You are on page 1of 35

Published online 9 March 2012 Journal of Islamic Studies 23:2 (2012) pp.



A K H A N D A K H TA R H O S S A I N Newcastle Business School, University of Newcastle, Australia

Since the 1940s nationalist leaders have used both Islam and Bengali ethnicity2 for the purposes of political mobilizationthe former to mobilize Bengali Muslims during the Pakistan movement in the 1940s, the latter during the autonomy movement of the 1950s and 1960s to mobilize Hindus and Muslims alike. When Bangladesh gained independence from Pakistan on 16 December 1971, Jinnahs two-nation theory,3 the basis for the creation of Pakistan, was pronounced
Authors note: My thanks to this Journals three anonymous referees for their critical comments on an earlier version of this paper. I also thank Greg Bauer for excellent research assistance, including comments and sharing views on European religious history, culture and traditions. 2 Bengali ethnicity remains a contested term for Bangladeshs Muslims. Historically, the term Bengali was reserved for the Hindus of Bengal. Whether Muslims in Bengal are Bengali or Muslim or both has social and political implications. See Joya Chatterji, Bengal Divided: Hindu Communalism and Partition, 19321947 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); and Akhand Akhtar Hossain, HinduMuslim Separateness in Bengal: A Review of Some Historical Issues from a Contemporary Bangladesh Muslim Standpoint, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, 31/2 (2008): 36482, and references therein. 3 This theory held that the dominant identity for Muslims in India was their religion in a broad sense rather than their languages and ethnicities, that the Hindus and Muslims constituted distinct communities with different philosophies, different customs and traditions, different political and literary heroes, even different diet and dress. See Hector Bolitho, Jinnah: Creator of Pakistan (Westport, CT.: Greenwood Press, 1981); and Two-Nation Theory:
The Author (2012). Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email:


ak h an d a kh t a r h os s ai n

dead.4 In forming of the nations rst government, the Bangladesh Awami League (or simply the Awami League) adopted a four-pronged state ideology of nationalism, democracy, socialism and secularism.5 However, Bengali ethnicity soon lost inuence as a marker of identity for the countrys majority population, their Muslim identity regaining prominence and differentiating them from the Hindus of West Bengal.6 Although some political and cultural activists sought early on to propagate a Bengali commonality between Hindus and Muslims, the Indian nationalism of West Bengali Hindus was perceived (and criticized) by the Muslims of Bangladesh as derivative from Hindu mythology.7 Their own Muslim identity had been built through centuries of struggles under the leadership of such gures as Haji Shariatullah (17811840), Muhsinuddin Dudu Miyan (18191862), Mir Nisar Ali (Titu Mir; 1782 1831), Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani (18801976), A. K. Fazlul Huq and references therein (accessed on 5 April 2011). 4 For an historical account, see Rauddin Ahmed, The Bengal Muslims, 18711906: A Quest for Identity (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1981); John Esposito, The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality? (New York: Oxford University Press, 2nd edn., 1995); Nurul Islam, Making of a Nation: Bangladesh (Dhaka: University Press Ltd., 2003); and Ali Riaz, Unfolding State: The Transformation of Bangladesh (Whitby, Ontario: De Sitter Publications, 2005). 5 On the pattern of Nehruvian democratic socialism, this ideology was touted as Mujibism after the name of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. See Taj Hashmi, Islamic Resurgence: Genesis, Dynamics, and Implications in S. P. Limaye, M. Malik and R. G. Wirsing (eds.), Religious Radicalism and Security in South Asia (Honolulu, HI: Asia-Pacic Center for Security Studies, 2004), 3572; and Ali Riaz, God Willing: The Politics of Islamism in Bangladesh (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littleeld Publishers, 2004), 31. 6 Muslims constitute about 90 per cent of Bangladeshs population. Its religious minorities include Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and animists. The Hindus, the largest minority, have maintained social, cultural and economic links with their co-religionists in West Bengal (presently Paschimbanga, India). In Bangladesh, they constitute the vote-bank of the Awami League. See Enayetullah Khan, Overt Islamicism vs. Secularism with the Covert Communal Bias, Holiday, 14 April 2005: (accessed on 24 April 2005). 7 On the equivalence of Indian and Hindu nationalism, see Peter van der Veer, Religious Nationalism: Hindus and Muslims in India (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994); and Mark Juergensmeyer, The New Cold War: Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993). See also Shah Halim, Indian Secularism Unmasked, News from Bangladesh: 2007-04-11 (accessed on 11 April 2007).



(18731962) and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (19201975). Accordingly, they are not favourably disposed to a nationalism that downplays the fundamental contributions of Indian Muslims to Indian culture, society and polity.8 The Hindu and Muslim Bengali communities have generally maintained separate identities with respect to religion, culture, tradition, and outlook.9 In the context of seeking relief from West Pakistani rule, the population responded to appeals to Bengali nationalism, but democracy, socialism and secularism were, for them, largely alien slogans imposed from above, whose appeal faded soon after East Pakistans rebirth as Bangladesh in 1971.10 Bengali nationalism as such did not survive the overthrow of the Awami League government by a military coup on 15 August 1975. General Ziaur Rahman, the de facto leader after a series of military coups, established the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in 1978. He introduced, as an alternative to Bengali nationalismsecularism, Bangladeshi nationalism with an emphasis on the nations geographical and cultural boundaries in light of its peoples historical struggles.11 Since the late 1970s, Bangladesh has been polarized between the right-of-centre BNP and the left-of-centre Awami League,12 which parties contested several national elections on platforms differentiating Bengali nationalism-secularism from Bangladeshi-Muslim nationalism. Following the overthrow of the military government of General Ershad13

See Zillur R[ahman] Khan, Islam and Bengali Nationalism, Asian Survey, 25/8 (1985): 83451. 9 James Novak, Bangladesh: Reections on the Water (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1993). For provocative views on these issues, see Basant Chatterjee, Inside Bangladesh Today: An Eye-Witness Account (New Delhi: S. Chand and Company, 1973). 10 Hashmi, Islamic Resurgence, 45, has explained this phenomenon. 11 Bangladeshi nationalism developed in an inclusive form that does not discriminate on grounds of ethnic or religious origin. Its ultimate objective is to maintain Bangladeshi independence via-a ` -vis India. See M. G. Kabir, Changing Face of Nationalism: The Case of Bangladesh (Dhaka: University Press Ltd., 1994); Stanley Kochanek, PatronClient Politics and Business in Bangladesh (Delhi: Sage Publications, 1993); and Shireen Osmany, Bangladeshi Nationalism: History of Dialectics and Dimensions (Dhaka: University Press Ltd., 1992). 12 For an overview of political parties, see Akhtar Hossain, Anatomy of Hartal Politics in Bangladesh, Asian Survey, 40/3 (2000): 50829. 13 Ershad had come to power in 1982 through a military coup supported by the Awami League. He ruled until 1990 and established the Bangladesh Jatiya Party (BJP). The BJPs ideological orientation resembles that of the BNP, but it


ak h an d a kh t a r h os s ai n

in December 1990, the two parties governed alternately. Both failed to produce political stability and, instead, simply monopolized power to loot public resources.14 This unrelenting misgovernance has weakened the countrys institutions and hindered its economic, social and political progress. In January 2007, in the midst of a political crisis over the process of selecting the caretaker government that was supposed to organize scheduled parliamentary elections, the military declared a national emergency and installed a caretaker government. Two years later, in the December 2008 parliamentary elections, the Awami League came to power for the third time. Despite early optimism, there has been no improvement in governance under this regime.15 One consequence of misgovernance has been the proliferation of militant groups, including Islamic ones, from about the early 1990s onward. Since 9/11 the phenomenon of Islamic activism has been intensely studied under, broadly, two general interpretations. First, that Islamic resurgence represents a re-emergence of the historical status of Islam in Bangladeshs culture and politics as Bengali nationalismsecularism faded after the country secured its independence.16 Second,

