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Countdown to Elections: High Stakes for Bangladesh

Maneeza Hossain

In January 2007, Bangladesh will undergo its most sensitive and crucial election in decades. Since the democratic process was restored in 1991, Bangladesh has experienced a peaceful, albeit chaotic transfer of power in three elections that should have anchored democratic practice. However, corruption, and a lack of transparency and responsiveness to widely held grievances have created an atmosphere in which radical Islamists are able to recruit and act. As a result, Bangladeshi democracy, stability, and prosperity are at risk of succumbing to the coordinated action of local, regional, and international radical Islamist interests. Unfortunately, denial in Bangladesh is echoed bya lack of interest from the international community, with the misguided conviction that the troubles witnessed by this impoverished land will remain within its confines.

While located in a hidden corner of South Asia, whether a thriving democracy or a failed state, Bangladesh has the potential of becoming a major front in the global confrontation with radical Islamism: if democracy is preserved and enhanced, Bangladesh can serve as a model against radical incursions into Muslim democratic environments; if democracy is defeated, it would be the first instance ever in which radical Islamism accomplished such a feat. The Islamist victory over the Soviet-backed communist regime in Afghanistan ushered a global wave of radical Islamist activism. A similar new wave with major implications should be feared if Bangladesh were to fail as a democracy. The United States thus has a substantive stake in understanding the nature of the factors driving the growing popularity of radical Islamism in Bangladesh and in considering options for their redress –for local, regional, and international stability. This paper identifies three crucial issues that require urgent consideration to improve the political climate in Bangladesh in the countdown to the elections, and reduce the risk of radical Islamist gains: the neglect of the rural and working poor, strong-arm politics that debilitate the existing establishment, and unfettered radicalization.


With a population of over 145 million, Bangladesh is home to the third largest Muslim community in the world. Having gained its independence in 1971, Bangladesh (the former East Pakistan, and previously East Bengal) has witnessed a tumultuous political history, including the assassination of two presidents who were also the founders of the major political parties that dominate politics to this day— Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the charismatic leader of the Awami League (AL), whose daughter Sheikh Hasina is the current opposition leader, was killed in 1975; and Ziaur Rahman, the founder of the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), the main partner in the ruling coalition led by Rahman’s widow, Khaleda Zia, was killed in 1981.

After almost a decade of military dictatorship, the restoration of the democratic process in 1991 brought a new era of political invigoration to Bangladesh. However, the political system was prone to corruption. Successive elections relied heavily on patronage and cronyism, leading to a growing disenchantment with the democratic process and the two main political formations. This gave Jamaate-Islam, the prominent Islamist party, an opportunity to stand out with a platform seeking the implementation of a long-term program towards the fundamental transformation of Bangladeshi society and the eventual creation of a Shariah-based state.

The status of Islam in Bengali identity is deeply rooted and ancestral. The important function of Islam in Bengali life prompted even secularist ideologues, such as Mujibur Rahman, to seek to accommodate it. It is the exploitation of Islam’s central role in Bengali identity that becomes the hallmark of Islamist activism. That the Jamaate has a long-term plan for Bangladesh is not a secret. In a personal communication, a leading figure in this Islamist party stated, “the horizon of the Jamaate is in generations. The transformation of Bangladeshi society to the Islamic paradigm is a gradual process that requires fundamental work. The Jamaate is aware of the task at hand and is vigorously engaged in it.” Born of Islamist revivalist thought in the first half of the twentieth century, the Jamaate has moved with others to embrace some precepts of Salafism, a rigid understanding of the Shariah-based state. In so doing, it has paved the way in Bangladesh for the emergence of purely Salafi groups. These have made their entry into the cultural and political scene in the form of the conservative Ulemas (religious scholars) inhabiting various mosques in many districts of the country, and in the form of the militant Jihadist Jamatual Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB).This group advocates the establishment of a Shariah-state through the violent overthrow of the established order.

