Bangladesh’s Ahmadiyya originated in the early twentieth century and today there are an estimated 100,000 followers in the country. While the community regard themselves as Muslim, certain doctrinal differences have led some extremists to condemn their beliefs as heretical.
The community has been subjected to increasing hostility since the early 1990s as militant organizations have mobilized against them, aided by the increasing influence of Islam in the country’s politics and the ascent of the BNP to power in 1991. Following an anti-Ahmadi conference in December that year calling for a ban on the Ahmadi faith, similar to that imposed in Pakistan, a series of major attacks were carried out against the community. These included the looting and arson of the Bahshkibazar Ahmadiyya complex in Dhaka in October 1992 by a crowd of more than 1,200 people, as well as numerous other attacks across the country against Ahmadi mosques, offices and homes, culminating in the bombing of a mosque in Khulna in October 1999 that left six dead and several others seriously injured.
This violence formed part of a broader effort by extremists to pressure authorities to declare the community non-Muslim. In 2004, the government, led by the BNP in coalition with Jamaat-e-Islami, responded to threats to dismantle Ahmadi mosques if action was not taken against the community by banning the production, sale and distribution of Ahmadi publications – a decision justified by the government ‘in view of objectionable materials in such publications that hurt or might hurt the sentiments of the majority Muslim population of Bangladesh’. This measure failed to mollify extremists within the country and further entrenched a climate of impunity for those targeting the community.
Importantly, it also established a precedent for the restriction of Ahmadi beliefs in the name of security. In a number of instances, the government has imposed Section 144 (an emergency measure) in districts where threats have been made against the Ahmadiyya community. On 19 May 2006, for instance, Brahmanbaria district headquarters imposed Section 144 following threats from anti-Ahmadiyya preachers, resulting in the eventual cancellation of the Ahmadiyya annual convention that month. Alleged security concerns have also been used on occasion by law enforcement agencies and government officials as a pretext to prevent the community from practising their rituals. In March 2007, for example, the Ahmadiyya Regional Jalsa was brought to a halt by the district authorities in Shalshiri village, Ponchogarh District, on security grounds, despite taking place in an area with a large Ahmadi population. The local community, though it approached the district authorities twice to secure permission, were reportedly not allowed to go ahead with their gathering.
Ahmadi community leaders have highlighted that, while the community has struggled against a backdrop of continued violence, few of these incidents are reported in national media. Discrimination against the community has become part of daily life for its members. This is reflected in the fact that many of the attacks carried out against the community are not perpetrated by isolated extremist cells but by crowds of locals, in many cases mobilized by preachers or politicians. In February 2013, the destruction of a venue scheduled to host the centenary celebrations of the Ahmadi community in Bangladesh, for instance, was carried out by a mob reportedly numbering as many as 20,000 people. Ahmadi leaders complained that police failed to adequately protect the site from attack.
Indeed, extremist movements within the country have at times enjoyed clear signs of wider support among some Bangladeshis. On 6 April 2013, for instance, demonstrations staged by the group Hefazat-e-Islam saw at least half a million supporters take to the streets in Dhaka with a series of demands that included the hanging of atheist bloggers, the imposition of an anti-blasphemy law with the death penalty and the designation of Ahmadis as ‘non-Muslims’.
More recently, a suicide bombing of an Ahmadi congregation in Bagmara on 25 December 2015 left three worshippers injured, with ISIS claiming responsibility for the attack. An attack in May 2017 saw three assailants armed with machetes attack an Ahmadi place in Khanpur in northern Bangladesh, leaving a cleric seriously injured. While in these cases the attackers were fewer in number, the established pattern of larger-scale assaults was resumed in March 2018, when a mob of 70-80 people attacked an Ahmadiyya mosque in Madarganj upazila of Jamalpur district. The attackers had just been practicing their Friday prayers in a local mosque nearby. Twenty-two Ahmadis were injured.
Updated July 2018
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