remains aligned with the Awami League and is a partner in the current Awami League-led government. 14 Misappropriation of state resources, predatory and rent-seeking behaviour is now institutionalized at all levels of the state. See Maudud Ahmed, Era of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (Dhaka: University Press Ltd., 1983); and Tushar Barua, Political Elite in Bangladesh (Bern: Peter Lang, 1978). For recent discussion, see Refugee Review Tribunal (RRT), RRT Research Response, BDG31671, 20 April, 2007. On the banditry of political leaders, see Mancur Olson, Power and Prosperity: Outgrowing Communist and Capitalist Dictatorships (New York: Basic Books, 2000). 15 See Akhand Akhtar Hossain, Macroeconomic Developments, Policies and Issues in Bangladesh, 19722007 in Munir Quddus and Farida Khan (eds.), Bangladesh Economy in the 21st Century: Selected Papers from the 2008 and 2009 Conferences at Harvard University (Dhaka: University Press Ltd., 2011). 16 This interpretation is presented and discussed in Iftekhar Chowdhury, The Roots of Bangladeshi National Identity: Their Impact on the State Behaviour, ISAS Working Paper No.63 (Singapore Institute of South Asian Studies, National University, 2009); Talukder Maniruzzaman, Bangladesh Politics: Secular and Islamic Trends in Rauddin Ahmed (ed.), Religion, Nationalism and Politics in Bangladesh (New Delhi: South Asian Publishers, 1990); and Mohammad Rashiduzzaman, Changing Political Patterns in Bangladesh: Internal Constraints and External Fears, Asian Survey, 17/9 (1977): 793808.



that it represents a militant, anti-West movement for the establishment of a Talibanized Islamic state.17 This paper argues that Islamic resurgence in Bangladesh is not synonymous with Islamic militancy. While Islamic militancy did grow in frequency and intensity from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s, it remains both peripheral and transitory. It can be accounted for in two ways. First, it is a predictable reaction to the sustained misgovernance of the countryit is quite natural in a country whose dominant religion is Islam for the militant groups to have included Islamic militants. Nevertheless, these groups operate at the periphery and their actions are reactive, episodic and not necessarily part of a more broadly-organized movement. Second, global factors have inuenced militants to engage in terrorist activities, some of which are anti-West in their rhetorical orientation. The majority of Muslims do not support such activities, although they share the perception that the major Western powers are anti-Islam and indifferent to long-standing and geographically widespread Muslim grievances, which those powers may well have caused or, at least, have substantially contributed to.18 While a linkage between Islamic religiosity and militancy is plausible, the increase in religiosity among Muslims since the 1970s19 is not uniquethe same phenomenon
This interpretation is evident in the voluminous literature on Islamic militancy in Bangladesh since the early 2000s. See, for example: Sreeradha Datta, Islamic Militancy in Bangladesh: The Threat from Within, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, 30/1 (2007):14570; Sumit Ganguly, The Rise of Islamist Militancy in Bangladesh, Special Report 171, US Institute of Peace, 2006; Hiranmay Karlekar, Bangladesh: The Next Afghanistan (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2005); Harsh Pant, India and Bangladesh: Will the Twain Even Meet?, Asian Survey, 47/2 (2007): 23149; Bertil Lintner, Beware of Bangladesh: A Cocoon of Terror, Far Eastern Economic Review, April 4, 2002; Alex Perry, Deadly Cargo, Time Magazine, 15 October 2002; and Eliza Griswold, The Next Islamist Revolution?, New York Times, 23 January 2005. Most of these articles draw on materials from Indian intelligence sources reecting their views on Islamic terrorism in Bangladesh. For additional references and comments, see Hossain, HinduMuslim Separateness, 364. 18 See Riaz Hassan, Faithlines: Muslim Conceptions of Islam and Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002); and Esposito, Islamic Threat, esp. chs. 2, 3 and 6. Greg Simons, Fourth Generation Warfare and the Clash of Civilizations, Journal of Islamic Studies, 21/3 (2010): 391412, has highlighted the ongoing mistrust and suspicion between Christianity ([. . .] loosely dened as [. . .] the West) and Muslims. 19 Esposito (Islamic Threat, 11), suggests that Islamic resurgence is not a new phenomenon; rather the phrase can represent any instance or period of signicant increase in Islams prole in the society and polity.


ak h an d a kh t a r h os s ai n

has been remarked among peoples professing other religions and attributed to sociological and political factors.20 Also, Hassan has shown for four Muslim countries, a heightened religiosity does not necessarily increase support for militancy but in fact does the opposite: it diminishes support for it.21 By highlighting Bangladeshi political developments in their historical context, this paper draws some of the implications of Islamic resurgence for political and social stability in the country. It reviews parliamentary election results from the early 1970s onwards and shows that Bangladeshi-Muslim nationalism has emerged as a robust alternative to Bengali nationalism-secularism. It then argues that this represents an opportunity to establish a stable, two-party system provided that the two major players, namely the Awami League and the BNP, cooperate effectively, in the public interest, to accommodate alternative ideologies. The remainder of this paper is set out as follows: Section 2 reviews some key factors behind Islamic resurgence in Bangladesh; Sections 3 and 4 analyse its socio-political and economic implications. Section 5 makes concluding remarks.


In the late 1960s, the secessionist movement took the form of a Bengali ethnic- and language-based struggle against economic, cultural and political exploitation by the (Punjabi) military-bureaucratic leadership in West Pakistan. Ironically, this struggle downplayed the Muslim identity of about 90 per cent of the countrys population.22 While Bengali ethnicity remains a marker of identity for them, Islamic resurgence has restored a hitherto repressed sense of Muslim identity to the extent that
See the multi-volume publications of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Fundamentalism Project, notably Gabriel Almond, R. Scott Appleby and Emmanuel Sivan, Strong Religion: The Rise of Fundamentalisms around the World (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2003); and Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby (eds.), Fundamentalisms and Society (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1993). 21 Hassan, Faithlines, 235. 22 Chowdhury, Roots of Bangladeshi National Identity, 8, emphasizes that the emergence of Bangladesh as a sovereign state was in the spirit of the Lahore Resolution of 1940 and, as such, . . . could . . . be viewed as the second and nal phase of the realisation of the original Resolution.



Bangladesh is now recognized by most Western countries as a moderate Muslim nation.23 The origins and dynamics of Islamic resurgence in Bangladesh can be found in an historical account of Islamization in East Bengal. Such an account also helps explain why the emerging Bangladeshi-Muslim nationalism should not be equated with the Islamic militancy that ourished from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s. Islamization in East Bengal: historical context Based on the seminal works of Richard Eaton,24 Hossain25 has developed an explanation for the emergence of a Muslim majority in East Bengal, now Bangladesh. Eatons core thesis is that those who became Muslims in this region were not Hindus at all. Rather, they were indigenous people with animist or other local beliefs outside the formalistic Hindu-Buddhist social order. In his view, East Bengal and its indigenous culture remained a frontier zone for an expanding Islam well into the sixteenth century, long after MuAammad b. Bakhtiy:r Khalj;s conquest of the province in 1204. That conquest led to an agrarian expansion, which cleared forests and transformed land from marsh or wilderness into rice elds, and a simultaneous Islamic expansion among indigenous communities that were neither Buddhist nor Brahmanic. In this enterprise, the newly-Islamic Turks from Central Asia and the Iranian plateau provided a ready supply of soldiers, slaves and administrators, while the Sus26 introduced the local people to the Islamic faith. Meanwhile, the soldiers, administrators and companions of the holy men, having brought no wives and families with them, married local women, settled on the land and became integrated with the
See Rounaq Jahan, Bangladesh in 2002, Asian Survey, 43/1 (2002): 222 29. Mary Ann Peters, the former US Ambassador to Bangladesh (20002003), described the country as a moderate Muslim nation and was critical of the exaggeration of Islamic militancy in Bangladesh. 24 See Richard Eaton, The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 12041760 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993) and references therein. 25 See Hossain, HinduMuslim Separateness, 36971. 26 These Sus were Muslim holy men of predominantly Turkic-Central Asian extraction. Shar;6a-noncompliant Su practices in Bangladesh have survived several historical attempts at circumscription, but since the mid-1970s have suffered inroads from Shar;6a-compliant movements spreading from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. See Muhammad Enamul Haq, A History of Su-ism in Bengal (Dacca: Asiatic Society of Bangladesh, 1975), and Peter Bertocci, A Su Movement in Bangladesh: The Maijbhandari Tariqa and its Followers, Contributions to Indian Sociology, 40/1 (2006): 128.


