Placing the Voices of Shahbag in Modern Narratives of Transnational Youth Protest – Part 2
If trolling through history reveals involvement of youth in political or socioeconomic upheavals, in case of Bangladesh their raison d’etre has been simple and straightforward: to bring about (political) change. So it is not surprising that youth were the prime propulsion behind the Shahbag movement of 2013, which not only elicited emotional energy from an otherwise shushed urban middle class, but also ignited a chain reaction through the machinery of the country. It was the event that would unfold a series of inconvenient twists and turns, eventually setting up a face-off between the political actors.
Yet, perhaps the most fascinating parts of the movement – the speed at which it spread, the resourcefulness of the protesters who found ways to access multiple sources of information, and the (perceived) freedom to share ideas – were not unique to Shahbag. A number of similar movements, such as Tahrir and Jasmine, had similar characteristics: the “people” were pushing “people” to confront and re-examine its values, politics, legislation, laws, and collective memory; the protests stemming from a one-point demand for justice for war crimes started to resemble a movement for social justice.
A year since the event, Parker Ziegler an undergraduate student at Middlebury College, looks back at the movement in his two-part series.
Placing the Voices of Shahbag in Modern Narratives of Transnational Youth Protest – Part 2
by Parker Ziegler for Alalodulal
Continued from Part 1.
Reconsidering Shahbag’s Place in Transnational Youth Protest
Reports seeking to compare Shahbag with the Arab Spring have been ridiculed for oversimplifying the unique and differing aims of protestors in Bangladesh and the Middle East. Indeed, the two movements sought distinct goals in differing political climates; while Shahbag focused on the hanging of war criminals and the banning of a political party, Tahrir and the “Jasmine Revolution” had pushed to destroy entire regimes. The only evident uniting feature seemed to be that protests in both regions had taken place in a public square. To be sure, most scholars caution against grouping the movements together as one integrated struggle—this would ignore the complex historical and national emotions that influenced each protest.
However, in the age of globalization, social media, and the Internet, it is difficult to believe that protestors at Shahbag were not influenced by the actions their youth brethren and sistren had taken just two years earlier in Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria. Whether through embracing similar protest rhetoric or employing the same technologies of civil resistance, linkages between the movements were apparent.
There existed similarities between the powers they were fighting. Those powers could be defined as entrenched political and social bodies that had caused deep national suffering through the perpetration of civil and human rights. In addition, these oppressive regimes held the common bond of employing corrupt tactics to protect themselves from downfall, thereby remaining in positions of power for decades. To explore these transnational and generational linkages between youth protestors and “old” oppressors further, we will use two case studies for comparison: the April 6th Youth Movement in Egypt and the “Jasmine Revolution” in Tunisia.
The April 6th Youth Movement and the “Jasmine Revolution”
The April 6th Youth Movement, a group of young, tech-savvy activists who had spearheaded the January 25th Movement that shook the Mubarak regime to its core, used a rhetoric that bore distinct similarities to the discourse found at Shahbag. For example, when Bangladeshi youths carried signs inscribed with “We have only one demand, hang the razakars,” the message seemed an echo to the call of April 6th leader Ahmed Maher to topple the Mubarak regime’s “thugs, torturers, and criminals” (PBS, “April 6th Youth Movement”). Both movements focused on transgenerational issues, seeking gains not only for themselves but for the parents and grandparents who had endured suffering in the form of corrupt officials, economic and social neglect, and the unjust rewriting of history. Moreover, both movements embraced the youth label as a positive addition, differentiating them from the “old guard” that they so vehemently opposed.
These same linkages between Shahbag and the Arab Spring can also be found further back, 11 days earlier, in Tunisia and the “Jasmine Revolution.” It was here that the spirit of today’s transnational, generational conflict first found its vigor. The “old guard” in this case had been the 23-year regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, a leader known for restricting freedom of speech and buttressing corruption. When Muhammad Bouazizi ignited protests through his self-immolation on December 17, 2010, he unknowingly launched a movement that has held the attention of the international community for over 3 years. The implications for youth protestors everywhere were significant. The April 6th Youth Movement, who had met only modest success during four years of protest, sprung into action with a novel sense of empowerment; as Maher recounted to the press in the early days of Tahrir, “But this year, what happened in Tunisia has given us a different feel to January 25th[the day protests at Tahrir began]” (PBS, “April 6th Youth Movement”).
