Bangladeshis are due at the ballot box in January 2007, in a defining election. Although Bangladesh has a checkered history of transfer of power, democratic practice has fared well over the last 15 years. Today however, two converging trends give rise to serious concerns about its future: political corruption and the rise of Islamist radicalism.
Corruption has been the mainstay of political life in Bangladesh, and it may be getting worse. Confidence in the political system has been on the wane. Accusations of planned electoral fraud, and bickering among the main political parties about who is more corrupt — with the occasional recurrent threat of boycott — have depleted Bangladeshis' confidence in democracy as a means to achieve sound and representative governance.
On the other hand, a refurbished Islamist discourse, fusing the political and the religious, offers itself as an alternative. Rather than being the solution it promises to be, it may instead usher in the slide of Bangladesh into a Taliban-like theocracy. Already, the Islamist influence has resulted in violence: within the last year, Bangladesh has suffered a number of increasingly brazen terrorist attacks, culminating late last year in the nation's first suicide bombings.
The popularity of a politicized Islam in Bangladesh should not be surprising. Bangladeshi identity has been forged of two main components, sometimes in harmony, at other times in competition: Islam and Bengali nationalism. However, the character of this new swing of the pendulum, in favor of Islam, is new to Bangladesh. It is being driven by international militant Islamist organizations as part of a larger global struggle.
The attractiveness of radical ideologies to many in Bangladesh reflects the failure of the two main political parties to offer a genuine democratic partnership and economic growth. The rise of Islamism is not a reflection of ignorance but a result of disenchantment with the hollow discourse of democracy adopted by the political class against a background of corruption and economic disparity. Islamist endeavors, on the other hand, are seen as untainted by corruption, and bolstered by contributions from the outside. Orphans are enrolled in madrasas, and constituencies are provided with funds from the Middle East to build mosques and hospitals. Islamism in its many forms gains further roots.
The position of the two main political parties with respect to these developments is inadequate at best. Instead of confirming the established Bangladeshi practice of a healthy separation between state and mosque, both parties have accommodated the rising Islamist trend. Their efforts to court Islamism and gain the support of its sympathizers have elevated the prominence of religious rhetoric in political discourse. Alarmingly, those who stand against the Islamists are branded as anti-Muslim, a label that carries a heavy political cost. Even the constitution is being labeled "Christian" by some. Both main parties, the BNP and the Awami League, are guilty of complacency and accommodation. It is, however, the ruling BNP that has formed an alliance with the Jamaat-e-Islam, the principal above-the-surface Islamist party.
If Bangladesh is to survive as a democracy, and if South Asia and the rest of the world are to be spared another failed Islamist state, where radical activists would find refuge, this pandering to radical Islamism must end. Cosmetic steps such as the arrests this week of notorious radical extremists need to be followed by much more aggressive actions. In the long term, only by strengthening democratic institutions can we hope to reverse the trend towards radicalism. More immediately, Bangladeshis have to believe that the results of the 2007 elections are not a forgone conclusion, and that their votes matter.
The Bangladeshi political class must end its complacency towards radicalism. With the help of the international community, Bangladesh should make the 2007 elections a straight success, by insuring fairness in voting — a step that can be achieved by accepting the demand for transparent ballot-boxes — eliminating electoral fraud, and controlling violence.
It is time to look at Bangladesh as more than a battlefield between India and Pakistan — two countries which Bush did include in his recent visit to South Asia. Bangladesh has all the elements necessary to succeed as a secular Muslim democracy; but it also has enough poverty, frustration, and disillusionment to make a state-failure a real possibility. The West would do well to help ensure that elections in Bangladesh are fair and open. The alternative is dire, both for Bangladesh and for the world.