Journalists in Chittagong alerted us to the lurking danger of meeting Shah Ahmed Shafi. Undaunted by the warning, we pressed ahead as we planned to take an interview of the Hefazat-e-Islam ameer who lived in the Al-Jamiatul Ahliah Darul Uloom Moinul Islam Madrasa in Hathazari.
They cautioned us that the Qwami Madrasa students seriously injured a journalist in 2004 as he went to take a snapshot of the entrance of the madrasa on Khagrachhari-Hathazari road.
We reached the madrasa gate at around 12 o’clock. With the reference to Munir Ahmad, the press secretary to Ahmad Shafi, we could enter the madrasa’s rectangular premises fortified by four-storey buildings all around with some more under-construction small structures dotting the premises.
Munir Ahmad took us to Ahmad Shafi's room on the first floor of a building instructing us not to question him, much to our frustration.
Munir said we could only bid him salam and seek blessings from him.
As we stepped into the room we found Shah Ahmad Shafi sitting on a chair with a table in front. Clad in a white vest and traditional lungi the Hefazat chief took our salam with a careless look at us.
It was obvious from his look that he did not like us as we were sporting trousers and shirts. He was looking downward.
Shafi’s Press Secretary Munir introduced us to him who came back from Saudi Arabia the previous day (July 19). It was the press secretary who initiated the discourse telling us: “Huzur is very sick and unable to talk to us.”
Munir told us that Shafi was vexed as hundreds of journalists flock to the madrasa every day to meet him.
We thought he would not allow us to proceed with a long discussion. We made them feel comfortable and at one stage Munir told us that he would talk on behalf of Moulana Shafi.
DT: We waited for long to see you…
Munir Ahmad butted into half way through the sentence: “Huzur is very sick; he is not in a position to talk to you. He had addressed scores of programmes in Saudi Arabia, Jeddah, Riyadh, and Mecca-Medina. Wherever he went people poured in to see him; the expatriates there wanted him to stay back but he returned for his old-age complications.”
DT: What happened to the proposed Qawmi Madrasa board and the university?
Munir Ahmad (MA): “We have no relation with it [the board]. The university is state owned. Shafi was made the DG of the government commission on Qwami Madrasa.”
DT: Was Shafi made its chairman?
MA: The government proposed to appoint Huzur as the chairman of the Qwami Commission. Huzur tagged five preconditions. He then held a press conference and withdrew his support as the government was resorting to cheating.
DT: You [Hefazat-e-Islam] are on one side and people are on the other end. We the media are in between. What do you think of it?
MA: “You will convey our message to people.”
DT: People have some positive ideas about you [Hefazat-e-Islam]…
MA: Yes, it has been proved. People’s response to 13-point demand of the Hefazat, floated only two months back without any organisational structure, is unprecedented. This was not possible for any political parties to hold rallies in four to five districts and make the long march and Dhaka siege a success. It was possible only because of Hefazat-e-Islam’s non-political stance. Hefazat’s power originates from Iman (faith) and Akidah (certain belief). Hefazat has neither any political ambition nor fascination for power; we are clear about it. Huzur says we are least bothered about who is going to power. Whoever is in power, they must not hurt people’s Iman and Akidah.
DT: Shafi is authority here. If he speaks something positive we can inform the people in the same light.
MA: Huzur is listening to you.
DT: We think the Hefazat-e-Islam is a non-political platform. But the May 5 Dhaka siege programme raised some political questions about the Hefazat. Some political demands were introduced from the Hefazat. For instance, issuing a deadline to the government for formulating blasphemy law…
MA: Some of the government activities have gone against Iman, Akidah and Islam. Our opposition to them has been interpreted as our opposition to the government. The government is promoting the atheists and the Shahbaghi. Some political parties are against the government. We do not have a single political issue in our 13-point demand. If the government accepts our demands, the Hefazat will keep mum and call off its programmes.
At this stage of the conversation Ahmad Shafi stepped in.
Shafi: Nothing will happen if the government accepts Hefazat demands.
DT: We have seen the Hefazat activists campaigning against the Awami League-backed candidates and working in favour of other candidates in the city corporation polls like a political front…
Shafi: Haven’t you noticed it was phoney Hefazat? You have seen fake Hefazat. If there is a fake, there is a genuine too.
DT: Police carried out an operation on May 6. You said scores of people were killed. The government has asked for the list of the people killed in the operation as proof, but…
Shafi: You are learned persons; you tell me why we should publish the list. The government has killed people and it is the government that should provide the figure.
Is there any instance in the world where people were attacked while in prayer or in sleep? The Prophet (SM) went to the country of Kafirs [unbelievers], but refrained from attacking them at night. He encircled the Kafirs’ villages equipped with swords and urged them to yield to Islam. When they declined to concede defeat they came under attack after Fazr prayer [at dawn].
