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Will Women Prevent Bangladesh’s Descent to Islamism?

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In the just-concluded parliamentary election in Bangladesh held last Sunday, the centre-left Awamy League Party, led by Sheikh Hasina, gained a spectacular victory. The Awamy League-led coalition, called the Mahajote (Grand Coalition), thrashed their powerful rival, the centre-right Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which was allied with Islamist parties. The Grand Coalition captured 262 seats of the 294 decided so far.

This election results, the crushing defeat of the Islamists to be specific, must have stunned most observers, because after the ouster of the Taleban and their al-Qaeda allies from Afghanistan in 2001, Bangladesh was being increasingly seen as the next Afghanistan as al-Qaeda cadres were shifting their base over there. The BNP-led Islamist-allied government, then in power, turned a blind eye and took refuge in persistent denials in the face of mounting evidence of such a possibility. Al-Qaeda-inspired radicals, trained in Afghanistan and Pakistan, slowly started their violent campaigns. Islamist terrorist attacks had started in Bangladesh as early as in March 1999 when a gathering for a cultural program, seen as anti-Islamic by puritanical Islamists, in Northern Bangladesh was bombed, killing 10 and injuring about 100 people. A month later, a fair in celebration of the Bengali New Year, also seen as un-Islamic, was bombed, killing 10 people. Sporadic incidents of Islamist violence as well as threats and attacks on the life of secular intellectuals followed.

In the midst of these mounting Islamist terror activities, the Far Eastern Economic Review called Bangladesh an emerging “Cocoon of Terror” in April 2002. The Islamists-allied BNP government vehemently denied and condemned the report and took the publisher to court on charges of maligning the nation’s image. This was followed by a report in the New York Times in October 2002, entitled “Deadly Cargo”. It pointed to al-Qaeda activities in Bangladesh, including al-Qaeda and Taliban Jihadists, armed with AK-47 weapon caches, entering Southern Bangladesh through Burma. Taking recourse of outright denial again, the Government strongly condemned the report. Then in January 2005, the New York Times published another report, entitled “The Next Islamist Revolution?” It painted a grim picture of Islamic extremist activity in Bangladesh, especially by the group of Bangla Bhai, whose vigilante Islamist group, Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB), had launched a campaign of terror to Islamize Northern Bangladesh. The JMJB thugs had cruelly butchered 35 people, whom, they considered anti-Islamic and included communists. The government again took recourse of furious denials and pursued those, who acted as informers for the report for punishing them.

Emboldened by the Islamists-allied government’s continued denials, indeed glaring connivance, and even probably support from Islamist elements within the government, the Islamists, led by JMJB, raised their pitch and unleashed a vigorous campaign of terror, the first of which came in August 2004, when grenades were thrown into the rally of secular opposition leader Sheikh Hasina, killing 18 people including a senior female leader who was the wife of a former minister. This was followed by a similar attack on another opposition rally that killed the former Finance Minister.

Over 2004–05, the Islamists unleashed many attacks on the secular cultural programs and activities, movie theaters and secular NGOs, all considered un-Islamic. A suicide-bomber blew himself in a sitting court in Dhaka to intimidate or undermine the un-Islamic secular judiciary; it killed the judge and a number of other people. Judges and lawyers were also targeted and killed in bomb attacks elsewhere. All these glaringly obvious Islamist attacks were vociferously denied by the sitting Islamist-alliance government. Not a single case was solved, none punished. The government, including many misguided secular intellectuals of respectability, blamed the opposition Awamy League Party or foreign intelligence agencies — CIA, MOSAD and RAW (India) — for these attacks.

The most aggressive attacks came on August 17, 2005; some 500 bombs were set off all across the country within one hour in an amazingly coordinated manner. Although casualties were low, terrorist bombings of such scale and coordination had no precedent anywhere in recent decades. The government once again tried to deny the presence of Islamist terrorist activities in the country and blamed the opposition party. Pressure soon mounted from overseas, forcing the government to hunt down the perpetrators. Hundreds of terrorist cadres were apprehended in the drive; they were all connected to Islamist organizations, including JMJB and Harkat-ul-Jihad; no RAW, MOSAD, CIA and the opposition party agents were amongst them.