ak h an d a kh t a r h os s ai n

expanding agrarian community. According to Eaton, one can at no point identify a specic moment of conversion, or any single moment when peoples saw themselves as having made a dramatic break with the past.27 Over time, Islam has become an indigenous religious, social and cultural system with its own local customs and traditions. This perspective differs from the popular perception that Muslims in East Bengal were lower-caste Hindu converts.28 An implication of Eatons thesis is that, following agricultural expansion, East Bengali Muslims became an hierarchical community of landowners and cultivators while the occupational structure of their lower-caste Hindu neighbours remained unchanged over centuries.29 This historical process led ultimately to the creation of present-day Bangladesh and its deep rooted identity as a Muslim nation. HinduMuslim animosity and Bangladeshs emergence as a sovereign nation Economic factors have played a major role in political and religious movements in Bengal since the nineteenth century, when both the British and the Hindus marginalized the Muslim community.30 The Pakistan movement was therefore not religious per se but economic and political. Bengals Muslims were discriminated against and exploited by the Hindu zam;nd:rs (landlords), bhadralo k (Hindu professionals) and mah:j:n (traders/moneylenders) established and protected by the British. Therefore Bengals Muslims looked to the Pakistan movement to win both economic resources and political power, neither of which the Hindus were willing to share.31
Eaton, Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 310. See U. A. B. Razia Akter Banu, Islam in Bangladesh (Leiden: E . J. Brill, 1992); and Asim Roy, The Islamic Syncretistic Tradition in Bengal (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983). For a critique of the social liberation theory of conversion, see Hossain, HinduMuslim Separateness, 3679. 29 Richard Eaton, The Growth of Muslim Identity in Eighteenth-Century Bengal in Nehemia Levtzion and John Voll (eds.), Eighteenth-Century Renewal and Reform in Islam (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1987), 170, notes that forest-clearing and land-reclamation in the active delta produced extremely complex land tenure chains, extending from the landlords (zam;nd:rs) at the upper end to the actual cultivators at the lower end, with numerous large and small landholders (talukd:rs) in between. 30 See Azizur Rahman Mallick, British Policy and the Muslims in Bengal (17571856) (Dacca: A. K. Ahmed Ali at Zeeco Press, 1961), ch. 2, 2765. 31 The Permanent Settlement System of 1793 and other British policies created a group of exploitative zam;nd:rs (most of them Hindus) and the dispossession of Muslim aristocracy and the bulk of Muslim peasantry. Their desire for a
28 27



The major reason among others for discontent in East Pakistan during the 1950s and 1960s was the exploitation of its resources by the West Pakistani military-bureaucratic-industrial establishment. While East Pakistans agriculture remained stagnant, its jute export earnings were expropriated for industrial development in West Pakistan.32 Second, the Islamabad-centred government distributed foreign aid and other development funds inequitably between West and East Pakistan.33 Third, West Pakistani politicians were not willing to share power with their counterparts in East Pakistan. Discontent came to a head in 1971 when the Pakistani military rulers failed to transfer power to the Awami League after it won the 1970 parliamentary elections on a platform that demanded regional autonomy. The military crackdown on 25 March 1971 was the nal nail in the cofn of Pakistani rule over East Bengal.34 Swinging national identity and the rehabilitation of Islamic forces The slogan of Joi Bangla (victory to Bengal), effective during the autonomy movement, became ineffective once it had succeeded. The contradiction in the notion of Bengali as the political identity of Bangladeshs Muslims became apparent when juxtaposed with Bengali as the political identity of West Bengals Hindus in India.35 By 1973, the Awami League had lost credibility as a consequence of its leaders blatant abuse of power to generate economic rentsthey quite literally grabbed

separate homeland took concrete shape as they realized the Hindu reluctance to share political power with them. See Taj Hashmi, Communalism in Undivided Bengal: Shrouding Class Conict with Religion, 2006: articles (accessed on 14 May 2010); and Denis Wright, Islam and Bangladeshi Polity, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, 10/2 (1987):1528; id., Bangladesh: Origins and Indian Ocean Relations 19711975 (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers, 1988). 32 See Azizur Rahman Khan, The Economy of Bangladesh (London: Macmillan, 1972). 33 See Akhtar Hossain, Macroeconomic Policies and the Agricultural Terms-of-Trade in Bangladesh: An Historical Review, 19522005, Journal of Contemporary Asia, 39/2 (2009): 20430. 34 See Islam, Making of a Nation, chs. 24. 35 This is reected in the words of Chatterjee, Inside Bangladesh Today, 155: If the [two-nation] theory has been demolished, as [its deniers] claim, then the only logical consequence should be the reunion of Bangladesh with India, as seems to be the positive stand of the Bangladeshi Hindus [. . .] for the people know that had Pakistan not been created then, Bangladesh too would not have come into existence now.


ak h an d a kh t a r h os s ai n

most of the lootable resources of the state.36 Furthermore, as India took advantage of Bangladeshs vulnerability, there was anti-Indian backlash. The overthrow of the Awami League government in August 1975 accelerated the nascent rehabilitation of Islamic consciousness in Bangladeshi culture and politics, as did the manifestation of this consciousness in Islamic political and militant action groups.37 This re-emergence of Muslim nationalism created an alternative to Bengali nationalism-secularism in social and political discourse. Signicantly, the rationale and processes by which secularism became a state principle in Bangladesh remain a contested issue. The Independence War began unexpectedly following the military crackdown on 25 March 1971. Ordinary people fought against the Pakistani military for survival, not necessarily to establish a secular, socialist state.38 Moreover, the 1970 parliamentary elections had been held under a Legal Framework Order that upheld Islamic principles.39
36 See Ahmed, Era of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman; Barua, Political Elite in Bangladesh; and Lawrence Lifschultz, Bangladesh: A State of Siege, Far Eastern Economic Review (30 August 1974): 4751. Hashmi (Islamic Resurgence, 46) has emphasized this behaviour, which had implications for later political developments in Bangladesh: While Awami leaders, in the name of socialism, were busy plundering the nationalized industries, banks and insurance companies, and abandoned non-Bengali properties previously owned by Urdu-speaking refugees from Bihar, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh, the bulk of the Bengalis were soon turned into the disillusioned, hungry and angry masses. 37 See A. F. Salahuddin Ahmed, Bangladesh: Tradition and Transformation (Dhaka: University Press Ltd., 1987); Taj ul-Islam Hashmi, Islam in Bangladesh Politics in Hussin Mutalib and Taj Hashmi (eds.), Islam, Muslims, and the Modern State ([Basingstoke: Macmillan Press] New York: St. Martins Press, 1994), 10038; Rashiduzzaman, Changing Political Patterns in Bangladesh; and Khan, Islam and Bengali Nationalism, 845. 38 Khan (Overt Islamism vs. Secularism, 7) notes that more than 99 per cent of freedom ghters were Muslims of both urban and rural origin. They did not ght against Islam but for liberation of their homeland from Pakistani military forces. At the same time, the Hindus, as Chatterjee notes (Inside Bangladesh Today, 152), had no attachment to the idea of winning independence for Bangladesh, although some individuals here and there might have taken an active part in the movement and the nal struggle. The introduction of secularism in the Constitution by downgrading religion was therefore a post hoc imposition in an environment where Islam was discredited by the political leadership for acts of some Islamic political activists who collaborated with the Pakistani military during the war. 39 See Emajuddin Ahamed and D. R. J. A. Nazneen, Islam in Bangladesh: Revivalism or Power Politics?, Asian Survey, 30/8 (1990): 795808; Mohammad Rashiduzzaman, The Awami League in the Political Development of Pakistan,