Shahbag, April 6th, and the “Jasmine Revolution” also made use of social media as a creative and innovative tool for organizing resistance. This technique has remained highly specific to youth protestors, who have employed a combination of viral videos, Tweets, Facebook posts, and blogs to encourage both physical and cyber activism. This new technology has also allowed youth from around the world to play a role in these movements regardless of their geographic location. During both Shahbag and Tahrir, we saw sites such as Facebook and Twitter become forums for discussing larger, structural issues of international human rights. For example, the “We Are all Khaled Said” page, a memorial to the young blogger who had been brutally murdered by government forces after exposing a police drug scandal, had over 400,000 likes when Tahrir was raging. Similarly, pages devoted to the murdered BOAN blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider inspired heated discussion of Jamaat brutality and freedom of speech laws.
Finally, Shahbag, April 6th and the “Jasmine Revolution” did something few national protests had ever done before—they engaged transnational civil society in an active, rather than passive, way. Through “citizen journalism” and first-person visual accounts, more personal stories than ever trickled into the international community, giving a sense of realness to the struggles being waged. The groups most affected by this tended to be the diaspora communities, as evidenced by the actions of British-Bangladeshi youth in the East London districts of Tower Hamlets and Whitechapel.
On February 8th, just three days after protests at Shahbag began, youths were organizing protests (via blogs and social media) in London’s Altab Ali Park to show solidarity with the protestors at Shahbag. To make the scene complete, supporters of Jamaat-e-Islami and the East London Mosque also came out to occupy the park’s sacred Shahid Minar. Effectively, protests at Shahbag had been transported nearly 5,000 miles across the world.
Ultimately, what these linkages show us is that Shahbag was not just a national phenomenon confined to the borders of Bangladesh. Rather, it was a manifestation of a growing transnational and youth-led protest ethos, a mindset committed to undoing the most bitter, stubborn, and oppressive political systems of our time. Despite the different faces that these systems took, their methods of subjugating the “ordinary people” left a similar degree of trauma in each nation’s consciousness. Moreover, youth worldwide sought to undo them through closely related rhetorics and methods of protest, communicated through social media, the Internet, and linkages of globalization.
Yet, that ever-present question still looms: One year later, What did Shahbag really mean? Given that protests have more or less ended, Egypt has essentially returned to a military state, and the struggle in Syria wages on after nearly three of the bloodiest years in recent memory, what happened to the youth vigor that had just recently filled these places with hope? And more importantly, can it be found again?
Some Things Never Change: How the “Old Guard” Remained in Power
In the early days of the Shahbag movement, Bangladeshis were both dumbstruck and fascinated by the young bloggers who had sat down at Projonmo Chottor. The uniqueness of their action lay in its spontaneity; never before had a small group of individuals, in a matter of days, attracted hundreds of thousands of young people to a single place to engage in protest. Shahbag also surprised the public with its web-based approach; the protests were largely organized, orchestrated, and “exported” around the world using the Internet rather than more traditional methods of assembly.
Perhaps most shockingly, Shahbag strove to maintain an apolitical, secular stance from the start. Initially, when AL or BNP officials came to speak at Shahbag they were turned away before they could reach the podium. This commitment to autonomy from either of the country’s powerful political alliances signaled the development of a “third space” for Shahbag’s youth. In refusing to give voice to the country’s political elite, they seemed to be declaring the end of “politics as usual” and the beginning of a new system governed by the “ordinary people.”
The question is why did Shahbag’s position on these issues change? Why, after gripping the national attention and inspiring a generation of Bangladeshi youth, did Shahbag slowly drift into the shadows?
The explanation hinges on the fact that the protests were not able to fully escape the backdoor politics of the AL-BNP system. Initially, both political parties were disarmed and disoriented by Shahbag. Confusion reigned as each struggled to decide whether they should support or oppose the young protestors, and as they contemplated what the other might do.
The Awami League took the critical first step when it publicly announced support for Shahbag, effectively painting the Bangladesh Nationalist Party as the enemy of Bangladesh’s liberal youth. Moreover, the BNP’s alliance with Jamaat cemented Shahbag’s distrust of the party. The turning point came when BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia made her incendiary comment decrying Shahbag’s youths as “atheists and spoilt people.”
But Shahbag found itself thrust into the middle of corrupt Bangladeshi politics cycle after a few weeks of protest. As Awami League political and student leaders slowly came to control Gonojagoron Mancha, the discourse of the protests became increasingly anti-Islamic and thoroughly polarized. Beyond simply banning Jamaat from practicing politics in the country, Shahbag began to question the place of religion (particularly Islam) in the country’s political system altogether.
As an increasingly radicalized Jamaat-Shibir continued to grow, emergence of another fundamentalist Hefazat-e-Islam set off a full-scale conflict between Islam and secularism, between “terrorist” and “atheist.” In this conflict, Hefazat and Shahbag were transformed into the pawns of a political proxy war between the BNP and the AL. We have since been witnessing, through controversy and chaos over 2014’s elections, the full-scale implications of this war.
