not tolerate disrespect of the Prophet Muhammad.”
Protests are being held in several Muslim-majority countries, including Pakistan, Turkey and Indonesia, over Macron’s comment that Islam is “in crisis” and his defence of the offensive caricature of the Prophet.
Tensions further escalated in the aftermath of the killing of Samuel Paty, a middle school teacher in France who showed his pupils drawings of the Prophet during a discussion on the freedom of speech.
Such disrespect of our prophet bleeds the hearts of millions of religious and pious people of Bangladesh.
But Bangladesh arguably has witnessed the largest and most prolonged protest over the cartoon row that has angered the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims.
Monday’s protest, which originated from Bangladesh’s biggest mosque in the capital Dhaka, was yet the largest demonstration staged in the country against the French president’s stance on the right to publish cartoons of the Prophet.
In the past one week, the Muslim majority nation of 160 million has witnessed at least three large-scale anti-France demonstrations in Dhaka and in the port city of Chattagram.
‘We love our Prophet’
Last Friday, several protest rallies were organised from different mosques after Jumma prayers across the country calling for “boycotting goods from France” and for severing “diplomatic ties”.
“We are on the street as we love our Prophet,” Abu Abdullah, a 19-year-old student from Markazul Aziz Madrasa (traditional Islamic religious school) of Dhaka who took part in Monday’s protest told Al Jazeera.
“Islam is a religion of peace and our Prophet Muhammad is the best human being to ever exist. I can’t remain silent if someone said bad things about our beloved Prophet,” he said.
We believe in freedom of expression of every individual, hence we allow all sort of protests to take place in our country.
Belal Hossain, a 26-year-old khadem (caretaker) of a mosque in Narshingdi who came to Dhaka to protest, told Al Jazeera that images and caricature of Prophet Muhammad are not permitted in Islam.
“By sketching a belittling portrait of Muhammad, France hurt us. We want no ties with France any more,” Hossain said.
Mufti Fakhrul Islam, publication secretary of Hifazat-e-Islam who was at the forefront in organising Monday’s protest, said people love the Prophet more than their lives.
“We will not tolerate the slightest disrespect of our beloved Muhammad,” Islam told Al Jazeera.
Hifazat, based in Chattagram, runs more than 90,000 madrassas (Islamic religious schools) across the country.
Maulana Zafarullah Khan, leader of Bangladesh Islamic party Khelafat Andolon, which joined forces with Hifazat, said: “By disrespecting Muhammad, France has disrespected the whole of Muslim ummah [community].”
“Such disrespect of our Prophet bleeds the hearts of millions of religious and pious people of Bangladesh,” Khan said.
Silence of Bangladesh government
So far, the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has not commented on the cartoon controversy and maintained studied silence amid calls to sever diplomatic ties with France – the country’s fourth-largest trading partner.
The Bangladesh government, however, has allowed the protests.
“We believe in freedom of expression of every individual, hence we allow all sort of protests to take place in our country,” AK Abdul Momen, minister of foreign affairs, told Al Jazeera.
Momen said he understands the people’s anger on the issue. “It’s not just about France; if anyone from any country disrespects Prophet Muhammad, religious people in Bangladesh will stage protest against that, and we know about it.”
He said there is no scope of cutting diplomatic ties with France. “Bangladesh and France enjoy a good and warm bilateral relationship,” he said.
The growing Islamisation of the Bangladeshi society is a big contributory factor in this regard. It has become easy to use these kinds of issue as a tool for mobilisation.
France is one of the largest destinations of Bangladesh’s readymade garments (RMG) products, which account for the lion’s share of the country’s export basket.
Last year, Bangladesh exported goods worth $1.7bn to France, making the European nation its fourth-biggest export market after the United States, Germany and the United Kingdom. Several French companies have medium to large scale investments in Bangladesh, from energy to construction materials, pharmaceuticals and telecommunications.
Some French politicians have already called for action against Bangladesh in the wake of the mass protests.
“Bangladesh economy is largely based on the textile industry. Western distributors (Carrefour, H&M, etc) must stop purchasing clothing. Let’s stop trading with those who hate us and favor localism,” Virginie Joron, a French politician who is a member of the European Parliament, tweeted.
Marine Le Pen, a French politician who is known for her anti-immigration stance, urged the French government to impose a ban on immigrants from Bangladesh.
Adnan Habib, a Dhaka-based banker, told Al Jazeera that Bangladesh will lose more if the relationship with France is tainted. “I respect people’s emotion about Prophet Muhammad. But to be frank, the idea of severing ties with France on this is unrealistic under the present global context.”
Asif Shibgat Bhuiyan, a popular blogger who writes on Islam, said the strong emotion of the Bangladeshi Muslims and religiopolitical opportunism sensed by the religious leaders and influencers are playing a strong role behind the protests.
“Bangladeshi Muslims are very emotional and sensitive about religious symbols. Among the symbols inviolable to them, the honour of the Prophet Muhammad is at the forefront,” he said.
Bhuiyan said Bangladesh has precedence of staging large-scale public demonstrations on the issue of violating the honour of the Prophet.
A cartoon by the largest vernacular daily – Prothom Alo – triggered protests in 2007 after it was perceived to defame the name of the Prophet.
“A large number of Muslims took to the street and the editor of the daily had to visit the top Muslim leader in the country to clear the misunderstanding,” said Bhuiyan.
He said the religious leaders of the country are aware that they cannot have a demonstration on every issue pertaining to Muslims. There has hardly been a public protest against the persecution of Uighurs in China.
“Hence they require an issue that is sustainable. It needs to be well participated and short in temporal scope – so that there is a perception of success while being convenient enough for the government to let it be,” Bhuiyan said.
Ali Riaz, who has researched on the Islamist parties in Bangladesh, said several factors have prompted these demonstrations, largely spearheaded by the Islamist groups in Bangladesh.
“The growing Islamisation of the Bangladeshi society is a major contributory factor in this regard. It has become easy to use these kinds of issue as a tool for mobilisation,” said Riaz, a distinguished professor of politics and government of Illinois State University, US.
He argued that the populist appeal of the issue and the anti-Western sentiments have brought most of the common people into the mix.
Besides, he said, some political forces are taking to the street to demonstrate their existence in the current political vacuum on a safe issue without annoying the government.
Riaz believes the demonstrations are helping the Bangladesh government, which he says, has turned into an authoritarian regime.
“First, by allowing these demonstrations to take place the government is boosting its claim that opposition’s right to assembly has not been curtailed, thus it contributes to its assertion that the country is a functioning democracy.”
Secondly, he said, these portray Bangladeshi politics to the international community “as a choice between radical Islamism and secularism, and present itself as a better alternative” despite its “[government] abysmal record of human rights violations and curtailment of fundamental freedom”.