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The South Asia Channel
To Save Bangladesh, Political Parties Must Return to the Country’s Founding Principles
Bangladesh once again faces an existential threat posed by religious extremists.
In declaring independence from Pakistan, Bangladesh sought to leave behind the country’s long history of ethnic and provincial discrimination. It also sought to dispel the radical Islamist ideology that has driven Pakistan so far from the pluralistic vision of its founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah.
In 1972, Bangladeshis enshrined in their founding constitution the principles of secularism and political pluralism. But in 1977, General Ziaur Rehman removed the principle of secularism from the constitution, and in 1988, General Ershad declared Islam the state religion, as part of a strategy to enlist the support of Islamists to serve his political ambitions.
Today, Bangladesh once again faces an existential threat posed by religious extremists. To counter it, political leaders must return to the country’s founding principles.
The center-left Awami League found success in the previous two elections on a platform that promised to crack down on militancy and restore the constitution to its original principles. While in office, the Awami League has taken a firm stance against extremists, carrying out security operations and arresting militants.
Some complain, however, that the government’s efforts against extremism are inconsistent and insufficient. While militants are being arrested, many fear that the government is contributing to the confusion regarding religion’s role in state politics. For example, when the Awami League government amended the Constitution in 2011, it eliminated the line on “the granting by the State of political status in favor of any religion,” and declared Islam as the state religion, leaving the issue unresolved.
Most recently, State Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal refused to condemn the murder of secular activist Nazimuddin Samad, saying, “it is needed to see whether he has written anything objectionable in his blogs.” This echoed previous statements by Kamal, who responded to terrorist attacks last August by warning Bangladeshi citizens not to say or write anything that might offend anyone. Such statements provide political support to Islamist terrorism.
Awami League leaders have explained that they feel anxious about taking too strong a stand against Islamists because the opposition “plays that religion card against us relentlessly.” They may have a point.
In 2013, Islamist extremist group Hefazat-e-Islam organized mass demonstrations demanding a 13-point program that included the introduction of draconian blasphemy laws, ending “foreign cultural intrusions” such as free speech, and executing anyone found guilty of “maligning” Islam. Bangladesh’s largest Islamist organization, Jamaat-e-Islami, which accused the Awami League of complicity in a conspiracy against Islam, also supported these demands.
While Bangladesh’s main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), stopped short of publicly endorsing Hefazat’s program, the party did provide material support to the Islamists’ efforts. This is not the first time that the BNP has found itself allied with violent Islamist extremists.
Following a brief period of military rule, voters granted the Awami League a descisive victory in 2008, in an election during which National Democratic Institute observers “saw no evidence of a pattern of infractions that would prejudice the elections.” In 2014, the Awami League won a second term, but this time the elections were marred by problems following the government’s decision to abolish the previous system of holding the vote under a caretaker government. Opposition parties — the BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami in particular — responded by announcing a boycott.
As it became clear that the opposition’s decision to boycott was not going to derail elections, supporters carried out a systematic campaign of violence to stop voters from reaching the polls. “On numerous occasions, opposition party members and activists threw petrol bombs at trucks, buses, and motorized rickshaws,” Human Rights Watch reported. “In some cases, opposition group members forced children to carry out the attacks.” Bangladesh’s Hindu minority, traditionally Awami League voters, came under intense attack as BNP activists, along with Jamaat-e-Islami’s militant wing, carried out a terror campaign as part of an effort to stop them from voting.
The opposition’s concerns about its chances in fair elections were not unwarranted. Following the 2014 elections, independent survey data collected by Democracy International suggested that the Awami League would have won the elections despite the opposition boycott. Had the elections resulted in a large enough voter turnout for the Awami League, the BNP could have faced a fate worse than defeat: political irrelevancy. As it turned out, the government’s heavy-handed response to opposition violence gave the BNP a new lease on life.
Among Democracy International’s 2014 post-election survey results, however, came an important finding: Some 32 percent of respondents said that the BNP needed to cut its ties with Jamaat-e-Islami. This is not surprising. Jamaat-e-Islami is loathed by most Bangladeshis for its role in aiding and abetting atrocities committed during the country’s 1971 war of independence from Pakistan. To this day, Jamaat-e-Islami registers a 60 percent disapproval rating in Bangladesh. The BNP may be banking on its alliance with JI to bring its Islamist supporters to the polls, but in doing so, the BNP is also ignoring the number of votes that it loses by aligning itself with a political pariah.
Not only is BNP’s alliance with JI dissuading voters, but it is weakening the party’s own internal cohesiveness. The ill effects of the alliance are not lost on several senior party leaders, who think that JI, with its tendencies towards religious extremism and violence, is dragging the BNP down. Chairperson Khaleda Zia has been unwilling to sever ties with the Islamists, resulting in mounting frustration and fractures within the party. A lack of resolution has distracted party leadership, resulting in an inability to formulate cohesive policy proposals. For months, news reports have depicted a party in increasing disarray.
Although they lack popular political support, Islamist groups have been able to wield outsized influence through the use of violence and intimidation. Pandering to religious extremists has become an integral part of Bangladeshi political parties’ strategy for self-preservation. It is not only self-defeating, but dangerous. Today, Bangladesh’s Islamists are threatening more than protests. On March 25th, Hefazat officials warned that they would launch an armed jihad against the government of Bangladesh should the Supreme Court approve a petition to fully restore to the constitution the 1971 principles of secularism and religious neutrality. It took only two minutes for Bangladesh’s Supreme Court to dismiss the petition on a technicality, an outcome that extremists hailed as a victory. Meanwhile, global terrorist groups like the Islamic State have taken to the path paved by Jamaat-e-Islami, and are actively trying to establish a foothold in the country.
To prevent violent Islamist extremism from making further inroads in Bangladesh, the country’s two main political parties must demonstrate leadership. The Awami League should adopt a zero-tolerance approach to “booth capture” and other efforts by supporters to influence election outcomes, and it should demonstrate fearless and uncompromising support for the nation’s founding principles of freedom and equality for all citizens, regardless of their personal religious beliefs. The BNP should act on the advice of the European Parliament’s 2014 resolution, “unequivocally distance itself from Jamaat-e-Islami and Hefazat-e-Islam,” and focus instead on developing sound policy solutions to address critical economic and social issues. Taking these steps will not only strengthen Bangladesh’s political parties. It will strengthen the country.
Photo credit: ARIF ALI/AFP/Getty Images