When Bangladesh fought and won its independence 45 years ago, it was founded on the principles of nationalism, democracy, socialism and secularity. After breaking free in a region that was historically divided over religion, Bangladesh quickly established its position against institutionalizing a religion. When the constitution of the nation was adopted in 1972, the country had developed one of the most liberal constitutions of its time. Today, Bangladesh is still a democracy making great strides in social and economic progress—but the principles that it was founded on have changed. Recently, there has been a sharp rise of Islamic extremism within the nation that has resulted in many deaths of atheist bloggers and opposition leaders, leaving many intellectuals fearful of their fate in the country. As Bangladesh’s secularity is being called into question, the threats seem to be taking a toll on the country’s young democracy. In this paper, I will argue that while Islamic extremism will have a profound effect on the country, increased pressure to return to the country’s values will lead to its recovery as a balanced democracy.
History of Bangladesh
Before Bangladesh, the area was known as Pakistan. Before Pakistan, it was India. In fact, before 1947, the entire South Asian region was known as British India, heavily under the control of British colonizers. After decades of conflict and war in the area, Britain saw it fit oversee partition and— without understanding the complexity the issue of religion had in the area— a British lawyer drafted up new borders for the countries (BBC). Without knowledge of the makeup of these areas, millions of Hindus were trapped in Muslim territories and vice versa, leading to widespread ethno-religious violence. With ineffective leadership and all-around chaos, Pakistan was born from turmoil and prone to conflict. Soon after independence when the Prime Minister, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, called for Urdu to be the national language of the nation, citizens of East Pakistan had a violent reaction to losing their native language of Bangla. As unrest continued in the region, soon East Pakistan was fighting for its own independence as well.
The Bangladeshi Liberation War, also known as the Indo-Pakistani War, was only 12 days long but an estimated 300,000 to 3,000,000 civilians were killed. Bangladesh was victorious and the leader of the independence movement, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, crafted a constitution that implemented the Awami League political parties’ values of nationalism, democracy, socialism, and secularism for the nation. Bangladesh had seen the problems religion had caused under previous regimes, and made it a point in its constitution to stray from the prevalence of governing matters. The young country had its fair share of internal strife resulting in this decision. Pakistani forces sought out and killed Bangladeshi intellectuals and activists who were advocates for secularism and socialism in order to unsettle the new government. After independence, two military uprisings, as well as a military coup reorganized the parliamentary structure of government envisioned post-independence and ushered in an era of democracy.
Rise of Islam in Bangladeshi Politics
When the country was founded, Mujibur Rahman instated the Awami League party as the leading group in Bangladeshi politics. However, with the rise of democracy in 1991, the Bangladeshi Nationalist Party and Jamaat-E-Islami party rose in power. The Bangladeshi Nationalist Party (BNP) is a center-right group known for liberalizing the Bangladeshi economy. Meanwhile, the Jamaat-E-Islami is essentially a conservative party with Muslim values at the core, linked to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Abul Ala Maududi and the Jamaat-E-Islami party in Pakistan. They have a strong belief in an Islamic state, and most extremists in the nation are often tied to a branch of this party, the student group Ansarullah Bangla Team. The Bangladeshi Jamaat supported Pakistan in the Bangladeshi Liberation War, and banned in the country post-independence. Military coups and the fundamentalist ideas of those who rose to power is what brought them back in waves. Not only that, but during his military rule in 1977, Ziaur Rahman Zia denounced secularism as one of Bangladesh’s core tenants, and Lt. Gen. Ershad called for Islam to be recognized as the national religion of the country in 1988— setting the stage for a rise of religion in the government. With no rules in place to combat the influence of Islam, the Jamaat-e-Islami party took advantage of the opportunity they had at hand and began to fight for their cause.
Rise of Religious extremism
In the beginning, the religious extremism started as political attacks and opposition by Jamaat against the Awami league when, on April 7, 2001, two leaders of the Awami League’s student group front were killed by activists of the student branch of Jamaat-e-Islami. These were not isolated attacks as once again on June 15, as estimated 21 people were killed and over 100 injured in a bomb blast at the Awami League party office in the town of Narayanganj. Modern religious extremism is rooted in events known as the Shahbag protests in 2013; large gatherings of young Bangladeshi citizens calling for justice for the war crimes commitment by Jamaat-e-Islami party members during the Liberation War. As mentioned before, Jamaat was on Pakistan’s side of the battle, and aided in the massacres and assassinations of well-known Bengali intellectuals. There was widespread support for the protestors that even translated to support online and from Bangladeshis across the world– leading to the trial and conviction of Delwar Hossain Sayeedi (vice president of the Jamaat) and Abdul Qader Mollah (assistant secretary-general of the JEI) (Gohel). While the public felt justice had been served, the deaths of these Jamaat leaders led to discontent among religious groups and the remnants of the Jamaat party began to fight back against protesters by spreading online propaganda calling the movement one led by Atheists.