From a marginal group accused of collaboration with the brutal occupation and massacres perpetrated by the Pakistani army, the Jamaate has repositioned itself three decades later as the “golden mean” between the corrupt politics of the past and the extremist zeal of militant Islamists. By doing so, Jamaate has proved its savviness.

While its electoral standing is still limited by virtue of the stranglehold that the two main parties (AL and BNP) have on the patronage system, the Jamaate is preparing itself for a competitive entry into the fray by gaining control of crucial service ministries. In the current government, as part of the BNP-led coalition, the Jamaate controls the ministries of industry, agriculture and social welfare. All three ministries give them direct access to the grassroots.

In accordance with a pattern of penetration adopted by a multitude of sister Islamist organizations worldwide, the Jamaate is also seeking a presence in student, worker, and professional sectors. Its gains have been considerable albeit still checked by an established tradition in Bangladesh of religion-free activism in all three sectors.
While the Jamaate and its extensions are currently well positioned for a preservation of their recent gains, the convergence of three issues discussed in this paper provides a considerable opportunity for a consolidation and amplification of these gains, at the expense of the liberal democratic ideal.

Issue 1: The Major Parties’ Neglect of the Rural and Working Poor

In April 2006, the garments industry was rocked by riots. The Government is alleging that these riots are the manifestation of a political will to disrupt the precarious political order of Bangladesh, accusing yet unidentified parties. However, is not hard to find substance in the grievances that seemed to impel these riots. Political and economic leaders in Bangladesh, as well as the international community, must take a serious look at the workers’ grievances, or risk further alienating millions of Muslims who are being targeted by radical Islamism.
The purchasing power of the 930 taka ($12) minimum wage that the government guaranteed garments workers for the past twelve years has severely deteriorated. In just over a decade, the taka has lost more than forty percent of its value against the dollar. Coupled with the chronic weakness of the dollar, this has translated into substantial inflation and eroded the subsistence level wages that were a promise for a better life for garment workers and their families.

Furthermore, with the global demise of socialism as an international ideological contender, political parties across Bangladesh have largely abandoned a worker-focused approach in favor of a development-focused one. The leftist rhetoric once advocated by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman has given way to a more market-oriented understanding of the evolution of state and economy. This has left workers with the perception that they have no advocate of any weight in the political arena.

Also, the fact that Bangladesh’s economy is almost solely reliant on one sector, garments, makes it particularly vulnerable to changes in the international markets. The emergence of a new competitor might spell doom. The labor movement, or what is left of it, realizes the instability under which its members are operating.

Researchers have pointed out that the political and social elites believe that the poorer social classes are incapable of meaningful political mobilization or disruptive threatening actions. Accordingly, the workers’ interests can be ignored. The recent riots, even if instigated by the yet to be identified political forces for ulterior motives, highlight the fact that past equations no longer hold. Many of the poor have participated in riots, inflicting a heavy price on the country, its infrastructure and its reputation.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Bloc and the demise of populist politics in Bangladesh, leftist rhetoric aimed at mobilizing the masses have fared very badly. However, a new contender has entered the scene: Islamist radicalism. Rather than quoting Lenin and Mao, the new arsonists can refer to the irreligious heritage as a justification for an attack on the established economic order. In August of 2005, radical Islamists attacked government institutions and assassinated civil judges against a backdrop of considerable sympathy to their cause amongst a population debilitated by corruption and mismanagement. It might be a matter of time before they opt to tap on the economic grievances to declare the capitalist-market economy as being a creation of the infidels, and to call for a Muslim-economic order. While alarmism is to be avoided, radical Islamists cannot fail to see the potential of an economically-based mobilization.
It is incumbent on the government to get to the bottom of the criminal actions that vandalized property, terrorized society, and rattled Bangladesh’s image as an emerging economy. But it is also incumbent upon the government of Bangladesh and the international community that benefits from the labor of the workers of Bangladesh, to insure that their standard of living remains above the subsistence level, fulfilling the requirement for a dignified life with upward mobility. No ready-made solutions might be available, but a positive forceful conversation to that effect should be initiated.

