Under pressure from Islamic hard-liners, the Bangladeshi authorities in the predawn hours on Friday swiftly and quietly removed a sculpture of a woman personifying justice from outside the country’s Supreme Court building.
The statue had been the target of angry, swelling protests by Hefazat-e-Islam, a vast Islamic organization based in Chittagong, which argued that art depicting living beings was proscribed by Islam.
The decision is a substantial victory for Hefazat, which has said that it hopes to eventually remove all public art representing humans or animals across Bangladesh. The organization has also called for an end to art classes that teach life drawing in public schools.
Mrinal Haque, a Bangladeshi sculptor, said the Supreme Court had ordered him to dismantle the two-and-a-half-ton stainless-steel sculpture, which was commissioned by the court and erected, at a cost of about $22,000, only five months ago.
He said the government had capitulated to the demands of Hefazat.
“This is an alarming signal for our country,” he said. He called it a “defeat for the freedom-loving, secular people of the country,” and he warned that it would lead to a broader campaign to purge representational art from the country.
The influence of Islamic hard-liners has been growing steadily in Bangladesh, which broke away from Pakistan in 1971 and, for decades, defined itself as adamantly secular and democratic.
In recent years, its authorities have struggled to contain extremist violence against religious minorities, foreigners, gay people and secular intellectuals. Attendance at madrasas, or Islamic schools, is swelling, and more women are wearing the hijab, or head scarf.
The statue became a proxy for simmering tension between proponents of secularism, which is enshrined in Bangladesh’s Constitution, and religious leaders. About 90 percent of Bangladesh’s citizens are Muslim, with a steadily shrinking Hindu minority and small groups of Christians and Buddhists.
Last month, Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, signaled that she supported the statue’s removal, describing it as a depiction of Themis, the Greek goddess, who is traditionally seen blindfolded and carrying scales and a sword.
“Why would a statue of the Greek Themis be set up in Bangladesh?” she said last month.
Mr. Haque, the sculptor, denied that the statue represented the Greek goddess.
As workmen dismantled the statue on Friday, scores of left-wing, secular activists gathered outside the court’s gates, protesting its removal.
A protest leader, Asif Noor, said he believed the government complied with Hefazat’s demand in hopes of securing votes in national elections, to be held in 2019.
As dawn approached, the protesters tried to break through the Supreme Court’s gates to prevent the statue’s removal. Police officers were deployed to repel the crowd, and the sculpture was placed in a van and driven away.
Reproduced from New York Times; by Julfiker Ali Manik and Ellen Barry