Proscribing Islamist Politics in Bangladesh:
Lessons from and for Pakistan
Professor, Security Studies
Asia-Pacific Center for Security studies
Contrary to what Indian nationalist Gopal Krishna Gokhale (1866-1915) is said to have observed, “What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow”, in view of the ongoing and least expected “Pakistanization” of Bangladesh, one may rephrase the statement as, “What Pakistan thinks today, Bangladesh thinks tomorrow”. It is beyond the comprehension of many analysts and scholars that a country created in the name of Bengali nationalism, democracy and secularism, within five years of its inception adopted Islamism and autocracy turning away from the last vestiges of secularism, democracy and the rule of law.
The growing menace of Islamism and state-sponsored Islamization has been wrecking havoc to Pakistan’s economy and socio-political structure, at times making experts and laymen wonder if the country has already become a “failed state” or on the verge of becoming one. The situation in Bangladesh, an erstwhile Pakistani province, is slightly different in this regard as Islamists do not pose any impending threat of taking over parts of the country, as in Pakistan.
Nonetheless, it has also inherited Islamism as a legacy of the past; Islamist terrorism, including suicide attacks, is no longer an unfamiliar phenomenon in Bangladesh; Islam-oriented parties have become decisive factors in forming governments. While overt or covert martial law has become normative, with periodic interregnums of dynastic civil oligarchies a la Pakistan, Islamism and state-sponsored cosmetic Islamization of the polity have remained well-entrenched since late 1975.
One may attribute these phenomena to the failure of the welfare state, not that different from what has happened in Algeria, Egypt, Afghanistan and The Sudan, among other Muslim countries. Nevertheless, we need other explanations as to why not only the crest-fallen masses have been drawn to Islamism (considered an alternative to the “failed” secular ideologies of democracy, nationalism and national-socialism by many), but also the bulk of political and intellectual elite, including some hitherto-radical leftists.
As poverty, bad governance and the “Global Jihad” breed Islamist nihilism, so is illegitimate rulers’ exploiting religious sentiments of the people with a view to legitimizing their rule with state-sponsored Islamization. Islamization of the polity out of sheer political expediency, in the long run, could be disastrous for the polity as we find out in Pakistan, and on a minuscule level, in Bangladesh. What was once beyond one’s imagination that Bangladesh, a country created in the name of secular nationalism, would one day adopt Islam as its “state religion”, and pro-Pakistani Islamist political parties would play important role in running the polity, is a reality now.
However, despite the abysmally poor state of affairs in regard to governance and overall well-being of the people, there is a faint hope that Bangladesh will eventually reduce the level of Islamist obscurantism and insurgency in the near future. One is hoping against hope in view of the latest development in the country. The so-called Neutral Caretaker Government (NCG) is contemplating some bold steps towards curtailing the influence of Islamist political parties.
As reported in the media, the NCG is contemplating impose a ban on all religion-based political parties in accordance with the 1972 Constitution. It is indeed heartening that the provisions of the latest Representation of the People Order (RPO) stipulate that “a political party shall not be qualified for registration if any discrimination regarding religion, race, caste, language or sex is apparent in its constitution”. Since Islamist parties allow membership exclusively to “religious Muslims”, the RPO, in accordance with the Constitution, may legitimately de-register all religion-based parties.
In view of the above, as Bangladesh have lessons to learn from the Pakistani experience that unbridled growth of Islamism and even worse, state-sponsored Islamization of the polity, can be disastrous in the long run; similarly Pakistan may learn from the example of Bangladesh, where the government is thinking about proscribing Islamist political parties as a step towards containing, if not eliminating, Islamism. A successful deregistration of all Islamist political parties, especially the well-organized and well-funded Jamaat-i-Islami in Bangladesh, would be a good example for Pakistan and other countries confronting similar Islamist menace. This would also demolish the myth that Islamization of a polity is not reversible. We once nourished similar view about communism.
There is no reason to be complacent about allowing the so-called “constitutional” and “non-violent” Islamist parties like the Jamaat, Muslim Brotherhood and their likes. Although apparently they look different from al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Harkat Ul-Jihad al Islami (HUJI), the Taliban and similar Islamist outfits, there is no reason to assume that the Jamaat and Brotherhood believe in democracy and peaceful co-existence with liberal Muslims and non-Muslims. These proto-fascist organizations are committed to installing Islamist governments throughout the Muslim World by gradually infiltrating into every level of the polity, finally to takeover by violent means.
Let us hope Bangladesh will make an important breakthrough in delegitimizing Islamism by de-registering all Islam-oriented political parties as the first step. All democratic and secular Bangladeshis should come forward demanding the immediate de-registration of all religion-oriented parties. The civil society has to play an important role in this regard as some of the leading “secular nationalist” political parties are still going around with Islamists, weighing in the “vote bank” potential of the Islamist groups. Then again, Bangladesh alone cannot delegitimize Islamism in the country. Since deregistration of the various Islamist parties would be a major step towards their elimination process, countries and international donors can play a vital role in this regard. Having enough leverage to influence the policy makers in the country, they should press them hard to implement the proposed deregistration order vis-à-vis the Islamist parties.
Conversely, if Bangladesh fails to contain the so-called “constitutional and democratic” Islamist parties along with the clandestine Islamist ones now, under this unique military-backed Caretaker Government, the forthcoming elected government (in the event of elections taking place by December) is least likely to succeed in this regard irrespective of which party or coalition comes to power. Firstly, the major political parties in the country want to appease the Jamaat and similar Islamist groups out of political expediency; and secondly, the prevalent Islamization of the polity mainly due to bad governance, corruption and patronage of Islamism by various governments in the last thirty-odd years, Islamism has its special niece in the body politic of Bangladesh. In sum, we must realize what Islamist quagmire Pakistan has fallen into due to sheer negligence of the menace in its formative phase and the various governments’ flirting with the Jamaat and its likes since the 1970s. Bangladesh government’s success in deregistering Islamist parties would be a positive example for others, signaling a major victory in the “war on terror”.