For Bangladesh to be able to compete in the global market, wages have to be responsive to market-forces, not riot-forces. However it is in the best interest of the business sector in Bangladesh to insure its workforce is content and immune from manipulation and radicalism. It is a delicate balance between allowing the global market to dictate its parameters, and pro-actively seeking measures to alleviate its exploitable side effects. The alternative for seeking a solution for this difficult equation would be providing the radical Islamists with another opportunity for recruitment and disruption.

Issue 2 : Growing Disillusionment with Strong-Arm Politics

That Bangladesh is a democracy has been demonstrated through the relatively peaceful handover of power over the past fifteen years. That it remains a precarious democracy was shown recently when 300,000 supporters of the opposition alliance took to the streets of Dhaka. Their goal: to bring the capital to a halt to protest the ruling BNP party’s alleged rigging of the upcoming parliamentary elections. The government responded with equal force, imprisoning thousands of opposition supporters despite a recent Supreme Court judgment against mass arrests. The opposition, in turn, protested the arrests by calling for a 36-hour “hartal,” or strike, aimed at challenging the government. This type of strong arm politics is one that pushes the defiance of the established order to the edge of chaos.

Strikes and civil disobedience are not necessarily destructive of the democratic process. France has had both as a permanent feature of its political life for almost two centuries. However, the hundreds of thousands of people who took to the streets and the illegal crackdown by the government in response are by far the largest and most disturbing signs yet that the confrontation between the two major political coalitions in Bangladesh may be escalating to the point of no return.

Democracy in Bangladesh has always been a messy affair. Since the restoration of multi-party voting in 1990, Bangladeshi politics have been dominated by the rivalry between these two major blocks. Both have had the opportunity to assume and surrender power. Now out of power, the Awami League, the main faction in the 14-party opposition alliance, is convinced that the BNP’s tinkering with the supposedly impartial caretaker system will hurt its chances of regaining power—thus the recent street politics. Specifically, the opposition wants the chief election commissioner, a supporter of the BNP, to be replaced with a neutral overseer. They are also protesting official voter registration lists that carry up to 10 million names of questionable authenticity.

The seemingly perpetual hartals called for by the opposition have done little to win over the public. Most citizens honor the hartal only under the threat of violence. Police and military forces controlled by the BNP have responded by applying indiscriminate force against demonstrators and bystanders alike. Police officers have been reportedly throwing bricks in scenes that look more like a street fight than they do a peace-keeping operation.

This was not always the situation in Bangladesh. Both Mujibur Rahman, and Ziaur Rahman, the “founding fathers” of the two main political blocks, were charismatic personalities with convincing political visions for their supporters. Bangladesh has had its motivating leaders and is always capable of producing more. If a unifying figure has not emerged, this is more reflective of the political class than it is of Bangladeshi society as a whole.

As the opposition and the ruling coalition clash over electoral regulations, the Islamist parties, are born force in both Bangladesh’s politics and society, are investing into building their base within Bangladesh. So far, they have managed to position themselves above the current unrest and have remained untainted by scandal or corruption, despite the recent rise of radical Islamist terrorism that has rocked the country. The loss of trust in conventional politics has provided fertile grounds for radicalism to strike roots: coordinated nationwide bomb attacks, judge assassinations, the killing of prominent opposition leaders and suicide bombings are just a few examples of the new phenomenon.

Ironically, both the opposition and the ruling coalition blame each other for the growth in radicalism. What they need to recognize is that the citizens of Bangladesh have been provided a new, overriding choice: between two corrupt political coalitions and the new Islamist parties untainted by corruption and now building a social services network to serve Bangladesh’s overwhelmingly poverty stricken people. It is the strong arm politics of both the opposition and the ruling coalition, which places the country in a deliberate impasse that have made the utopian (or dystopian) plans of the radicals a viable alternative in the minds of a growing minority.

