Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2013 > Challenge of Religious Fanaticism to Democracy in Bangladesh

Mainstream, VOL LI No 52, December 14, 2013 | Focus on Challenge of Religious Fanaticism to Democracy in Bangladesh

Challenge of Religious Fanaticism to Democracy in Bangladesh

Thursday 19 December 2013

by Khandaker Muniruzzaman

Bangladesh has a long history of struggle for democracy. This started with the partition of the Indian subcontinent. At present what is known as the sovereign and independent Bangladesh, was a part of Pakistan; it was known as East Pakistan. In fact Pakistan, an artificial state curved out of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, was based only on religion and not on linguistic, cultural, social or any other consideration. The then East Pakistan, the esatern wing of Pakistan, was seperated from its western part by India. West Pakistan was almost 1300 miles away from East Pakistan. While discussing the challenge of religious fanaticism to democracy in Bangladesh, one should always take into consideration that Bangladesh was a part of Pakistan, a theological autocratic state based on religion and dictaotorial proclivities.

All through its existence, that is, from 1947 till date, it was only once in sixtysix years that any elected Pakistani Government could transfer power to another elected government. Most of the time politics in Pakistan is dictated and dominated by the all-powerful Army (and the ISI) and military dictators, except a few almost all regimes were military-dictaorial regimes. Though there was some breathing space during Pakistan’s military-dictatorial rule, because sometimes military rulers had to give in to the democratic aspirations of the people of Pakistan; one phenomenon never ceased to be continuous in form and content. That phenomenon was political Islam, which was, which is and which will be one of the determining factors of Pakistani politics since 1947. In fact, after all the sixtysix years, the polity in Pakistan has to some extent completely capitulated to political Islam. That is serving as the base of rising religious fanaticsm in present-day Pakistan.

From its existence democracy in Pakistan is continuously facing a two-pronged challenge. One, the military in politics (controlled by the ISI) manifested in the military-dictatorial rulers; and two, political Islam which has culminated into religious fanaticism. One must remember that East Pakistan, as part of Pakistan, had to carry this legacy even after its birth as sovereign independent Bangladesh in 1971 through a bitter and bloody liberation war, helped by India. Though Bangladesh has solved the issue of military in politics or the question of military-dictatorial rulers by ensuring a democratic continuity, the issue of political Islam is yet to be solved. Today the challenge of religious fanaticism to democracy is an undeniable reality as far as Bangladesh is concerned.

Of course, this phenomenon is not being left unchallenged. In fact the struggle for democracy in Bangladesh or in erstwhile East Pakistan began with the 1952 language movement, and this struggle had to be fought against the Pakistani rulers who not only used the state machinery to suppress the movement but also employed Islam as a weapon to divert public opinion. As is known to many, the Pakistani rulers wanted to impose Urdu as the state language on all the five non-Urdu speaking nationalities of Pakistan. The people of East Pakistan, who were Bengali, their language being Bangla, did not to accept this. They not only protested against this conspiracy of the Pakistani rulers, but organised an all-out movement and literally paralysed the Pakistani adminstration in East Pakistan. Coercion, persecution and arrest—nothing could dampen the fighting spirit of the Bengalis. The Pakistani rulers resorted to political Islam. Propaganda like ‘Islam khatre mein hain’ (Islam is in danger), ‘Jo log Bangla chahte hain woh log Musalman nehi hain (Those who want Bengali as one of the state languages are not Muslims), ‘Wo log sarhad ki uspar se aye hain, Islam ki dushman hain, Islami watan Pakistan ko taba karne chahte hain’ (Those who are leading the language movement have come from the other side of the border, they are enemy of Islam, want to destroy the Islamic state of Pakistan). This was the beginning of using religion in politics against the democratic movement in Pakistan. Whenever there was a popular movement the war-cry of the Pakistani rulers was ‘Islam khatre mein hain’ (Islam is in danger).

The language movement of 1952 was the first ever all-out protest against the ruling clique of Pakistan; this is considered by many as the beginning of a long struggle for democracy, secularism, (Bengali) nationalism and autonomy against the civil-military-bureaucratic ruling clique dominated by the big landowners and emerging bourgeoisie of West Pakistan; and that was also the beginning of Islamisation of the society in Pakistan as a whole. Parallel to the ruling circles of Pakistan the main role was played by political parties—the Muslim League, Jamaat-e-Islami of Moududi, Nejam-e-Islam etc.—in this regard.

The independence of Bangladesh was not a physical or geographical breakaway from Pakistan, it was essentially the rejection of the Islamic or theological ideal or concept of Pakistan. In fact the history of democratic struggle in Bangladesh (the then East Pakistan) was a two- -and-a-half decades of struggle against the ideal and concept of Pakistan which is a non-democratic military-dominated non-secular Islamic state.