Whether it had been fear of the uncontrollable nature of Atheist Bangladeshi’s or just anger at the results of the Shahbag movement. a new rise in Islamic extremism came on the heels of progress as students branches of the Jamaat-e-Islami party took it upon themselves to kill atheist intellectual threats.
It began with the violent killing of Ahmed Rajib Haider, a prominent blogger in Bangladesh and civil rights activist, and the Jamaat-e-Islam student wing, Islami Chattra Shibar was found responsible. Then it was Avijit Roy, a Bangladeshi-American blogger and writer who went to the country to showcase his book and was hacked to death by Jamaat affiliated men. Then it was Ananta Bijoy Das, a strong advocate for science and secularism, who became another victim of religious attacks. Then, Washiqur Rahman, a blogger who stood in solidarity with Avijit Roy, and then Niloy Chatterjee, an advocate against religious fundamentalism, all were silenced by Jamaat (Rahman). These were not the only killings, but these were some of the few that gained attention in media across the globe as the death rate for exercising freedom of speech continued to rise. And not only was the Jamaat-e-Islami affiliated groups taking responsibility, but even Al-Queda groups and ISIS.
Soon, ISIS was taking responsibility for the death of an Italian aid worker, Cesare Tavella, because of his Christian faith in this Islamic nation. A Japanese man was shot in Rangpur for the same reason, “security operations against citizens of the Crusaders alliance states will continue” and the killings will not end (Mullen). A death of Hindu priest was attributed to an ISIS killing because according to them, the man “belonged to the infidel Hindus”.
This rhetoric is unfounded in Bangladeshi history, never has Islam been used in such a violent and oppressive way. For a country founded on principles of growth and democracy and freedom, seeing freedom of speech silenced in such a way is almost shocking to watch. It cannot be attributed to one thing, but perhaps the influence of the current government on these affairs should be taken into consideration. The current regime by Sheikh Hasina claims to the world to be strongly against terror, but cannot fight the homegrown opposition from Jamaat and denies the presence of ISIS cells in Bangladesh. She was one of the biggest supporters of reinstating the ideas of secularism after it had been taken out during military coups, but leaving Islam as a state religion and important part of Bangladeshi life. Her father was the Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who created a nation with the hope of avoiding religious turmoil. It is possible that because of her political background, she is slow to acknowledge that the growing force Jamaat, Al-Queda, and ISIS was creating on this small nation need to be addressed.
How Extremism has affected Bangladesh?
Today, the most prominent way that extremism has affected Bangladesh is that the government and Supreme Court are considering dropping Islam as its official religion and making a public show of its secularity. After 28 years, the High Court has deemed it inappropriate and within the last few weeks, the real threat of Islamic extremism has been addressed by the Bangladeshi government. But is it too late? Is Bangladeshi reaping the costs of denial? A country that fought for the right to speak its language and use its voice seems quiet now when it comes to discussing science, religion, and beliefs. The killings of intellectuals by Jamaat almost seems like history repeating itself again– once in the fight for liberation, and once now again as Bangladesh reaches a point where it needs to analyze the strength of its democracy.
Will Bangladesh make it?
Disregarding the political turmoil of the nation, Bangladesh is genuinely a progressive democratic nation. With women as the head in politics with both leading parties, and women holding leadership positions in administrative banks and institutions, Bangladesh is a leader in its region in many modern areas. But as Islamic extremism rises, the health of the democracy deteriorates. Each year, elections become more and more unfair as Jamaat-e-Islami members coerce and intimate civilians into voting one way. And with the way the government is set up, the way Jamaat-e-Islami is so deep-rooted in Bangladeshi politics, it seems naively optimistic to assume that the country can return the democracy it was envisioned to be at conception. In fact, without being able to expel the toxic thoughts that is repressing progress in the nation, Bangladesh has little hope of coming out of situation that it is in. I believe so because I believe that democracy cannot be attained passively. Extremism exists everywhere, but a government never taking a side and too afraid to acknowledge the problem and take action is more of a weapon than machetes and bombs themselves. Though I am critical of the steps that have been taken, I remain hopeful in the fact that has begun a change in the conversation as a backlash against allowing Islam to have a free rein over Bangladeshi political ideology. This is still a young country born out of a desire to separate itself from religious turmoil and mandates. This is still a young country that fought for its voice and then it’s liberation. This is a young country whose young people will become active in combatting current politics– just as young student in the past had fought the Pakistani government for its rights. If history truly is repeating itself again, Bangladesh needs to remember its roots and take a stronger stance against the injustice.
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