It was this exploitation of the youth at Shahbag that Bangladeshis found most disheartening about the movement. It seemed an affirmation that nothing, not even the romanticized, protesting youth, could change “politics as usual.” Critics of the movement repeatedly claimed that nothing of lasting impact had come from the outpouring of passion that had so empowered these children and grandchildren of ’71. The youth had failed to focus on the “real” issue of political corruption and overreach, on the very system that would later undo them. Indeed, when Quader Mollah’s hanging hit the front page of the BBC’s website, little mention of Shahbag was to be found.
A Precedent, Not a Landmark
As we reconsider Shahbag one year later, alternative explanations of its significance may help us to understand where this spontaneous youth uprising fits into local and global narratives of political transition. Rather than envisioning Shahbag as solely an internal nationalist struggle, or more broadly as a proxy war between Western secularism and political Islam, it is perhaps more beneficial to consider it through a combined generational and geographical lens.
The degree of excitement, hope, and optimism that Shahbag initially achieved was derived from its youth label, a designation that holds a powerful association with progressive change in Bangladesh’s national and historical consciousness. Certainly, an air of inevitable success had surrounded the youth at Shahbag as they strove to put an end to the 42 years of suffering caused by the escape of razakars. With the hanging of Quader Mollah, perhaps some of that trauma has begun to heal.
Shahbag’s youth label was also critical in connecting the movement across geographic space to a growing transnational youth activism. The uprisings of the Arab Spring signaled the emergence of a new global youth fixated on dismantling the political systems of the “old guard”, the entrenched regimes that had subjected their parents and grandparents to corruption, economic insecurity, and prejudiced politics.
Connected in rhetoric and method by social media and the Internet, Shahbag was in many ways a manifestation of the same spirit we saw at Tahrir, in Tunisia, and beyond, cast in a struggle with its own unique implications. But now that Mollah is hung, protests have faded, and the country has been plunged into disarray following January’s elections, where do Shahbag’s impassioned youths redirect their energies? Where does the Shahbag narrative fit into the future of Bangladesh?
Shahbag was a precedent, not a landmark moment. Shahbag was an indication of the vigor and passion with which Bangladeshi youth can assemble, if driven to do so. Perhaps Shahbag was even an omen of larger, more sweeping protests to come. Through Shahbag, Bangladeshis everywhere were able to identify the systemic issues, intertwined with historical passions, that have created such a broken political system: large-scale corruption, the “fake” nationalisms that have pitted Bangladeshi and Muslim identities against one another, and the inability to achieve genuine reconciliation with the memory of ’71.
Through Shahbag, Bangladeshis also gained a renewed faith in the power of the “ordinary people,” a renewed belief in the public voice. Without question, these protests demonstrated that the public is capable of both demanding and making change, that the democracy that has been promised since ’71 is finally finding itself in a vocal, reawakened people.
The youth of Shahbag may not have achieved the reform they sought, yet there can be no doubt that their struggle bore important and far-reaching implications for Bangladesh’s future. The largest of these may be the reconstruction of the very narrative that has defined the nation since its beginning—the conception of Bangladeshis as a victimized people.
With passion, conviction, and a commitment to change, the young people that raised a collective declaration at Shahbag showed the world that Bangladeshis are much more than victims. They are revolutionaries.
Parker Ziegler is an undergraduate student at Middlebury College pursuing degrees in Arabic Linguistic Studies and Geography. He conducted research on the 2013 Shahbag riots with Amherst College professor Nusrat Chowdhury over the summer of 2014. His academic research focuses have included Middle Eastern and South Asia youth cultures, transnational youth protest, and South Asian youth diasporas.
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In Text Citations:
(The Daily Star, March 16, 2013, “Khaleda slams Shahbag youths.”)
(Mohaiemen, Scrubd, March 31, 2013, “Prisoners of Shothik Itihash (correct history).”)
(Daily Mail UK, February 28, 2013, “Shahbag Square cheers for change.”)
(See the Songs from Shahbag album, http://www.songsfromshahbag.org/)
(bdnews24.com, March 5, 2013, http://bdnews24.com/bangladesh/2013/03/05/form-anti-jamaat-brigades-everywhere, “ ‘Form anti-Jamaat brigades everywhere.’”)
(Public Broadcasting Service, Frontline, February 22, 2011, “April 6 Youth Movement.”)
(Public Broadcasting Service, Frontline, February 22, 2011, “April 6 Youth Movement.”)