Bangladesh grapples with rising Islamic extremism

Bangladesh grapples with rising Islamic extremism

Bangladesh’s founding ideals are giving way to extremism and terrorism, writes Rajkumar Singh.

The emergence of Bangladesh—formerly East Pakistan—as an independent country in December 1971 reinforced the aspirations of many ethnic movements in the region. Since independence, however, the country has experienced successive coups and martial law regimes, and intermittent suspension of its constitution.

The first constitution, in 1972, moulded the state into a parliamentary democracy under the guiding principles of nationalism, democracy, socialism and secularism. Later, the consolidation of the military regime under General Hussain Muhammad Ershad coincided with the abandonment of the secular commitment of the country’s founding leader, Sheikh Mujibur (Mujib) Rahman, and in April 1977 Islam was made one of the tenets of the new state.

Legislation discriminating against Hindus existed in East Pakistan before independence, but was tightened in Bangladesh after May 1977, with Hindus being weeded out of the army, police and civil service. Making Islam the basis of the state—a change, it has been suggested, instituted at the behest of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia—brought Bangladesh a step closer to Pakistan.

Social politics and religion

Over 85 per cent of Bangladesh’s population are followers of Islam. Although the 1972 constitution emphasised secularism, this was changed in 1977—and again in 1988 when General Ershad, who seized power in a bloodless coup in 1982, inserted an article declaring Islam to be the state religion, but permitting other religions to be ‘practised in peace and harmony’.

This led to the emergence of a number of religious parties that have been pressing the government to implement Islamic principles in governance. Indications are that religious fanaticism is rising and affecting socioeconomic life in Bangladesh.

There is intense and sometimes violent political rivalry between the country’s two main political parties, the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) and the Awami League, and the presence of radical Islamist parties and groups has defined the country’s political course in recent years, presenting a crisis in governance.

This crisis, however, has arisen from the circumstances in which the nation was born. Before independence, Pakistan’s inability to come to terms with the electoral verdict to divide the country and create the new state of Bangladesh from East Pakistan exposed flaws in the political system. Mujib’s own authoritarian tendencies led to unrest and dissatisfaction among the masses, and military rule and elections that lacked legitimacy further exposed the weakness of constitutional government.

Political rivalry

In recent years the rivalry between Bangladesh’s two major political parties, the ruling Awami League and the BNP, and their respective leaders, Sheikh Hasina, who is the present prime minister, and former BNP prime minister Khaleda Zia, has resulted in frequent strikes, or hartals.

Low literacy and state-controlled media force the opposition parties to take to the streets to win the support of the masses for their programs. As former US ambassador Patricia Butenis stated in 2006: Bangladesh has suffered ‘because the political parties could not agree on the basic rules of game—the hard part is actually creating political parties that are genuinely democratic in practice and outlook, parties that focus on issues and the national interest instead of personalities’.

This situation has given Islamist parties—some with ties to violent Islamist radicals—a disproportionate voice in Bangladesh’s government and politics and provided a potential base for terrorist activity.

In addition, domestic political change and other changes occurring have largely determined the shape and size of terrorism in Bangladesh. Over the past three decades millions of Bangladeshi workers have returned home after working in West Asia infected by the austere Sunni and Wahabi Islam practised there.

About three million Bangladeshis work in West Asia, and many return home changed almost beyond recognition: they wear different clothes, cut their beards differently, put their women in burqas and profess an intolerant Wahabi-type of Islam that is alien to most Bangladeshis.

The percolation of imported Islam into Bangladeshi society has turned Jamaat-i-Islami, the main Islamist party, into a potent political force. The failure of the state education system is also seeing more and more children being sent to Islamic religious schools, Madrassas, which are often privately funded and have liberal inflows of funds from religious trusts in Saudi Arabia and other West Asian countries. These changes have led to the emergence of an intolerant, aggressive and messianic fringe of reformed Sunni Muslims bent on purifying Bangladesh along the lines of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Post 9/11

Since the 9/11 attacks on the United States by al-Quaeda, the situation in Bangladesh has deteriorated faster than is generally understood. When Pakistan and Afghanistan came under pressure from the United States and its allies following the attacks, many terrorists—reportedly with the support of Pakistan’s Intelligence services—found safe haven in Bangladesh.

‘Most local terrorist groups in Bangladesh are highly radicalised and operate under the franchise of Pakistani and Afghan groups, including al-Qaeda’

Playing the Islam card for political gain, most local terrorist groups in Bangladesh are highly radicalised and operate under the franchise of Pakistani and Afghan groups, including al-Qaeda. The collective strength of these groups in Bangladesh is currently estimated to be in the several thousands. While India is their principal target, their anti-US and anti-West outbursts are too shrill to be ignored. The proximity of arms bazaars in Pacific Rim countries has also enabled them to procure sophisticated weapons and explosives.

The presence of two Islamist parties—the Islamiya Okiyya Jote, which is thought to have ties to the radical Pakistan-based terrorist group, Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, and the Jamaat-i-Islami, as a coalition partner in the BNP—has expanded Islamist influence and created space within which terrorist and other extremist groups can operate.

With the rapid radicalisation of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and the erosion of will and capability of governments to deal with the conditions giving rise to extremist and terrorist groups, the overall security situation in the region is highly vitiated.

Featured image
Anti-Terrorism Raju Memorial Sculpture, at the Teacher Student Centre – Dhaka University Campus: terrorism is on the rise on Bangladesh. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, published under a Creative Commons licence.

Related articles
Bangladesh killings bring tensions between Islam and secularism to the fore

Dr Rajkumar Singh is professor and head of the Postgraduate Department of Political Science, Bhupendra Narayan Mandal University, West Campus, Bihar, India.

Share On:

Leave a Comment