Issue 3: Unfettered Radicalization

The deliberate attempt of the main Islamist formations to reshape Bangladeshi society inconformity with their ideological outlook has largely been an unfettered effort, both as a result of the considerable resources available to them (notably from Middle-Eastern sources), or as a consequence of the seeming indifference or lack of capacity to contain it by government and society in Bangladesh. The long-term project of the “mainline” Islamist movement, the Jamaate-Islam, to transform Bangladeshi society into a Shari‘ah-ruled state has been noted above. Also of note is its increasingly successful attempt to position itself as a golden mean between the corrupt politics of the secular democrats and the extreme activism of the Jihadists. It is indeed the energetic push of the Jihadists in Bangladesh that causes the center of gravity of Bangladeshi politics to inch towards the Jamaate.

On August 15, 2005, an estimated 300 bombs went off in less than an hour in all but one of Bangladesh’s administrative districts. Although these attacks were apparently aimed at empty government offices and facilities, two civilians died and more than 120 were injured. A banned Islamist group, the Jamatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), claimed credit for the attacks. The message was clear: a declaration of war on the democratic civil order was proclaimed. Soon after, this inaugurating strike was followed by the assassination of civil judges, and, more ominously, by Bangladesh’s first ever suicide bombing, targeting a civil society organization.

The language of the JMB communiqués was unequivocal. The current system of governance is illegitimate and shall be replaced, by force, by a radical Islamist vision. As alarming as this message was, the reaction of the Bangladeshi political establishment was equally worrisome. At both ends of the conventional political spectrum, accusations of machinations and manipulations were dominant. The ruling coalition saw in the JMB actions acts of sabotage aimed at undermining its credibility and originating in a neighboring country, viz. India, while the opposition alliance described it as a planned extension of the tactics of pro-government forces, targeted at opposition activists for intimidation purposes. Neither understood these serious acts of terror for what they were, the declaration of war on Bangladesh as a democracy, and neither acted to address the problem at its roots. The subsequent course of action adopted by both government and opposition was therefore of a tactical nature. The opposition pointed fingers at other individuals in government, accusing them of harboring and providing physical or moral shelter to the terrorists.

Missing was the recognition that Bangladesh seems to have also become a target for al-Qa‘idah and other radical Islamist groups, preying on socioeconomic deterioration and political frustration to find recruits. The assault by Islamist radicalism intent on transforming it into an ideological and operational bastion was largely unanswered. Largely out of this state of denial, the advance of radicalism in Bangladesh is not hampered by a counter plan. Instead, socio-economic and political factors aiding and abetting this plan proliferate.

Given its high population density, unemployment and percentage living under the poverty line(some 45%), Bangladesh’s main export, other than garments, is cheap manual labor. Bangladeshi men and women have long looked abroad for employment, usually within nations where Islamism is strong. According to the Migration Policy Institute, the population of workers from South Asian countries to the Middle East is as high as 10 million. Saudi Arabia has been one of the largest importers of Bangladeshi laborers, where over a million reside. Many of the towering high-rises of Dubai and Kuwait were built by Bangladeshi hands. This outflow of labor is indicative of the severe shortage of opportunity in Bangladesh and the economic necessity of relationship with Middle Eastern countries. With the missing opportunities for upward mobility at home comes the opportunity for radicalism to prey on Bangladeshi society.

