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Religious Extremism And Nationalism - In Bangladesh

Religious Extremism And Nationalism - In Bangladesh

Author: Bertil Lintner
Publication: The Bangladesh Observer
Date: September 3, 2002

When East Pakistan broke away from the main Western part of the country to form Bangladesh in 1971, it was in opposition to the notion that all Muslim areas of former British India should unite in one state. The Awami League, which led the struggle for independence, grew out of the Bangla language movement, and was based on Bengalinationalism, not religion. At the same time, independent, secular Bangladesh became the only country in the subcontinent with one dominant language group and very few ethnic and religious minorities.

It is important to remember that a Muslim element has always been present; otherwise what was East Pakistan could have merged with the predominantly Hindu Indian state of West Bengal, where the same language is spoken. The importance of Islam grew as the Awami League fell out with the country's powerful military, which began to use religion as a counterweight to the League's secular, vaguely socialist policies (many hardline socialists, however, were opposed to the idea of a separate Bengali state in Bangladesh, which they branded as "bourgeois nationalism.") The late Bangladeshi scholar Muhammad Ghulam Kabir argued that Maj.-Gen. Zia ur- Rahman, who seized power in the mid-1970s, "successfully changed the image of Bangladesh from a liberal Muslim country to an Islamic country." M.G. Kabir also points out that "secularism" is a hazy and often misunderstood concept in Bangladesh. The Bengali term for it is dharma nirapekshata, which literally translates to "religious neutrality." Thus the word "secularism" in a Bangladeshi context has a subtle difference in meaning from its use in the West.

In 1977, Zia dropped secularism as one of the four cornerstones of Bangladesh's constitution (the other three were democracy, nationalism, and socialism, although no socialist economic system was ever introduced) and made the recitation of verses from the Qur'an a regular practice as meetings with his newly formed political organization, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which became the second biggest party in the country after the Awami League. The marriage of convenience between the military - which needed popular appeal and an ideological platform to justify its opposition to the Awami League - and the country's Islamic forces survived Zia's assassination in 1981.

In some respects, it grew even stronger under the rule of Lt.-Gen. Hossain Muhammad Ershad (1982-90). In 1988, Ershad made Islam the state religion of Bangladesh, thus institutionalizing the new brand of nationalism with an Islamic flavor introduced by Zia. Ershad also changed the weekly holiday from Sunday to Friday, and revived the Jamaat-e-Islami to counter secular opposition. The Jamaat had supported Pakistan against the Bengali nationalists during the liberation war, and most of its leaders had fled to (West) Pakistan after 1971. Under Zia, they came back and brought with them new, fundamentalist ideas. Under Ershad, Islam became a political factor to be reckoned with Ershad was deposed in December 1990 following anti-government protests, and was later convicted of a number of offences and jailed. But this did not lead to a return to old secular practices. Zia's widow and the new leader of the BNP, Khaleda Zia, became prime minister after a general election in February 1991. This was a time when the Islamic forces consolidated their influence in Bangladesh, but it came to a halt when the Awami League, led by Sheikh Hasina Wajed, the daughter of Bangladesh's founding father, Sheikh Mujib ur-Rahman, won the 1996 election. Five years later, an electoral 4-party alliance led by Khaleda Zia's BNP came to power - and the new coalition that took over included for the first time two ministers from the Jamaat, which had emerged as the third largest party, capturing 17 seats in the 300- strong parliament.

The BNP rode on a wave of dissatisfaction with the Awami League, which many perceived as corrupt, but the 4-party alliance was able to win a massive majority - 191 seats for the BNP and 23 seats for its three allies - only because of the British-style system with one winner per constituency, and the alliance members all voted for each other. The Awami League remains the single biggest political party in Bangladesh with 40% of the popular vote, but it secured only 62 seats (or 20.66% of the MPs) in the election (it now has 58 seats because four were relinquished due to election of MPs from more than one seat).

Expectations were high on the new government, which many hoped would be "cleaner" than the previous one. In June 2001, the Berlin-based organization Transparency International had in its annual report ranked Bangladesh the world's most corrupt country. But since the new government took over in October 2001, very little has changed in that regard. Further, violence has become widespread and much of it appears to be religiously and politically motivated. The Society for Environment and Human Development (SEHD), a well-respected Bangladeshi NGO, quotes a local report that says that non-Muslim minorities have suffered as a result: "The intimidation of the minorities which had begun before the election, became worse afterwards." Amnesty International reported in December 2001 that Hindus - who now make up less than 10% of Bangladesh's population of 130 million - inparticular have come under attack. Hindu places of worship have been ransacked, villages destroyed and scores of Hindu women are reported to have been raped.

While the Jamaat may not be directly behind these attacks, its inclusion in the government has meant that more radical groups feel they now enjoy protection from the authorities and can act with impunity. The most militant group, the Harkat-ul- Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI, or the Movement of Islamic Holy War), is reported to have 15,000 members. Bangladeshi Hindus and moderate Muslims hold them responsible for many of the recent attacks against religious minorities, secular intellectuals and journalists. In a statement released by the US State Department on May 21, 2002, HUJI is described as a terrorist organization with ties to Islamic militants in Pakistan. While Bangladesh is yet far from becoming another Pakistan, Islamic forces are no doubt on the rise, and extremist influence is growing, especially in the countryside. According to a foreign diplomat in Dhaka: "In the 1960s and 1970s, it was the leftists who were seen as incorruptible purists. Today, the role model for many young men in rural areas is the dedicated Islamic cleric with his skull cap, flowing robes and beard."