As this correspondent was about to ask another question Shafi’s temper flared: “I cannot talk anymore. I am sick.”
MA: The government cut off power before the genocide. Why did the government feel the need for cleaning the streets at dawn?
Shafi: Can you tell me what the necessity of washing the roads was?
MA: So, the government must make public the number of people killed. Huzur has protested the burning of the Holy Quran. The prime minister said those who burnt the Quran would be hunted down through examining the video footage. None has been arrested so far. I am repeatedly asking the government to form an inquiry committee. Why don’t they do it?
The DT correspondents again tried to put a question to him but Shafi snapped: “Don’t talk tall.”
Shafi: Why was no probe body formed?
MA: Huzur always urged the government to constitute an impartial judicial commission. What is the problem with the judicial commission? Where is the barrier? Our people in Bangladesh…they cut trees? You tell me if Hefazat activists have chopped down trees. They [Hefazat men] had nothing excepting chira [flattened rice], muri [puffed rice], and water…and prayer beads.
DT: Why did the peaceful programme suddenly turn violent?
Shafi: We organised the long march programme on April 6. Have we vandalised a single car? Was there any arson attack at any place? Please tell me – investigate it … Our blockade programme started at 6am and ended at 9am on May 5. Before that nothing unpleasant happened.
MA: The gathering was supposed to end at 6pm. You think, a gathering of 1.5 million to 2 million people …
Shafi: How much time they need for exit.
DT: This is ok, but …
Shafi: We were being killed in the street … how can we allow them to leave the venue? If the government allowed us at night, I would go …
I returned after going one and a half miles. Police took me back to Lalbagh Madrasa. No light was there; shooting was going on … I decided to go to the spot at Fazr prayer and return after offering prayers.
At this stage he again lost his temper and said in a baritone voice: “Why do you disturb me for this? What is the point of vexing me? We are oppressed … tell me.”
DT: Our question is ...
Shafi: You don’t need to say anything. Why have you come here? Who has sent you here?
He then went on to repeat if the correspondents went there to meet him on their own or whether the government had sent them there to extract information from him.
The DT correspondent said it was not what he was thinking.
Shafi then insisted the government had sent the correspondents to get his views: “Many people come. You have to tell me, who has sent you here?”
DT: This is our newspaper’s decision to talk to you.
Shafi: We have already communicated our views through newspapers. I am 90 years old. You are like my grandsons … I have been on to the streets for what I believe … I will not say anything … we are not craving for power; we are not for putting someone in power. We do not need to overthrow someone from power. We have been with the madrasa … the government has said nothing. It could have accepted only one of our demands. If they assured us that they would consider the rest gradually …
MA then intervened: This would suffice.
Shafi: Then nothing would have happened. We do not want anything; we have urged them to accept the words of Allah and his Prophet (SM). They are not accepting … killing us. We will endure torture … we will not fight back. We are not out to dislodge Hasina. We have no such agenda. We are not of the view that Hasina goes and someone else comes. We are a non-political front … we will place the same demand to whoever comes in Hasina’s place.
MA: We have put our faith in Allah. We are seeking justice from Him for the May 5 incident.
Shafi: We have sought justice from Allah. We have not turned to anyone for justice … we could have done so. We could have unleashed anarchy across the country.
MA: It was not a big deal to us. We have people’s support, you know. We could have brought the country to a standstill.
Shafi: We did not go that way and will not do so. We do not want power … do you know who liberated this country [undivided India]?
MA: The Alems [religious leaders] have done it; the Alems had their contribution to the anti-British movements …
Shafi: The Deobandhis have done it. Then the Hindustan and Pakistan came into being. Bangladesh was born after the Hindustan-Pakistan. You go through the history to know the contribution of the Alems.
MA: Still the Alems are the most vocal against the Indian threat or other threats. Are you clear about Huzur’s position?
DT: We want to get your opinion about the trial of Jamaat leader Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojaheed and …
Shafi: We have no comment on this issue. We have no political stance … we have not made any political slogans. We will not talk politically. Our position is clear: we are a non-political [front] … You take part in the Iftar.
Ahmad Shafi then paused and offered a prayer for Allah’s blessing upon the DT journalists so that they could write in favour of Islam. However, he refused to be photographed after the interview. He then authorised MA to answer the rest of the DT questions.
MA then took the DT team to another room.
DT: Shafi denied the involvement of the Hefazat men in the city corporation polls. But we have seen them campaigning against the Awami League-backed candidates in all five city corporation polls. If they were fake Hefazat men, why did you not issue a statement against the use of the Hefazat card?
MA: City corporation polls are local polls. Some Hefazat activists might have worked for some local interests … We had no central instruction for this.
He refused to talk after the Juhr prayer call.
“Negative consequences of the crackdown on the Hefazat activists are already visible,” Munir said with a lopsided smile without naming the Awami League, which conceded defeat in the five city corporation polls, before bidding us good-bye.