The question now is, what can be done to make sure that this already impoverished land does not become even more dire, and a recruiting center for al-Qa‘idah? A failure by the international community to take drastic action would not only spell misery for millions of Bangladeshis, but also translate into a serious security threat for the entire world. Unless more attention is paid to Bangladesh, the al-Qa‘idahs and Jamatul Mujahideens of this world are sure to take advantage of the situation.
The issue that faces US policymakers, in their interest to safeguard democracies against the onslaught of radical Islamism, is therefore how to help Bangladesh reconfirm its commitment to democracy and withstand the deliberate pressure that is applied against it. This US support, seemingly of a local character, would constitute a major contribution towards denying the forces of Islamist radicalism a defining symbolic victory, that of their first ever defeat of a democratic system.

Policy Implications

Three developments are therefore set in motion in the upcoming elections and beyond:

  • A degradation of the public’s confidence in the political process as a result of the dirty politics practiced by the two main political parties;
  • A consolidation of the gains that the Jamaate as a mainstream Islamist group succeeded in accumulating; and
  • The introduction of the option of negating democracy and resorting to Shariah into the political discourse in Bangladesh.

The cumulative effect of these developments, if left unchecked, is detrimental to the survival of Bangladesh as a democracy. However, there is currently no concerted effort on the part of Bangladeshi players to seek a reversal. If the current trajectory is to continue, Bangladesh might be slated to become a failed state. In a self-propelling pattern, the rise of radical Islamism might accelerate, creating a precedent for a democracy to succumb to radical Islamism. As noted, Afghanistan, in which radical Islamists defeated a communist regime, was a galvanizing experience for Islamists, the effects of which are still felt in the world today. A failed Bangladeshi democracy will similarly have considerable impact on the survivability of radical Islamism as an alternative to the current world order.

As a language, Bangla (Bengali) is ranked among the top ten most spoken in the world. Bengali speakers are concentrated in Bangladesh and India but are also spread across continents in the Middle East, Europe and North America. For the radicalization project that is vigorously active in Bangladesh itself to reach them is only a matter of time. Comparisons with Iranian and Afghan communities in the west – none of which was dramatically affected by the radicalization of their countries of origin— do not stand. Bangladeshis overseas are mostly migrant workers and not political or socioeconomic exiles. Their connections with Bangladesh are continuous and activism in their midst is on the rise. The Jamaate and other groups realize the potential of these communities as a source of recruits but also one of funding.

It would be reckless not to recognize the current imbalance that provides Islamists in general and radical Islamists in particular with the unfair advantage of illicitly seeking the transformation of Bangladeshi society. They are readily aided by a global movement often aimed at subverting the established order. An analysis of the mechanisms through which this process of transformation is unfolding is necessary as a first line of defense towards a restoration of a Bangladesh-centric political formulation. This new formulation must address the perennial problem of corruption without succumbing to radicalism.

Judging from the current situation, the elections of January 2007 will not be free and fair elections. However, the outcome is not a foregone conclusion: Through various manipulations, it does seem that the BNP coalition is likely to win, but the AL alliance still has a serious chance in the coming months to take away the BNP edge, through a campaign focusing on corruption, inability to deliver, and lukewarm treatment of terrorism. What is certain is that the tension and animosity between the two fronts will rise and intensify.

Ignoring the above carries a tremendous risk for the US as the world’s only superpower as well as for the world community as a whole.
The US should keep the spotlight on both the government and the opposition‘s preparations for the upcoming elections. US interest in the issue, even if minor, has the considerable potential of keeping government and opposition forces at bay for better behavior.
Beyond the immediate, a reconsideration of some of the axioms of US policy towards South Asia might be in order. The US focus on South Asia must extend beyond India and Pakistan to accommodate the growing importance of Bangladesh. An approach to replace the military-mosque formula, through which stability is sought in an alliance of the military institution and conservative clerics, needs to be devised. This formula characterizes much of Pakistani history. Recklessly, some have advocated applying it to Bangladesh.

In fact, in its economic potential and national homogeneity, Bangladesh might be able to provide an alternative in the form of a development-democracy formula – and thus provide a more sustainable model of long-run stability for other Islamic nations. The US should engage the international community to focus on identifying and exercising political and economic levers to promote economic growth.

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