Nevertheless, secularism was enshrined as a principle in the 1972 Constitution, largely as a reaction to the Islamic parties opposition to Bangladesh independence and collaboration with the Pakistani military. To many critics, however, this Constitution looked uncomfortably similar to the Constitution of India. The perception remains that secularism was incorporated into that Constitution at the behest of India. The choice of the national anthem was another controversial import from India.40 Although the process of Indianization of Bangladesh was tolerated during the rst year after independence, secularism began to lose its appeal for the Muslims of Bangladesh with the waning of the Mujib governments popularity in 1973. By this time there was press speculation that secularism had been introduced in an attempt to downgrade Islam in the affairs of the Bangladesh state with the objective of facilitating eventual merger with India. Such speculation strengthened the backlash.41 In 1973 Mawlana Bhashani, one of the most charismatic Muslim leaders in Bengal since the early twentieth century, took a decisively anti-Indian stance. He criticized the hegemonic attitude taken by India toward Bangladesh from the very moment that it became independent. A particularly repugnant manifestation of this attitude was blatant economic exploitation. Reacting to this, Bhashani championed Islamic socialism prominently within his anti-Indian stance.42 Meanwhile, as the memory of West-Pakistani Punjabi domination receded, cracks appeared in the language-ethnicity formulation of national identity and the search for an alternative construction got under way. Islamic parties had been banned during the Mujib regime. After its overthrow in August 1975, both Islamic parties and some pro-Beijing left-leaning parties joined hands to oppose Indian hegemony. Bhashanis anti-Indian campaign reached its peak in 1976 when India commissioned the Farakka Barrage, on Indian territory, across the
Asian Survey, 10/7 (1970): 57487; Mohammad Abdullah, The Legal Framework Order: Discussion on the Liberation of Bangladesh, News from Bangladesh (14 May, 2006): (accessed on 21 April 2006); Nazir Ahmed, Can the Government Really Go Back to the 1972 Constitution? News from Bangladesh (22 April 2011): (accessed on 23 April 2011); and Chowdhury, Roots of Bangladeshi National Identity, 14. 40 See Mohammad Abdullah, Bangladesh Nation[al] Anthem, News from Bangladesh (21 April 2006): (accessed on 21 April 2006). 41 Khan (Overt Islamicism vs. Secularism, 6) was critical of the imposition of West Bengals babu-culture in the name of Bengali-secularism. 42 See Wright, Islam and Bangladeshi Polity.


ak h an d a kh t a r h os s ai n

Ganges River. Predictably, this unilateral act led to desertication of the northern regions of Bangladesh. Under these circumstances, it was easier for the military government of General Ziaur Rahman (Zia) to marginalize the Awami League using the strategy of giving political shelter to Islamic forces opposed to Indian hegemony in Bangladeshs affairs. General Ershad, who came to power through a military coup in 1982, followed Zias Islamization strategy and for some time was able to consolidate his power. By the time his rule was overthrown in December 1990, the restoration of Islam in Bangladeshi society and polity had been formally explained in several amendments to the Constitution. First, the basmala formula was inserted at the beginning of the Constitution. Second, socialism and secularism were replaced with social justice and absolute trust and faith in almighty Allah. Third, Islam was declared the state religion.43 Contemporaneously, the Awami League, to ensure its survival, constructed a political camouage for itself as a pro-Islamic party. Riaz observes:
From the mid-1980s, the so-called secularist political parties have been using idioms and icons of religion. Circumstances have changed so much that the Awami League [AL], which once took pride in its secular identity, now clearly prefers to be portrayed as a party that values Islam as an integral part of the culture of Bangladesh. Since 1991, the statements of party leaders and party publicity materials have revealed the Awami Leagues eagerness to present itself as a good custodian of Islam in Bangladesh. Symbolic expressions of this change have been the carrying of prayer beads and wearing of scarves by AL chief Sheikh Hasina. In addition to making pilgrimages to Mecca, Hasina began using Islamic phrases such as Bismillah-ar-Rahman-ar-Rahim, Khoda Hafez, and Insallah in her public speeches. Party political posters also carried these phrases to assuage the devout among the electorate.44

The courting since the early 1990s of Islamic parties by both the Awami League and the BNP to form governments has completed the rehabilitation of religio-political forces as an integral component of Bangladeshs polity. During the Cold War politics of the 1980s, the US in particular supported the transformation of Bangladesh into a
Riaz, God Willing, 35. The incumbent Awami League government has used its two-thirds majority in the Parliament to remove absolute trust and faith in almighty Allah but has left Islam as the state religion in the Constitution. For an early discussion of this and related issues, see Rasel Parvez, The Repeal of the Fifth Amendment: Musings, e-bangladesh: the-repeal-of-the-fth-amendment-musings/ (accessed on 17 May 2010). 44 Riaz, God Willing, 389.



quasi-Islamic state. It preferred Bangladesh to become a pro-Western Islamic state rather than a quasi-socialist state, on the pattern of India, with the potential to establish links with the then Soviet Union.45 Bangladeshs pro-West foreign policy led in 1990 to its joining the US-led coalition that ousted Iraqi forces from Kuwait. However, coincidentally with internal developments, some external events since the mid-1970s expedited Islamic resurgence in Bangladesh and contributed to the rise of Islamic fringe groups, which bypassed democratic politics and engaged in militant activities. This trend intensied through the decade from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s.46 Impact of external events on Islamic resurgence in Bangladesh An early impetus to the rise in Islamic religiosity in Bangladesh was the Iranian revolution of 1979, which raised the hopes and aspirations of most Muslims.47 However, Islamic groups in Bangladesh remained peaceful during military rule under Zia and Ershad, with both regimes pursuing a simultaneously pro-Islamic and pro-West line.48 The Iranian revolution also revived the Shi6iSunni divide and the deep-rooted historical rivalry between Persians (majority Shi6i) and Arabs (majority Sunni). Predominantly Sunni Bangladesh prudently avoided taking sides: the economic as well as the religious stakes were too highpoorer countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan were heavily dependent on the economic and political support of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Nevertheless, the Sunni masses in Bangladesh were evidently impressed by the plain talk of Ayatollah Khomeini, a Shi6i, denouncing the
The former Soviet Union sided with India and provided military and political support to Bangladesh to gain Independence in 1971. The United States, China and most Muslim countries sided with Pakistan. BangladeshSoviet relations were at their lowest ebb when General Ershad expelled fourteen Soviet diplomats from Dhaka in late 1983. See Peter Bertocci, Bangladesh in 1984: A Year of Protracted Turmoil, Asian Survey, 25/2 (1985): 15568. 46 For a list of religious militant groups in Bangladesh, see Habibul Khondker, The Curious Case of Secularism in Bangladesh: What is the Relevance for the Muslim Majority Democracies?, Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions, 11/2 (2010): 185201. 47 Esposito, Islamic Threat, 18: [. . .] Iran provided the rst example of a modern Islamic revolution, a revolt against impiety, oppression, and injustice. The call of the Ayatollah Khomeini for an Islamic revolution struck a chord among many who identied with his message of anti-imperialism, his condemnation of failed, unjust and oppressive regimes, and his vision of a morally just society. 48 See Ali Riaz, Islamist Militancy in Bangladesh: A Complex Web (London: Routledge, 2008).


