At the crossroads of secular tolerance and militant Islam

By Jeremy Seabrook, the author of ‘Freedom Unfinished: Fundamentalism and Popular Resistance in Bangladesh’ (THE GUARDIAN, 07/11/06):

A country torn by a low-intensity cultural civil war has seen at least 25 people die in this conflict in the last 10 days; its capital city is strewn with overturned cycle rickshaws, rocks and broken glass. A tense and watchful calm has since returned to Dhaka, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world, although sporadic violence continues in some outlying districts.This is Bangladesh, the country of origin of about 300,000 British people, with the fourth-largest Muslim population in the world. The disturbances at the end of October followed the end of the five-year mandate of the Bangladesh National party and its religious-party allies, Jamaat-e-Islami and Islami Oikya Jote. These allies never believed in the existence of Bangladesh; they fought on Pakistan’s side in the 1971 liberation war, in which at least a million Bengalis died.

The cause of the riots was the appointment of the leader of a caretaker government for the three months before elections next January. The president, Iajuddin Ahmed, subsequently assumed leadership of the interim administration. The opposition Awami League has given him until November 10 to “demonstrate his neutrality”; if he fails it will intensify popular demonstrations by the 14-party combine it leads.

Bangladesh has a period of quarantine between administrations. This reflects the conflict between the Muslim and Bengali identities of Bangladesh, a struggle all the more poignant since it takes place within individual Bangladeshis. The two principal parties are governed not by the mild ideological disagreements that characterise parties in most democracies but by visceral personal hatred, embodied in the two protagonists: Khaleda Zia, widow of the murdered military leader Ziaur Rahman, and Sheikh Hasina, daughter of the assassinated first leader of Bangladesh, who led the country during and immediately after the war of liberation in 1971.

The source of the quarrel lies not in the slaying of the dead heroes, whose memory the two rivals cherish, but in a dispute over who was truly responsible for the freedom of the then East Pakistan from semicolonial dependency upon Pakistan. For the Awami League it was a popular uprising – supported by India – by the defenders of a secular Bengali culture; the Bangladesh National party, born of the cantonment, sees the army as the true agent of Bangladesh’s freedom. Hatred originates in the contentious ownership of a story of liberation.

Disputed proprietorship of the story of the birth of Bangladesh has little to do with western ideas of democracy. Bangladesh is a feudal democracy, where the winner of elections takes absolute control and denies the legitimacy of opposition. Oppositions usually refuse to sit in parliament and take their quarrel on to the streets in a series of hartals (political strikes originating in the days of the British raj) that bring the cities to a standstill.

The outgoing administration won dramatically over the Awami League in 2001 but presided over continuing corruption, nepotism and political violence; there have been more than 700 extrajudicial killings in “crossfire” by the Rapid Action Battalion security forces, the elimination of journalists and opposition politicians. After the election of 2001, widespread “religious cleansing” of Hindus and attacks on Christians took place. The funds of some secular non-government organisations were blocked, and their leaders were arrested and imprisoned.

An upsurge in political violence by Islamist extremists was denied by the government. A campaign of bombings against opposition politicians, Sufi shrines, cinemas, theatres performing traditional jatra plays and the Ahmadi minority was blamed on opposition tactics to “tarnish the image” of Bangladesh. Groups such as the Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh and the Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh operated with impunity under the patronage of minority religious parties in government.

With the government under pressure from western powers, leaders of these terrorist groups were arrested and tried after two judges were killed in a suicide bomb attack in August 2005. Six, found guilty in May 2006, are due to be executed. Amnesty International has protested at the haste with which this is being carried out, since it suspects that the government wants to silence those it indulged until the recent past. These groups represent a minority in Bangladesh, but they are resolved to regain for an austere, fundamentalist Islam today what Pakistan lost in 1971.

The confidence of the Awami League on the streets of Dhaka and Chittagong comes not only from the growing gap between rich and poor, rise in prices of basic commodities, frequent power cuts and expanding city slums; the party also was boosted by a split in the Bangladesh National party last week, when 13 of its MPs left the party to form a new dissident group, criticising the leadership’s corruption and indifference to the poor.

Bangladesh has occupied a particular place for the US in its war on terror, as it has been upheld as an example of “moderate Muslim democracy”, along with Turkey and Malaysia. In the early years of Khaleda’s government the US did not acknowledge violence in a country that supported it against Islamist extremism.

Extremists represent a small percentage of the people. Islam in Bangladesh was always tolerant, inflected by Sufism and coexistence with Hinduism; Bengali culture, with its dance, poetry, drama and music, inspires great popular pride. The coming elections will determine whether the country remains democratic and tolerant, with its eclectic Bengali culture, or whether a more militaristic, nationalist administration will drive it further into the arms of militant Islam.