Global political Islam in Bangladesh: past, present and future

As global public attention is turned to Bangladesh and the International Crime Tribunal, the country's complex political situation comes under scrutiny. Both main parties face a growing opposition from militant Islamism which thrives on local discontent as well as on appeals to global jihadism.
Mubashar Hasan
1 April 2012

The Bangladeshi military, in a dramatic move on January 19, 2012 announced in a press conference held in the capital city of Dhaka that they have foiled an attempted military coup instigated by a group of Islamist military personnel to topple the present secular government of Sheikh Hasina.

Before the coup, according to media reports, members of a banned local chapter of a global Islamist group, the Hizbut Tahrir Bangladesh (HTB), campaigned among selected army officers through leaflets calling to remove the government formed by the Bangladesh Awamileague (AL). The title of the leaflet explains their motive, “O Army officers! Remove Hasina, the killer of your brothers and establish the Khilafah to save yourselves and the Ummah from subjugation to US-India”.

Military interest in civil politics is nothing new in this country, as they ruled directly or indirectly for 16 years (1975-1990 and 2006-2008) out of Bangladesh’s 40 years history.  However, they never held a press conference about a failed coup before. Two factors contributed to rendering this news conference an extraordinary event. Firstly, the growing support for Islamists among military personnel was publicly acknowledged while at the same time the military reaffirmed its commitment to a democratic regime. Secondly, as Bangladesh is the third largest Muslim country in the world with more than 85% of its 140 million inhabitants being Muslims, the coup could be read as fitting right into the ongoing conflict between the neo-liberal secular democratization project and global Islamists.

Empirical evidence shows that it was the military governments (1975-1990) who with formal and non-formal support from oil-rich Middle Eastern countries, Islamized the so-called secularist-socialist political discourse. Yet the military government also acted as the catalyst for multi-party democracy in the country in the 1980s in the wake of the authoritarian regime of Sheikh Mujib, widely known as the father of the nation, and the deceased father of the present PM Sheikh Hasina. Furthermore, during the Cold War and throughout the 1980s the military regime shifted Bangladesh’s foreign policy away from socialist Soviet Union (a great friend during the liberation war against Pakistan in 1971) and inclined the country towards the US.

The Cold War and Global Islam set conflicting local discourses (1975-1990)

Bangladesh was part of Pakistan and used to be known as East Pakistan. Soon after the birth of Bangladesh in 1971 following a 9 month long bloody war with Pakistan, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman banned all communal politics in the country and made secularism and socialism into state principles. These steps were taken to curb the rise of Islamists, especially the Bangladesh Jamaat e Islami (BJI) which is now the third largest party in the country. The BJI did not support the partition with Muslim Pakistan. Its opponents argue that it helped the Pakistani military kill Bangladeshi freedom fighters and intellectuals, and incited the Pakistani military to rape Bangladeshi women.

BJI is a highly organized cadre-based party built upon the Sharia-based ideology designed by Mawlana Maududi, founder of the Jamaat movement in South Asia before the partition of India and Pakistan. Dr. Irfan Ahmad of Monash University in his fascinating ethnographic study of Indian Jamaat articulated how Maududi, using Hegelian and Marxian philosophies ‘described Islam as a movement and Muslims as a party’. Dr. Ahmad argues that, ‘by inventing an authentic Islam, Maududi transformed Islamic beliefs into political concepts of the dominant ideologues’ (Ahmad: 2009, 63). Maududi viewed Islam and the state as interchangeable and he defined Allah as a political God (Ahmad: 2009, 220). The BJI’s party model resembles that of a Leninist party: Pattanaik found that BJI inducts its cadres through a rigorous procedure laid down in the party manual, and a person can only be accepted as a full member or Rukan once they have,‘passed through rigorous stages of personal discipline, supervised by a senior member’ (Pattanaik: 2009, 276).

During the Mujib regime (1972-1975), the leader’s vision of secularism and socialism was widely propagated as Mujibism, but soon began backfiring once his regime began to lose its legitimacy due to serious economic failure, nepotism, and patrimonial politics. Radical leftists bearing an ethos distinct from Chinese and Soviet communism had begun armed resistance against Mujib’s regime.  Mujibism also alienated the support of oil-producing Middle Eastern countries while the US kept its distance from Bangladesh and its socialist principles. Furthermore, the regime was heavily tilted towards the USSR and India. Mujib’s foregrounding of secularism was tied to the Bangladesh-India relationship as India wanted to promote secularism as the dominant ideology in Bangladesh. India’s considerable support for Bangladesh during the war with Pakistan through military, diplomatic and humanitarian means was underpinned by its own interest in separating Bangladesh from Pakistan. Instead of having a strong enemy on two sides of the country, the creation of Bangladesh left a weaker enemy on one side and a dependent friend on other.