Essentially the concept of Bangladesh is a secular democratic state based on Bengali nationalism, which by itself was a secular ideal. After our liberation war in 1971, the Constitution of Bangladesh was based on four fundamentals—Democracy, Bengali Nationalism, Secularism and Socialism. Politics based on religion and/or parties which had religion as their ideology during the Pakistan period were constitutionally banned in the newly independant Bangladesh. No person or party was allowed to propagate or practise politics which is based on religion. Thus the secular-democratic ideal of the founding fathers of Bangladesh got its expression. But this was not the whole reality. It was thought that the defeat of the Pakistani ideal through the independance of Bangladesh had led to the end of fundamentalism and political Islam once and for all. It was said that religious politics or for that matter political Islam was completely defeated in Bangladesh. Apparently this was true. But the defeated forces of religious politics did not give up their activities, though they did not have any constitutional right to function overtly. They knew they have a social base in practising Islam. They took refuge in mosque activities and Islamic jalsas or waz-mehfils (religious gatherings and sermons). Besides religious discussions or sermons, these gatherings were planfully used to campaign against secularism and for Islamic politics. These kinds of activities, though not very uncommon, registered a rapid and continuous rise during the period 1972 till August 1975, when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was killed and the course taken by secular Bangladesh sought to be reversed.

After August 1975 things changed, the defeated forces of Pakistani politics (that is, the forces which believed in Pakistan) came to power and intiated the course reversal in Bangladesh; and then the days of the military regimes of Pakistan returned. Khandakar Mushtaque, a long-term co-politician of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, became the first Chief Martial Law Adminstrator after the killing of Mujib, followed by Army Chief Ziaur Rahman. The miltary dictaorship of Mush-taque lasted only three months, and that of Ziaur Rahman almost five years till he was killed in another bloody coup in Chittagong, the port city of the country. Zia’s rule was followed by that of his Vice-President, Justice Abdus Sattar, for a brief one year. Justice Sattar’s government was overthrown by General H.M. Ershad. For the second time since independance Bangladesh came under the military-dictatorial rule. Thus the Pakistani form of military regime became a reality in Bangladesh within three-and-a-half years of its existence.

Now this reversal was not only in the form of governance. The reversal was also in politics and the four fundamentals of the Constitution or the concept of the liberation war. Some of the first acts of General Ziaur Rahman against the secular Constitution of Bangladesh were—a. induction of Bismillah ....., Belief in Almighty Allah..., in the Preamble, b. scrapping of Article 12 (Secularism and Freedom of Religion) and c. changing Article 38 (prohibiting citizens from organising religion-based political parties) of the Constitution—thus paving the way for religious and fundamentalist political parties to take part in open activities. This was the initial step towards creating a congenial legal (or constitutional) atmosphere for the growth of religious fanaticism in Bangladesh.

These steps helped to revive the Jamaat—e-Islami, Nejam-e-Islam-like extreme Islamist parties and encourage their open activities, and they were assisted by Zia’s regime. General Ershad, during his regime, again changed the Constitution and inducted ‘Islam as State Religion’ in Article 2(a). These actions of General Zia and General Ershad changed the basic character of the secular Constitution of Bangla-desh. Islamist parties were allowed to work freely, and they were sponsored by the state. Islam was not only the religion of the majority; religion-based parties could build their influence not only in politics but also in the state admins-tration, education system, economy, media and society. Vigorous Islamisation of the society was initiated by propagating political Islam, the idea of the need for a complete Islamic state and society meaning jihad and the necessity of Islamic laws meaning Shariah laws. Of course these were done in a subtle way, often not very overtly. Qaumi Madrasas (private religious schools) mushroomed throughout the country. No government had or has control over these Qaumi madrasas which teach and preach Shariah laws, the Islamic way of life and jihad. Business, industries and financial establishments owned by hardline Islamist parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami have been established; Islamic or Shariah banking introduced by them has now spread over the banking sector of Bangladesh. The media is another sector where the Jamaat-e-Islami owns both electronic and print media outlets, that is, television and newspapers; there are are other Islamic TV stations continuously spreading religious ideals. The Jamaat-e-Islami and other Islamist parties and organisations have a large number of NGOs working in education, health, legal and other social sectors. All these could be done not only because most of the population believe in Islam but also because they were allowed politically and strongly helped financially by some Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia, Quwait and by Pakistan (ISI). Thus from August 1975 till 1990 under a supportive and favourable political and adminstrative umbrella political Islam organised itself and proliferated in all spheres of Bangladesh which in 1971 was founded as a secular state.

The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), founded by General Ziaur Rahman and elected to goverment in 2001 led by Zia’s widow Begum Khaleda Zia, inducted the Jamaat-e-Islami into the Ministry, which occurred for the first time in the history of Pakistan and Bangladesh. This was the period (2001-2006) when Bangladesh saw the rise of bigots like Bangla Bhai, Shaikh Abdur Rahman and jihadi organisations like the Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), Harkatul Jihad (HuJI) Hizbul Tahrir, Ansarullah Islam, Ahle Hadith began operating openly to spread their pernicious propaganda. These organisa-tions had operators from the Bangladeshi Afghan Mujahideen who went to fight for Islam in Afghanistan. In August 2004 the Harkatul Jihad (HuJI) attacked a public rally of the then Leader of the Opposition, Sheikh Hasina; she was saved miraculously from that direct and deadly grenade attack by some of her political colleagues, but 22 died and more than 200 were injured in that heinous assault. The first attempt by an Islamist jihadist organisation to kill a secular leader failed. The BNP-Jamaat Government was very quick to eliminate all evidence and remove all tracks that could lead to the perpetrators.