ak h an d a kh t a r h os s ai n

un-Islamic practices of the Gulf monarchies and characterizing them disdainfully as American puppets. His open call for Islamic revolution in Muslim countries in general, and the Gulf countries in particular, caused concern among their rulers. Perhaps partly in response to that call Sunni militants seized the Grand Mosque in Makka, an incident that ended in massive bloodshed. With some encouragement from the West and the support of some Gulf countries, Iraq invaded Iran. The war lasted about eight years and ended in the exhaustion of both sides, with neither able to claim victory, religious or political. The Iranian revolution and the IranIraq war had far-reaching political effects. Though it was not successful in exporting Islamic revolution, it did inspire a resurgence of Islam in the culture and politics of most Muslim countries.49 Bangladesh was ripe for such inuence following the suppression of its dominant Muslim identity in favour of the Bengali identity mobilized during the struggle for independence. As elsewhere in the Muslim world, economic factors, especially gross inequalities, added fuel to the mix of particular local factors driving Islamic resurgence in Bangladesh. Although the 19734 OPEC oil shock initially brought Bangladesh to its knees, the long process of recovery demonstrated it to have been a blessing in disguise. Since the 1970s, a large number of Bangladeshis have gone to the Gulf for workin Saudi Arabia alone, there are currently about 2.5 million of them. At a conservative estimate, their remittances directly benet about 10 to 15 million Bangladeshis. These remittances have helped to spread religious education and practice in the country and changed lifestyles across the board. Many elders have become nancially able to meet their religious obligations, notably the pilgrimage to Makka, hitherto beyond their means. While living and working in the Gulf countries, many expatriate Bangladeshis have adopted the conservative Arab Muslim lifestyle that they observed there and which they esteem as closer to the origins of Islam, therefore more authentic, than the culture-embedded Islam of their Bengali upbringing.50 This has raised the religiosity of the people irrespective of economic class and/or ruralurban orientation, and, secondly, led their
Esposito, Islamic Threat, 23: In the nineties Islamic revivalism has ceased to be restricted to small, marginal organizations on the periphery of society and instead has become part of mainstream Muslim society, producing a new class of modern-educated but Islamically oriented elites who work alongside, and at times in coalitions with, their secular counterparts. Revivalism continues to grow as a broad-based socioreligious movement, functioning today in virtually every Muslim country and transnationally. 50 Devin Hagerty, Bangladesh in 2006: Living in Interesting Times, Asian Survey, 47/1 (2007): 10512, at 108: . . . thousands of migrant workers return to



practices of Islam toward conformity with the practice observed in the Gulf. Some of the syncretist or Su-mystic forms of Islam have accordingly been re-interpreted as unIslamic, diminishing their respectability among pious Muslims. At the political level, this development has sharpened the divide between supporters of the Awami League and the BNP. The former has differentiated itself by promoting and patronizing syncretist practices, while the latter has followed the conservative purist Arabian line and forged links with Islamic parties such as the Jamaat-i Islami Bangladesh and the Islamic Oyko Jote (IOJ). The IOJ in particular denounces the syncretist religious or cultural practices as unIslamic.51 The Awami League is then portrayed as supporting and/or promoting unIslamic practices and acting as the local agent of Indian-Hindu culture, which has taken an aggressive form in recent years. Other international inuences have contributed to Islamic resurgence in Bangladesh. Although Muslims are not necessarily anti-West, they disapprove the Wests policy of support for regimes that repress Muslim minorities.52 Bangladeshs Muslims remain concerned about the suffering of the Palestinians, the Kashmiris in India, the Moros in the Philippines, the Rohingays in Myanmar, and so on. They detest Western hegemony and hypocrisy. The Western occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq in particular, and lately the attacks on Libya on the pretext of protecting civilians and promoting democracy, while other rebellions against repressive regimes (currently and in recent years) have gone unassisted, is perceived in the Muslim world, rightly or otherwise, as a form of ill-disguised neo-colonialism.53 While Islamic resurgence in Bangladesh dates from the mid-1970s, Islamic militancy emerged about two decades later. Early activity,
Bangladesh from the Gulf every year, imbued with conservative Islamist doctrines and ush with remittances that give them inuence at home. 51 The IOJ is a coalition of several Islamic parties, mostly led by ulema afliated with the Deobandi-Qawmi madrasas in Bangladesh. These parties are more conservative than the Jamaat-i Islami Bangladesh and champion the elimination of unIslamic practices in Bangladesh. 52 See John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy: (accessed on 22 April 2011). 53 Riaz (Islamist Militancy in Bangladesh, 91), has drawn the following conclusion: The so-called war on terror of the US administration after 9/11 and consequent developments including the invasion of Iraq [and the] way leaders of some countries with pernicious records on human rights joined the war on terror bandwagon and intensied the repression of their own people helped radicalize Islamist movements, and allowed them to win a sympathetic hearing in the larger population.


ak h an d a kh t a r h os s ai n

sporadic and incoherent, was directed against secularist political leaders and cultural activists, seen as atheists or local agents of unIslamic cultures, particularly the Hindu culture observed across the border in West Bengal.54 Later, the militancy became anti-West, at least in its rhetoric. The point at issue is whether this militancy should be characterized as Islamic revivalism or fundamentalism. Ahamed and Nazneen reject both these terms:
The current trends of Islam in Bangladesh [. . .] are not due to Islamic revivalism or a resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism. They are due [. . .] partly to internal developments in Bangladesh such as [the] restricted nature of political activities, co-optation of the hitherto rejected rightist elements as the support base of the regimes, and the sagging economy. With these come uneasiness and distress among the people who are driven to Islam for comfort and peace.55

Ganguly similarly identies the domestic and external factors but emphasizes the failure of the state to address unemployment, poverty, environmental degradation, corruption and law and order:
[. . .] large segments of the population have little faith in the efcacy of state institutions. [. . .] religious groups, and organizations, which provide basic social services [. . .] have sought to dramatize and exploit the many failures of the Bangladeshi state. Because of their ideological underpinnings they have also sought to highlight their religious credentials. To this end, they express widespread concern about the plight of fellow Muslims worldwide.56

Summing-up The resurgence since the 1970s of Muslim identity and religiosity in Bangladesh has been the outcome of a combination of economic, social and political factors. Global revolutions in transport, communication and technology, sometimes spurred by economic shocks, have made Bangladeshis both more mobile and more informed on global issues. Their observations of other Muslims have prompted a measure of convergence with Islamic practice in the Gulf countries, which has undermined some elements of Bengali cultural customs and traditions. (Most modern Islamic scholars consider such customs unIslamic even though they remain popular, especially among literary gures and cultural activists.) The resurgence of Islam in Bangladesh, has not taken the form of Talibanization. Rather, identication with Islam has returned to the
See ibid, 11415; and Datta, Islamic Militancy in Bangladesh, 1636. Ahamed and Nazneen, Islam in Bangladesh: Revivalism or Power Politics?, 808. 56 Ganguly, Rise in Islamist Militancy in Bangladesh, 56.
55 54