The idea that the Muslim-dominated parts of British India should become a separate country was articulated for the first time in a short essay written in 1933 by an Indian Muslim student at Cambridge, Rahmat Ali. He even proposed a name for the new state - Pakistan - which was an acronym based on the nations that would compose it: the Punjab, Afghan (the Northwest Frontier), Kashmir, Indus (or Sindh) and BaluchiSTAN. The new name also meant "the Land of the Pure."

However, the acronym did not include India's most populous Muslim province, East Bengal, and, at first, most Islamic groups opposed the idea of religious nationalism. The most prestigious Islamic university in the subcontinent, the Darul Uloom, was located at Deoband in Saharanpur district of what now is Uttar Pradesh in India, and its leaders strongly supported the Indian nationalist movement led by the Congress. The Jamaat-e-Islami, which was founded in 1941 by Maulana Abul Ala Mauddudi and had grown out of the Deoband Madrassa (as the university became known) went to the extent of "alleging that the demand for a separate state based on modern selfish nationalism amounted to rebelling against the tenets of Islam."

But gradually, the Muslim League, led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, won support for the Pakistan idea, and when India became independent in August 1947, two states were born: the secular but Hindu-dominated Union of India - and the Islamic state of Pakistan, which consisted of two parts, one to the west of India and the other to the east. The Jamaat became one of the strongest supporters of the Pakistan idea, and, somewhat ironically, the Deobandi movement through its network of religious schools, or madrassas, developed into a breeding ground for Pakistan-centered Islamic fundamentalism. Over the years, the Deobandi brand of Islam has become almost synonymous with religious extremism and fanaticism.

The Deobandis had actually arisen in British India not as a reactionary force but as a forward-looking movement to unite and reform Muslim society in the wake of oppression the community faced after the 1857 revolt, or "Mutiny" as the British called it. But in independent Pakistan - East and West - new Deobandi madrassas were set up everywhere, and they were run by semi-educated mullahs who, according to Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, "were far removed from the original reformist agenda of the Deobandi school." Much later, it was from these madrassas Afghanistan's dreaded Talibans ("Islamic Students") were to emerge.

The Jamaat was from the beginning inspired by the Ikhwan ul-Muslimeen, or the Muslim Brotherhood, which was set up in Egypt in 1928 with the aim of bringing about an Islamic revolution and creating an Islamic state. When they had come to accept Pakistan as that Islamic state, Bengali nationalism was totally unacceptable. The Jamaat's militants fought alongside the Pakistan army against the Bengali nationalists. Among the most notorious of the Jamaat leaders was Abdul Kader Molla, who became known as "the Butcher of Mirpur," a Dhaka suburb which in 1971 was populated mainly by non-Bengali Muslim immigrants. Today, he is the publicity secretary of Bangladeshi Jamaat, and, despite his background, was granted a US visa to visit New York in the last week of June, 2002. In 1971, he and other Jamaat leaders were considered war criminals by the first government of independent Bangladesh, but they were never prosecuted as they had fled to Pakistan.

The leaders of the Jamaat returned to Bangladesh during the rule of Zia and Ershad because they were invited to come back, and they also saw Ershad especially as a champion of their cause. This was somewhat ironic as Ershad was - and still is - known as a playboy and hardly a religiously-minded person. But he had introduced a string of Islamic reforms-and he needed the Jamaat to counter the Awami League, and, like his predecessor Zia, he had to find ideological underpinnings for what was basically a military dictatorship. The problem was that the Jamaat had been discredited by its role in the liberation war - but, as a new generation emerged, that could be "corrected." Jamaat's Islamic ideals were taught in Bangladesh's madrassas, which multiplied at a tremendous pace.

The madrassas fill an important function in an impoverished country such as Bangladesh, where basic education is available only to a few. Today, there are an estimated 64,000 madrassas in Bangladesh, divided into two kinds. The Aliya madrassas are run with government support and control, while the Dars-e-Nizami or Deoband-style madrassas are totally independent. Aliya students study for 15-16 years and are taught Arabic, religious theory and other Islamic subjects as well as English, mathematics, science and history. They prepare themselves for employment in government service, or for jobs in the private sector like any other college or university student. In 1999, there were 7,122 such registered madrassas in Bangladesh.

The much more numerous Deobandi madrassas are more "traditional"; Islamic studies dominate, and the students are taught Urdu (the national language of Pakistan), Persian and Arabic. After finishing their education, the students are incapable of taking up any mainstream profession, and the mosques and the madrassas are their main sources of employment. As Bangladeshi journalist Salahuddin Babar points out: "Passing out from the madrassas, poorly equipped to enter mainstream life and professions, the students are easily lured by motivated quarters who capitalize on religious sentiment to crate fanatics, rather than modern Muslims."

The consequences of this kind of madrassa education can be seen in the growth of the Jamaat. It did not fare well in the 1996 election, capturing only three seats in the parliament and 8.61% of the votes.16 Its election manifesto was also quite carefully worded, perhaps taking into consideration the party's reputation and the fact that the vast majority of Bangladeshis remain opposed to Sharia law and other extreme Islamic practices. The 23-page document devoted 18 pages to lofty election promises, and only five to explaining Jamaat's political stand. The party tried to reassure the public that it would not advocate chopping off thieves' hands, stoning of people committing adultery, or banning interest - at least not immediately. According to the NGO SEHD:" The priority focus would be alleviation of poverty, stopping free mixing of sexes and thus awakening the people to the spirit of Islam and then eventually step by step the Islamic laws would be introduced."

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