The first serious challenge of these jihadi or religious fanatic outfits to the democratic system and character of Bangladesh came on August 17, 2005 when more than 500 home-made bombs were detonated simultaneouly at the same time (11 am) in all the district and some of the upozilla (subdistrict) courts of the country with the message: ‘This is our warning, we don’t believe in worldly laws, we only believe in the laws of Allah, do away with the worldly legal system, establish the laws of Allah or face the consequences—Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh’. This was followed by the killing of some district judges, deadly attacks on many district courts, police etc. The then ruling front of BNP-Jamaat flatly denied that those were the activities of religious fanatics; they also denied the existence of the JMB, HuJI and any jihadi organisation. Rather, they tried to establish that ‘JMB, HuJI and Bangla Bhai are all media creation’ and sought to lay the blame for the bomb blasts and killings on the Opposition, namely, the Awami League. Later on they had to bow to the facts, they had to admit the existence of religious fanatic and jihadist outfits in Bangladesh. The JMB, HuJI and other outfits were banned, their leaders arrested and the infamous Bangla Bhai, Shaikh Abdur Rahman arrested and subsequently hanged.

This by no means was the end of the extremist outfits which spew jihad and religious fanaticism. They are still surfacing now and then in different names. Sometimes unearthed by the security forces, jihadist literature, fanatic slogans and propan-ganda materials are being recovered from their dens and possessions. In short, the activities of those organisations—religious and political—which spread religious fanaticism are quite prominent in Bangladesh, they are only changing their names and forms of their activities. A recent example is that of the Hefazat-e-Islam (Protecting Islam) which was formed by the leaders of Qaumi Madrasas to oppose the recent Women’s Policy announced by the Hasina Government. The Hefazat-e-Islam has forwarded a 13-point demand which in their language is to ‘protect Islam’ but which by all means is to push Bangladesh towards an ultra-radical Islamist state.

The fact that the Islamist outfits or jihadist parties are still operating in Bangladesh can be attributed to the Jamaat-e-Islami and BNP inter-nally, and some Middle Eastern countries and the ISI of Pakistan externally. All the JMB and HuJI leaders arrested or persecuted since 2006 are traced to their Jamaat-e-Islami membership. Most of them were Jamaat members, which the Jamaat denies or states that they were expelled from the party. It is well acknowledged that the Jamaat-e-Islami is the mother organisation of all those jihadist parties and organisations, which they organise in different forms and names, and sometimes the Jamaat activists work in organi-sations like the Hefazat-e-Islam. But the Jamaat-e-Islami poses as a mainstream political party, which believes in electoral politics. This is in fact a camouflage, Jamaat by its ‘primary’ consti-tution works for an Islamic Bangladesh based on Shariah laws. And this they intend to establish through jihad. Recently the Jamaat has been barred from participation in elections by the High Court, because their party manifesto and declaration comes in conflict with the Bangladesh Constitution and election rules. But it is still not banned as is being persistently demanded by the secular forces of the country.

The Jamaat being the partner of Begum Zia’s BNP enjoys the support of that part of the population which does not believe in a secular Bangladesh. The Awami League, the ruling party which led the liberation struggle in 1971 and introduced the idea of a secular Bangladesh, has at present compromised in the Constitution on secularism in the 15th amendment (though there was a chance not do so, as the Supreme Court annulled all constitutional changes made by Zia and Ershad). The party, which enjoys two-thirds majority in the parliament, revived Article 12 but compromised on Article 38, that is, the question of forming religious parties or political Islam and kept ‘Bismillah’ and ‘Belief in Almighty God’ in the Preamble. So this is a half-hearted commitment to secularism on its part, according to the secular forces of the country.

As the outfits and parties which believe in political Islam and spreading religious fanaticism, are operating overtly (Jamaat-e-Islami, Hefazat-e-Islam and other Islamic parties or organi-sations), they are facing stiff opposition from the secular forces and political parties of Bangladesh. In fact present-day Bangladesh reflects a persistant and ceaseless struggle between the forces of religious fanaticism and forces of secular democracy, Bengali nationalism. Here lies the challenge of religious fanaticism to democracy in today’s Bangladesh, a challenge Bangladesh had to face as a part of Pakistan, had to fight in 1971 and is also facing and fighting at the moment.

The author is the Acting Editor of The Daily Sangbad (a well-known Bengali newspaper in Dhaka) and a noted political columnist of Bangladesh. He can be contacted at e-mail:

Notice: The print edition of Mainstream Weekly is now discontinued & only an online edition is appearing. No subscriptions are being accepted