level consistent with Islams centuries-old roots in the peoples culture and politics. The peoples Muslim identity was suppressed during and immediately after the struggle for independence. The initial aim of the Awami League leadership had been merely to separate Islam from politics, but the over-enthusiasm of some secularists led to a proliferation of various forms of Hindu-inuenced or otherwise unIslamic practices that alarmed the ulema.57 Thereafter, various political and religious events, both at home and abroad, accelerated the rehabilitation of Islam to its historical prominence. From the mid-1990s until the mid-2000s militant groups, including Islamic militants proliferated in reaction to the misgovernance of the state. Islamic militant activities so far have been episodic and have not been supported by the Muslim majority. The majority consensus has been that the activities of militants should be eliminated completely, or brought under control.58
A careful review of Islamic militant activities from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s (see Riaz, Islamist Militancy in Bangladesh, 11415, and Datta, Islamic Militancy in Bangladesh, 1636) suggests that most were aimed at literary gures and cultural activists. Tension had been building since the early 1970s between the ulema and those who promoted rituals and activities viewed by the ulema as unIslamic. Laying owers on the steps of shah;d min:rs (martyr towers) and other forms of memorialization were disapproved but tolerated by the ulema because of their political sensitivity. By contrast, practices like building statues, folk or mystical music festivals and singing (bauls)encouraged by the Awami League when in power (19962001)were more provocative of controversy, as were festivals like the Bengali New Year (celebrated by dancing in the streets and wearing beast masks) and imports like April Fools Day, Valentines Day etc. Some cultural groups encouraged practices that Muslims consider idolatrouscandle lighting, ringing of bell-metal, blowing conch shells, and other activities linked to Hindu deities. With the Faraizi movement (1830 57), which tried to remove unIslamic practices from the daily lives of Muslim peasants, drawing an historical parallel, contemporary ulema see the need for a resistance movement to halt the spread of unIslamic practices. Islamic militancy in Bangladesh cannot be fully understood unless considered against this background. See Mohammad Zainul Abedin, RAW and Bangladesh (Dhaka: Medina Publishers, 1995), ch. 6 Attack on Existence, Ideology and Culture of Bangladesh: (accessed on 4 April 2011); John Eade and David Garbin, Competing Visions of Identity and Space: Bangladeshi Muslims in Britain, Contemporary South Asia, 15/2 (2006): 18193; and Hassan Shantuno, Cultural Aggression (in Bangla), Amar Desh: (accessed on 11 April 2011). 58 Hagerty (Bangladesh in 2006, 109) notes that internal Islamist violence has dried up since March 2006. Also, [. . .] evidence of collusion between Bangladeshi and foreign terrorist organization is difcult to nd in open sources.


ak h an d a kh t a r h os s ai n

Secularist vs. Muslim Nationalist divide The dynamics of politics in Bangladesh have changed since the early post-independence stirrings of Islamic resurgence in the mid-1970s. Currently the BNP and the Awami League dominate the political scene. They remain confrontational and non-cooperative on economic and political issues alike. The way they monopolize power in order to loot public resources engenders political instability and an anarchic law and order environment. The Awami League, in particular, exploits its role in Bangladeshs independence to justify the imposition of its version of national history and identity. The BNP and various Islamic parties or groups have sought to revive Muslim identity, arguing that Muslim separateness had been the rationale for the foundation of Pakistan,59 and any dilution of it would lead to a loss of sovereignty in favour of the regional hegemon, India, which does not fully accept the sovereignty of Bangladesh and Pakistan.60 Clearly, Islamic resurgence in Bangladesh has not taken a militant path under an organized political party or movement.61 Neither the BNP nor the Jamaat-i Islami has direct linkage with Islamic militancy. Indeed, objective conditions in the country are not conducive to extremist Islamic movements. Some of the youth joined some overseas Islamic resistance movements in the 1970s and 1980s and later formed militant groups within Bangladesh.62 But violent activity in the country has been
See Ishtiaq Hossain and Noore Siddiquee, Islam in Bangladesh Politics: The Role of Ghulam Azam of Jamaat-i-Islami, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 5/3 (2004): 38499; and Chowdhury, The Roots of Bangladeshi National Identity, 17. 60 See M. B. I. Munshi, Akhand[a] BharatDangers of an Expansionist India, News from Bangladesh (31 March 2006): (accessed on 15 April 2006); Yoginder Sikand, Advani Praises Jinnah: Hindu and Muslim Communalists Make Perfect Bedfellows, Holiday (27 May 2005): (accessed on 13 June 2005); and Mohammad Rashiduzzaman, Islamists and Secularists Must Come to Terms, Holiday (1 April 2005): (accessed on 24 April 2005), 8, explains such apprehension of Islamic parties in Bangladesh: [. . .] the Muslims in South Asia, and possibly elsewhere, generally suffer from a history-driven apprehension that whenever they lost their political power in the past, they were victims of colonialism, hegemony, deprivation, discrimination, injustice and violence. 61 See Hashmi, Islamic Resurgence, 616. 62 One of this Journals anonymous referees pointed out that some Bangladeshi Muslim youths fought alongside PLO ghters in Lebanon during the late 1970s



sporadic at best, and evidence of links with international terrorists or militant organizations is slight and lacks credibility.63 The facts aside, the domestic mass media have engaged in sensational reporting of the activities of Islamic militants, especially since 9/11. Law enforcement authorities have been able to bring them under control when they have made a concerted effort to do so. However, in a political culture that is confrontational beyond the norms of adversarial politics, ruling-party leaders shelter militants who also engage in criminal activities. Islamic and Communist militants, as well as anarchists and outlaws, nd the prevailing high unemployment, poverty and repressive political culture conducive to recruitment to their cause of disillusioned youths. Many students of religious institutions, especially madrasas, face difculty obtaining admission to universities because of the discrimination practised by university authorities in deance of the rulings of higher courts. This has created another hurdle for otherwise meritorious students with madrasa backgrounds who do as well, if not often better than their peers in universities, even in non-religious disciplines such as social science and business studies. Insofar as governance standards are concerned, the present regime represents a regression to the old-style confrontational and patronage politics. Evidently, the military-backed interim government (20072008) failed to make any dent in the low-quality political culture that emerged and settled following independence. The early 2011 share-market debacle, the removal of Nobel laureate Mohammad Yunus, the founder of microbanking, from the Grameen Bank, and the overt politicization of the judiciary (in respect of judicial appointments and inuencing judgements on politically sensitive and even criminal cases), have contributed to the disillusionment of the people, especially the young. One of the reasons behind the rapid deterioration of law and order is the chaotic and unpredictable administration of justice. In 2010, Amnesty International found the judiciary to be the most corrupted institution in Bangladesh. Most

and early 1980s. Many of them were killed or taken prisoner. Several thousand also joined the Mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s and fought against the Soviet occupation. Many of them later returned to Bangladesh and formed militant groups, including Harkat-al-Jihad al-Islami Bangladesh (Huji-B) and the Jamaat al-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). 63 The Daily Star (19 January 2008): (accessed on 20 January 2008), reported that international experts have cleared home-grown terrorists in Bangladesh of any links with global terror networks.


ak h an d a kh t a r h os s ai n

militant activists go unpunished even for heinous crimes such as murder, arson, rape, extortion, and the like.64 If the rhetoric of Islamic militants is ignored, it is possible to draw an implication for Bangladeshi political and social stability of the mainstream resurgence of Islam, from which the tiny minority of Islamic militants exclude themselves by their actions. The history of political movements in the region since the 1940s, well before the partition of India, demonstrates that, given their threat perceptions, Bangladeshs Muslims have switched from Bengaliness to Muslimness as the situation demanded:
After experience had indicated a distinct set of interests for Bengali Muslims, their basic strategy in countering threat perceptions from one community was to seek an alliance with the other. The perceived threats were seen to be [to] one or the other of their attributes to their Bengaliness or to their Muslimness. These two streams of their nationhood found political expression in the two political parties that currently dominate the national scene [. . .].65