When the parliamentary election was due in late 2006, the Islamist-allied government put everything in place to ensure their return to power through a controlled election. This led to a sustained political crisis, forcing the army to intervene; they set up a military-backed interim government. Plagued by perennially unbridled corruption and politics of violence and conflict amongst Bangladesh’s numerous factions, the military backed government tried their best, but mostly unsuccessfully, to reform the constitution, the electoral system and to clean up corruption. They unsuccessfully tried to oust the two bickering female leaders of the two main parties, both corrupt; they were both jailed on corruption charges; many former political leaders, including ministers from both parties, are still in jail or hiding-out  overseas.

When the election was finally held this past Sunday,after a hiatus of seven years, the voters, particularly the women and young first-timers, rushed to the polling booths in large numbers. The waves of Islamic terrorist violence during the last Islamist-allied government were not forgotten. Again allied with three Islamist parties, the powerful BNP exhorted the voters with its traditional weapons: the “Islamic card”, the appeal to Islamic values and principles. Based on the condition of women in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, Pakistan and Arab countries, it is women, who would lose the most in case of an Islamist win in Bangladesh, traditionally a relatively moderate, liberal nation.

Undoubtedly alarmed by what would befall them after an Islamist-alliance win, the women voters, who queued up in large numbers at the polls, cast their votes for the secular Grand Coalition: the main Awamy League alone bagged 230 seats out of the 294 decided results. The BNP-led Islamist alliance bagged 32, down from 217 in 2001; the main Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, won only 2 seats, down from 17.

In the midst of a global rise of radical Islam, from Malaysia to Palestine to Turkey to Jordan, the miserable defeat of the Islamists in Bangladesh is undoubtedly a welcome sign: not only for Bangladesh, but also for the entire world threatened by Islamic terrorism. One, however, must not be too optimistic. In Pakistan too, the Islamists suffered humiliating defeat in the last election, but it has changed Pakistan little as far as its role as a breeding ground for terrorists; the government is as vulnerable to Islamist radicalism as ever. The government’s failure to undertake decisive measures against Islamists following the November 26 Mumbai terror attacks, due to  public pressure, says  that a miserable defeat of the Islamists in an election may not mean a lot in terms of winning the battle against Islamic menace.

The threat of Islami extremism is not miniscule in Bangladesh either right now. The military-ruled interim government did a good job over the last couple of years by reigning in and discrediting the Islamists. As a result, the country saw a period of relative calm as compared to the orgy of Islamic terror activities plaguing the country over 2004–05. Yet, just two month ago, Islamists attacked recently erected statues of Baul folksingers, placed at the International Airport in Dhaka, because statues are images which represent the human forma nd are therefore haraam (banned) in Islam. Even the military-ruled government could not stand up to their threats; they ordered the removal of the statues.

Bangladesh stands at a critical juncture from where it may go either Islamist or secular-moderate. The incoming secular-alliance government has a strong mandate in its favor to undermine the Islamists politically. Unfortunately, despite claiming to be a secular party, Awamy League leadership has in the past also played the “Islamic card” to win votes; such ploys only push the country toward more Islamocentrism. When economic performance fails in a pious overwhelmingly Muslim-majority country, religious pandering becomes the alternative for winning political fortunes. What the new administration needs is a solid economic performance to keep the people happy, which will create an opportunity for them to secularize the nation at all levels, reversing the advances of Islamicization during the last administration. For economic performance, appropriate economic programs, and, most of all, reducing uncontrolled corruption are the key.

With the strength of an overwhelming election mandate, the incoming administration can achieve these goals: all that needed is intent and honesty. If they do, they will always be able to count on the women — the most vulnerable section of the society to Islamist threats — who have supported them in force this time round. Bangladeshi Women, armed with voting rights, may be the strongest bulwark against the nation's slide into Islamism, if secular politicians do their part. Else, the likelihood of an “Islamist Revolution” in Bangladesh in the not-too-distant future would remain the real possibility.

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About Muhammad Hussain