Mujib however realized the economic importance of Middle Eastern countries and began to promote a Muslim image of Bangladesh abroad. This explains his participation in the meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) held in Pakistan in 1974, with Yasser Arafat, Colonel Gaddafi and other Muslim leaders, even though his regime was secular. Mujib even sent a group of doctors to assist Arab allies during the Yom Kippur war in 1973 against Israel.

Thus the Islamization process of Bangladesh had already begun through the portrayal of its Muslim image to an Islamic heartland. The following two military regimes of Ziaur Rahman and Hussein Muhammad Ershad not only presented a Muslim image of Bangladesh to Middle Eastern countries but also systematically promoted Islam in public discourse. Zia and Ershad’s regimes (1975-1990) took some key further measures: the concept of secularism was replaced with one of absolute trust and faith in Allah in the constitution; and, a state-run Islamic university was established, making Islamic studies a mandatory topic for Muslim children at school. Hundreds of mosques and madrasahs funded by the Middle East were supported by the state, allowing communal politics back in and making Islam the state religion in 1987, without any reflection of this major development in the country’s secular judiciary.

The reasons behind such Islamization of Bangladesh were twofold. Firstly, Islam became a tool to legitimize illegal regimes in the eyes of the Muslim majority. Popular attachment to Islam was exploited by governments lacking a widely accepted public mandate to run the country. In doing so, governments foster Islamic culture and practice. The similar case of the military regime of Pakistan is worth mentioning here. General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq took over the country on July 5, 1977 through a bloodless coup. Esposito argues that, ‘as Chief Martial law administrator and President, Zia-ul-Haq appealed to Islam to legitimate his coup and subsequent rule, based upon a commitment to a system of Islam known as Nizam-i-Mustapha' (Esposito:1984, 176). Haq however made little effort to Islamize Pakistan and Nizam-i-Mustapha was more a rhetorical tool than any attempt at shaping the political, legal, social, and economic institutions of the Pakistani state.

Secondly, in order to win the approval of Middle Eastern Muslim countries, these military regimes often collaborated with the BJI, since party leaders have strong connections with the Middle East (Rahim, 2001: 248). In the aftermath of their defeat in the Yom Kippur war, Middle Eastern countries were not happy with the US support to Israel and this finally resulted in a tripling of the price of each barrel of crude oil after  a suspension of the oil trade with the US. This prompted a realization of their own strength and led to the promotion of Islamic missionary work in developing Muslim nations, a global wave which embraced Bangladesh as well. Bangladeshi society was deeply influenced by this. The proliferation of Islamic institutions and organizations, mainly of a charitable and missionary character, and the construction of new mosques and madrasas along with the repair, extension, and beautification of old ones are overt manifestations of the phenomenon.

Paradoxically, both military regimes’ foreign policy during the Cold War inclined towards the US alongside other Arabs, and against the Soviets and the Indians. Bangladesh’s relationship with the Soviets reached its nadir when in 1983, 14 Soviet diplomats were accused of involvement in espionage and expelled (Rahman: 1984,249). Later, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the US actively supported Taliban mujahedeen. The Bangladeshi regime reacted by tolerating militant forms of political Islam which openly advocated for the establishment of Sharia Law. In 1984, it did not discourage Muslim Bangladeshis from participating in a radical Islamic volunteer corps waging jihad in Afghanistan. Returnees from the Afghan war maintained close contacts with the Taliban and jubilated when the Mujahedeen captured Kabul in 1992. Support to Bangladesh from the US and the west subsequently grew stronger. Meanwhile, public discourses in the country simultaneously praised political Islam and Islamic values as well as democracy, modernization and Westernization.

A global war in local Bangladesh?

Since the 1990s and the turn of the US into a global hegemon after the end of the Cold War, and in the context of post-9/11 US-led western invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, this contradiction within Bangladeshi political discourses has become more visible.  Bangladesh began to witness a surge in moderate, fundamental and extremist forms of political Islam with global and regional linkages. The number of Islamic parties willing to replace the Bangladeshi secular legal system with Sharia law has allegedly risen to more than one hundred, even though only eight moderate political parties bearing Islamic names and images are presently registered with the Bangladesh Election Commission (EC). Simultaneously, foreign governments including the US, the UK, and Canada, international organizations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and international NGOs, have multiplied initiatives portrayed as development policies but in fact promoting a specific neo-liberal vision for global democratization in the country.

