The ground of Chandpur Madinatul Hafezia Qawmi Madrasa in Natore was packed with villagers, students and a good number of women around 10:15pm on March 14. They had gathered there to listen to Islamic sermons.
Hefajat-e Islam leader Mufti Mazharul Islam Rashedi, who went there from Dhaka, became violent at one stage of his sermon. “Islam is not safe under this government. Alems...ulams [Islamic scholars] are being harassed, while atheists are being rewarded for their anti-Islamic activities. There had been conspiracies against Islam in the past, but the crusaders of Islam had foiled those. Who among you are ready to sacrifice your lives for Islam and Rasulullah [the Prophet]?”
The audience responded spontaneously, raising their hands.
“Instead of men, now women are given Jewish funds through NGOs to push them out of purdah and push them towards wrongdoing,” Rashedi, who is also director general of Darul Karim Madrasa in Dhaka, went on.
The chief guest at the mahfil, Moulana Abdur Sabur, senior muhaddis of Bogra Jamil Madrasa, and main speaker Mufti Sadiq Mahmud bin Noori also delivered similar provocative sermons, reports our Natore correspondent.
At least 100 such religious gatherings were held in different places of the district in March alone. Sources in madrasas and mosques said they would continue with arranging such programmes.
Such incendiary speeches have been a common feature at every gathering, not only in Natore but also in most parts of the country in recent months.
In the guise of such mahfils and jalsas, some Islamist parties are campaigning against the ruling party by portraying it as “anti-Islamic and pro-atheist” and allegedly spreading communal hatred in a bid to create jihadi sentiment among the public.
Many speakers are allegedly delivering sermons in line with the audiovisual message of al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri in which he warned the government over its anti-Islamic acts and urged Muslims in Bangladesh to launch an 'intifada' against it.
The history of holy wars and Sahabas [followers of the Prophet] laying down their lives fighting valiantly for Islam is also coming up in their sermons.
The local administration seems reluctant to take any steps in this regard, terming it a “religiously sensitive” issue. In fact, the local administration did not inform the higher authorities of the matter.
Contacted by this newspaper, Deputy Commissioner of Natore Nahid Hossain first expressed his ignorance of such programmes. However, when he was provided with some instances, he said, “We will go for action if there were any communal or jihadi speeches.”
Senior Secretary of the Home Ministry CQK Mustaq Ahmed said the authorities would alert deputy commissioners, upazila nirbahi officers and superintendents of police so that legal procedure can be initiated if violent militant and communal statements are delivered at religious gatherings.
Speaking at a jalsa in Kushtia town on February 21, district unit chief of Islamic Shashantantra Andolan Moulana Amir Hamza said the government had been hostile to Muslims and Islamic organisations through its anti-Islamic activities and patronisation of atheists.
A number of people in the audience have found a similarity between his address and the message of Zawahiri, reports our Kushtia correspondent.
Spreading venom against the Hindus, Hamza said the government along with some atheists was on a mission to turn Bangladesh into a Hindu state, while India was also working to convert Muslims in Bangladesh.
Speaking anonymously, a top leader of the Islamist party's Kushtia unit admitted that the statement had caused huge resentment among the people, especially among Hindus.
Mofiz Uddin Ahmed, Superintendent of Police, Kushtia, said the law enforcers had received complaints and had already issued warnings against such sermons.
No jalsa was arranged in Kushtia town after that warning, but Hamza continued speaking at gatherings outside the town.
Jalsas are being organised every day in Cox's Bazar under the banners of Sonar Bangla Jubo Parishad, Islami Sangskritik Sangstha, Tarun Jubo Muslim Sangha, Islamic Chhatra Kolyan Parishad, Renaissance Sangskritik Gosthi, Anirban, Islami Samaj Kolyan Parishad and Islamic Sangeet Gosthi.
Hefajat leaders, principals and directors of Qawmi madrasas from Satkania, Hathazari and other places in Chittagong address those gatherings.
Cox's Bazar DC Ruhul Amin said, “We can't stop the mahfil as the Islamist leaders might cash in on our action and launch propaganda, saying the government is not allowing them to hold Islamic gatherings.”
The number of mahfils and jalsas arranged in recent times is unusually high in different districts. These programmes are usually arranged in winter -- between November and mid-February -- when the weather remains dry. Such gatherings nowadays are taking place amid hot weather and rains.
According to some participants and police in districts like Natore, Chapainawabganj, Brahmanbaria, Satkhira and Chittagong, the mahfils are organised in a planned way -- the programme starts with the usual sermon in the afternoon but gradually turns fanatical and ends around midnight through a very intimidating speech.
Hefajat and other Islamist party leaders apparently remain in the forefront of such gatherings, but the Jamaat-e-Islami has also expressed full support for them, say intelligence sources.
“Different religious and militant organisations have teamed up to misguide the people and push them towards their destructive plan,” said an intelligence agency official in Brahmanbaria, where more than 1,500 jalsas have been held since October last year.
A senior police official, who works on extremism in Dhaka, said last week police had information about the presence of militants at these gatherings.
“Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh [JMB] leaders especially attend the gatherings to drum up propaganda against the government and incite people,” said the official, asking not to be named.