Anthony Downs66 has suggested that, the existence of equilibrium in a political system depends upon the number of political parties and their ideological positions. Recent political developments in Bangladesh have resulted in an emergent political structure favourable to the creation of a stable political system. The distribution of voters, despite a large number of ideologically-oriented parties of both left and right, has gradually become distinctly unimodal at the centre. The many small parties are not in a position to muster enough votes to generate instability. At the same time, both the Awami League and the BNP, showing some exibility in terms of policies and ideologies, have spontaneously moved toward the
In short, neither the courts nor the law-enforcing agencies enjoy the condence of the people. Perhaps the most disturbing development is that, since late 2008, the High Court has released most of the high-prole political and business leaders convicted by the special courts set up by the anti-corruption commission. Parallel with this, thousands of cases against alleged criminals, including the most serious such as murder and rape, have been withdrawn without trial by the present Awami League government on the ground that they were politically motivated. On the contrary, it is the suspension of legal action that is more likely to be politically motivated. Conversely, cases have been prosecuted against many who are afliated with Islamic and nationalist political parties on imsy evidence or simply because of their political beliefs. See US Department of State, 2010 Human Rights Report: Bangladesh: documents/organization/160056.pdf (accessed on 11 April 2011). 65 Chowdhury, Roots of Bangladeshi National Identity, 17. 66 Anthony Downs, An Economic Theory of Democracy (New York: Harper and Row, 1957).



political centre. The implication is that, if those parties desist from behaving as monopolists of state power, their respective polarization around Bengali nationalism-secularism and Bangladeshi-Muslim nationalism has the potential to produce, over time, a stable, political order. Fundamental prerequisites for that to happen, not in any particular order of importance, are: that the parties demonstrate respect for the public interest oriented policies and ideologies of their political adversaries; that they practise unrestricted exposure of their oppositions anti-public interest activities; and that free and fair elections, both in form and in substance, are held at regular intervals. The development of such a political process in Bangladesh could well see a general erosion of support for extremist political factions of any stripe, whether Islamic, Communist or anarchist. Bengali nationalism-secularism vs. Bangladeshi-Muslim nationalism: trends and dynamics Hossain has analysed the distributions of the parliamentary seats and voters by political party in selected Bangladesh elections from the early 1970s.67 The Awami League professes Bengali-secularism while three other major parties (Bangladesh Nationalist Party, BNP; Bangladesh Jatiya Party, BJP; and Jamaat-i Islami Bangladesh, JIB) profess Bangladeshi-Muslim nationalism. Their respective shares of seats and votes may be taken to reect the voters ideological orientations at the time of each election. The Awami League gained nearly all the parliamentary seats and 73 per cent of votes in the 1970 and 1973 elections. In the three elections held in the decade 19912001, when democracy was restored, the Awami Leagues share of seats was 31, 49 and 21 per cent while its share of votes was 33, 37 and 40 per cent. Across the decade, the average share of votes for the Awami League was about 37 per cent. The minorities (the Hindus, for example) vote for the Awami League as a block and constitute about 1012 per cent of votes.68 The Awami Leagues share of the Muslim vote was therefore about 25 per cent. The BNPs average vote over the decade was also about 37 per cent. The remaining 75 per cent of the Muslim vote was split among the BNP, BJP and JIB. These parties secured about 61 per cent of seats on 56 per cent of votes. The
67 See Hossain, HinduMuslim Separateness in Bengal, 380, for compiled results of major parliamentary elections until 2002. The 2008 election results are drawn from:,_2008# Election_results. 68 On the role of Hindus in Awami League politics, see Khan, Islam and Bengali Nationalism, 8478.


ak h an d a kh t a r h os s ai n

clear conclusion is that Bangladeshi-Muslim nationalism has emerged as an alternative ideology to Bengali-secularism, if not yet a dominant one. The Awami League-led coalitions landslide victory in the 2008 election The BNPJamaat-i Islami coalition government left ofce in October 2006 to make way for parliamentary elections in January 2007. The Constitution required a caretaker government to organize this election. The controversy over who should lead the caretaker government became a crisis which took a serious turn in December 2006.69 In January 2007 the military intervened and a caretaker government assumed ofce under national emergency. The military-backed government organized the parliamentary elections in December 2008. A 14-party coalition led by the Awami League won the election in a landslide. Since then the question has been raised as to whether this outcome indicates any signicant change in the ideological orientation of voters, specially whether there has been a signicant decline of Bangladeshi-Muslim nationalism or a revival of Bengali nationalism-secularism. The 2008 election results do not provide conclusive answers to these questions, for three main reasons. First, the election was held under the controversial circumstances of a military-installed caretaker government. Second, two coalitions competed in the election and their ideological orientations overlapped. Third, the Awami League made some populist policy announcements which helped it to win oating votes in an uncertain economic and political environment. The army-backed caretaker government allegedly took the side of the Awami League and engineered the election in its favour. It initiated a massive crackdown against corrupt politicians, businessmen and government ofcials, which targeted the BNP more than the Awami League. This reeked of partisan bias, given that both parties had shown themselves equally corrupt when in ofce. The caretaker governments publicity against the BNP also beneted the Awami League-led coalition. The BNP-led coalition maintains that the election results were engineered and therefore unsafe.70 Although this sort of claim is frequently heard from losing parties, the 2008 elections were different. For example, voter participation overall was recorded as about 85 per cent. In 88 (out of 300) constituencies, the rate was between 90 and 95.4
See Hagerty, Bangladesh in 2006, 1067. An alleged telephone conversation between Hilary Clinton and Sheikh Hasina on 15 January 2011 lends some credibility to this claim: Hilary Clinton-Sheikh Hasina Tele-Conversation: (accessed on 4 April 2011).
70 69



per cent. The completion of voting by such a large number of voters was considered logistically impossible in the available voting hours.71 The Awami League and the BNP competed in the election under coalition banners. The formers 14-party coalition won three-quarters of the parliamentary seats on just under half (48%) of the votes. The BNPs 4-party coalition won 32 out of 300 seats (about 11 per cent) on 33 per cent of votes. The Bangladesh Jatiya Party (BJP), a partner of the Awami League-led coalition, won 27 seats (9 per cent) on at least 10 per cent of votes. Given such a skewed distribution, it is difcult to identify voters ideological orientation with certainty. If the BJPs votes are added to the BNP coalitions votes, the three Bangladeshi-Muslim nationalismoriented parties captured at least 40 per cent of votes. This shows that, although the landslide victory looks like a shift toward Bengali nationalism-secularism, the results are not conclusive. The long-term trends will, in all likelihood, become clearer if the Awami League and its left-leaning partners maintain the 2008 dominance in future elections. Also, we may again note that, after the 2001 elections, the Awami League moved toward right-of-centre as a strategy to win power. In the process, it compromised its secularist credentials and even joined hands with right-wing Islamist parties.72 Given a roughly even distribution of voters in terms of ideological orientation, non-committed voters caused upsets in marginal seats that the BNP had won in earlier elections. As in the 1970 elections, the Awami League used populist promises such as the provision of free fertilizer to farmers, ten taka per kilo of rice (about a quarter of market price), one government job for each family, and so on. Evidently, these promises worked. Massive publicity against the Jamaat-i Islami also had an impact on the election results. For the BNP, the Jamaat-i Islami became a liability because the Awami League cornered the party by declaring that it would bring to justice the 1971 war criminals, that is, Bangladeshi Muslims who collaborated with the Pakistanis during the independence struggle.