After 9/11, Bangladesh took part in the geopolitical scenario as globally networked Islamists proclaiming a Jihad against the West and the Bangladeshi democratic project. In 1998, Fazlul Rahman, a leader of the HuJI-B (a banned Bangladeshi Islamic group) signed the official declaration of holy war against the US alongside Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. In the fashion of the Taliban, the banned Jamatul Mujahedeen Bangladesh (JMB) staged suicide bombings in some tribunals to demand the establishment of Sharia law while threatening international NGOs and UN affiliates with bombs. The emergence of British-based HTB after 9/11 is also a major event in the history of political Islam. Golam Mowla, a lecturer in Management at Dhaka University went to London in 1993 to conduct his PhD and was introduced to discussions on Hizb ut-Tahrir at Regent’s Park Mosque in London. When he returned home in 2000, Mowla set up an office at a coaching centre in Dhaka for the organisation’s Bangladeshi chapter and launched the group’s activities on 17 November 2001 as Hizbut Tahrir Bangladesh. In political manifestos, both JMB and HTB reject Bangladeshi democracy as a western import and as a sin against Islamic values.   The ideologies of major Islamic parties in Bangladesh resemble those of Rashid Rida of Syria, Maududi of Pakistan, Hassan al Turabi of Sudan or Syed Qutb of Egypt, all of whom were known as orthodox theoreticians of global political Islam. They share a rejection of the west and of western values and call for the establishment of Sharia law while operating within the western system of states. Furthermore, the development of public intellectuals was facilitated by the establishment of Islamic Universities supported by private donors and networked to other Middle Eastern and East Asian Islamic universities prominent for their political contributions. 

Recent developments

After assuming power in 2008 with overwhelming public support, the present government of Sheikh Hasina restored secularism to the constitution. It removed the mention of “absolute trust and faith in Allah” but retained Islam as the state religion. It banned HTB on charges of sedition and set up the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) to charge BJI's highest leader with the 1971 war crimes – a move which may be interpreted as an unofficial Jihad against Islamists. The latter reacted by attempting to topple the government thanks to their support in the military – an event which arguably should be interpreted as both local and global,since these perspectives are intertwined.

The failed military coup can be seen as an act carried out by a segment of the population who would find refuge in political Islam. Their anger derives from the schism between the two major parties, the AL and the BNP. Since the 1990s, this confrontation has caused much mayhem: political killings are frequent as well as state-sponsored extra-judicial killings of civilians. Strikes and bombing accompany the politicization of the civil bureaucracy and of the justice system. Corruption has reached an alarming level in all segments of society as increasing nepotism through partisan political preferential treatment has resulted in developing frustration among many people in the country together with Islamist extremism, leading the Economist to argue in 2005 that ‘extremism is a worry in Bangladesh but it’s the mainstream that is polluted’.

While globalization has brought economic opportunities to a few, it has also widened income disparities according to the International Finance Corporation and 80% of the population lives on less than $2 a day. The United Nation's 2011 Human Development Index ranked Bangladesh 146th out of 187 countries. This bleak situation is fertile ground for the radicalization of frustrated minds in military and educational institutions to whom the vision of Islamic justice is appealing. In doing so, Islamists use Bangladesh as just another imaginary battleground in their war against an imaginary West, associated in their eyes with capitalism, democracy and their institutions. This conflict waged by various Islamists may be interpreted as a form of resistance against the impact of an ongoing unfair economic globalization on Bangladesh. Until now, according to a Gallup poll, the majority of Bangladeshis believes that the role of Islam in Bangladesh should not be political, in a context marked by a great diversity of Islamic forms, ranging from Wahabism and Salafism to Sufism. However, the majority of Bangladeshis are sympathetic to Islam while mainstream political forces have failed to reduce growing discontent with the current state of the economy and the rule of law  - a frustration palpable in the online comments of political news published by the Daily Prothom-Alo, the most popular newspaper in the country, and in its Facebook status.


About 40% of the Bangladeshi population is aged between 15-24, with a few more millions below 35 and they have not been part of the 1971 liberation war. At the moment, the AL portrays itself as incarnating the forces in favour of the liberation of Bangladesh and claims that their archrivals, the BNP and its founder General Ziaur Rahman, former president of the country and a freedom fighter, made an electoral alliance with Islamists including the BJI. They stress that as a consequence two BJI leaders held government ministries in previous BNP governments. In writing the history in such a fashion, the AL aims at attracting the support of this large portion of young people – for example, on March 17,2012, the Prime Minister declared that ‘children should be raised in the spirit of the liberation war’. However, the success of such an attempt is dubious given the current bleak economic and political situation. Differentiation between the two main political forces is difficult as their results with regards to human rights, economic prosperity and the rule of law were pretty similar, which led to their subsequent eviction from power at elections, while the support base of Islamists grew steadily over the years.

There is a strong possibility that the Islamists will become a formidable political force in Bangladesh in the next 20 years unless the BNP and the AL put an end to their schism. The outcome of the International Crimes Tribunal initiated by the AL will play an essential part. Presently, a major reservation among people towards the BJI derives from the allegation that their top leaders were involved in crimes against humanity during the war and opposed the country at its birth. Once its leadership has been transferred to younger generations who were not born during the 1971 war, it will become harder to label them as the party which opposed the liberation force and their support base will continue to expand - many teachers and students in a public university Shahjalal University of Science and Technology already covertly donate funds to the BJI student wing. At the same time the HTB is rapidly gaining popularity amongst urban youth and in the military, even if it is banned by the government.

Meanwhile, a last wild card in Bangladeshi politics is the large number of youths who neither believe in political Islam nor participate in mainstream politics but whose protest vote may well act against both main parties.


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