M. S. Islam, Absurd Pool Deepens Political Crisis, Holiday, 2 January 2009: 26: (accessed on 17 May 2010), argues that the election results were doctored. 72 The Awami League started to reach out to Islamist groups during the Mujib regime. It joined with the Jamaat-i Islami during the early 1990s to overthrow the then BNP government. Prior to the scheduled 2007 parliamentary election, it signed an agreement with the Islamist party Khilafat Majlis. See Parvez, Repeal of the Fifth Amendment.



ak h an d a kh t a r h os s ai n

These allegedly included some Jamaat-i Islami leaders.73 For the BNP, there was always some danger in being close to the Jamaat-i Islami, even though the Awami League itself had courted the latters support on several occasions.74 That the Jamaat-i Islami ministers in the BNP Jamaat government were more competent and less corrupt75 than many in the Awami League opposition groups was a fact that could not redeem the BNP-led coalition in the eyes of the media and, ultimately, the voters. Bangladeshs relations with India and the West IndiaBangladesh relations nose-dived when the BNP, in alliance with the Jamaat-i Islami, came to power in October 2001. Although the Awami League remains close to India, Bangladeshs relations with India have improved only marginally following the Awami Leagues win in the 2008 election. This is not surprising because a host of economic and political issues have bedevilled the neighbours relationship. Hossain, HinduMuslim Separateness, has provided an account of the unstable relationship between Muslim-majority Bangladesh and Hindu-majority India in an historical context. Given its ambivalent relations with India, Bangladesh has maintained good relations with China and Pakistan. While India professes to see these relations as encirclement, for Bangladesh they represent a defensive counter to India as the regional hegemon. Islam has emerged as a symbol for mobilization of Bangladeshs Muslims to counter Indian inuence.76 Indian politicians, journalists and others have accordingly taken to accusing Islamic militants in Bangladesh of every terrorist act in India,

See M. I. Ali, What Went Wrong with BNP?, Holiday (9 January 2009), 4; (accessed on 20 January 2009). 74 See Mohammad Rashiduzzaman, Bangladesh in 2001: The Election and a New Political Reality, Asian Survey, 42/1 (2001): 18391. 75 See Philip Bowring, Not Doing Badly, Thank You, The New York Times (16 April 2005): (accessed on 11 April 2011). 76 See M. I. Ali, Be Friendly to India and Pakistan, But Dont Take Anything Lying Down, Holiday, 17 February 2006; (accessed on 15 March 2006), 6; Manish Dabhade and Harsh Pant, Coping with Challenges to Sovereignty: Sino-Indian Rivalry and Nepals Foreign Policy, Contemporary South Asia, 13/2 (2004): 15769; Tarique Niazi, Chinas March on South Asia, China Brief, 5/9 (26 April 2005): chinas-march-on-south-asia.html (accessed on 11 April 2011); Harsh Pant, India and Bangladesh, 235.




although they have yet to provide any evidence to substantiate their accusations.77 While India attempts to create an impression that Bangladesh is on the way to becoming a Talibanized state, informed Western opinion considers this an exaggeration.78 Nevertheless, the Islamic resurgence in Bangladesh has caused problems in its relations with the West. Bangladeshi Muslims have shown support for Muslim causes across the globe. Since 9/11 Muslim emigrants from Bangladesh have faced visa and other problems in Western countries. Bangladesh has also encountered difculties in attracting foreign investment despite its low wage costs, while attempts to encourage investment from East Asia have met with little success. The major concern is loss of export markets in Canada, Europe and the United States. Also, substantial workers remittances to Bangladesh originate from Europe and North America. On the question of whether Islamic resurgence in Bangladesh poses a threat to the West, Riaz suggests that The Islamists in Bangladesh, at least for now, dont have a supranational agenda and as such are not an immediate threat to international security . . ..79 Nevertheless, the challenge for Bangladesh is to maintain control over actual or potential Islamic militants. This requires signicant reform in the governance of the state. Discriminatory practices against students of madrasa background seeking admission to the universities must be removed. An environment in which Islamic education and cultural practices are viewed with suspicion is counterproductive. Religious education should be modernized and encouraged so that, in a healthy, competitive educational environment, students can choose whichever educational streams suit their aspirations. In Bangladesh itself, many top professionals across the full range of specialisms, political leaders and literary gures, have enjoyed a religious educational background. Internationally, an improvement in the US relationship with the Muslim world would reduce Islamic militancy across Muslim countries. Lately, there has been some realization in the West that Islam is not inherently anti-West. Islamic civilization has contributed immensely to world

See Jahan, Bangladesh in 2002, 228; The Daily Star, Local Terrorists Have No Signicant Intl Link, Says Expert (19 January 2008): story.Php?nid=19874 (accessed on 20 January 2008); and Ganguly, Rise of Islamist Militancy in Bangladesh, 7. 78 See Riaz, God Willing, ch. 1; and Bowring, Not Doing Badly, Thank You, 1. 79 Ali Riaz, God Willing: The Politics and Ideology of Islamism in Bangladesh, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 23/12 (2003): 30020. Cf. also Hashmi, Islamic Resurgence.


ak h an d a kh t a r h os s ai n

civilization, beginning with its seminal contributions to the emergence of the modern scientic paradigm, and it has the potential to contribute even more to a constructive global environment, which recognizes the importance accorded in Islam to economic, social and political equity. There is, therefore, no alternative but that contemporary political issues affecting the Muslim world be resolved in a way that is seen by all stakeholders as equitable.

Islamic resurgence in Bangladesh has economic implications at a juncture when Bangladesh is close to becoming a lower-middle-income country by 2020.80 The perception that Islamic resurgence will retard economic growth and social development rests either on ignorance of the civilizing, mainstream variety of Islamic resurgence that is the reality in Bangladesh, or on full knowledge but ideological rejection of it. The contemporary literature on economic growth does not suggest any regressive linkage between moderate-majority Islam, such as that extant in Indonesia for example, and compromised economic performance.81 In Bangladesh, however, Islamic resurgence does have the potential to cause social and political tension if the Awami League, and most left-leaning parties afliated with it, remain reluctant to accommodate in mainstream political affairs the socio-economic contribution that Islam has to offer. The outlook is not promising, with the present Awami League-led coalition government contemplating the counterproductive move of a change in the Constitution so as to ban Islamic parties from politics. Islamic resurgence has been portrayed by many as a militant movement, rather than as the mainstream return to traditional identity that it is. As a result, as noted above, Bangladeshi workers have experienced some difculties in obtaining employment in the West, which will affect the remittances on which Bangladesh is heavily reliant; also, there is anxiety over the possible loss of European and North American export markets. Other economic factors also may impact Bangladeshs economic performance. Since the mid-1980s, the country has followed an outward-oriented development strategy as part of IMF and World Bank supported structural adjustment programmes. As Bangladesh remains under IMF
See Hossain, Macroeconomic Developments, 2. See Marcus Noland, Religion, Culture and Economic Performance (Washington, DC: Institute for International Economics, 2003).
81 80



surveillance, its economic policies are unlikely to change much in the near future. Its economy has been integrated into the global economy, and committed to free trade and capital ows for current account transactions. Temporary labour migration to the Gulf remains high with remittances growing steadily. Although economic performance has slowed in recent years, there have been no major reversals of earlier reforms.82 Islamic resurgence in Bangladesh has not yet led to any signicant change in its economic and nancial institutions. A small number of Islamic banks have been operating since the mid-1980s, in parallel with conventional banking and nancial institutions. Islam is pro-trade and its emphasis on ethical and social justice can be considered benecial to the extent that it mitigates the adverse effects of globalization on poverty and income distribution.83 In short, Bangladeshs future economic performance depends on its economic policies. Islamic resurgence is unlikely to harm those policies unless there is a rise in Islamic militancy as part of a wider Islamic movement. That is unlikely, unless the Awami League government succeeds, against the countrys social and economic development interests, in excluding Islamic parties from participation in mainstream politics. Political instability in Bangladesh has been due to the irresponsible governance of its major political parties; Islamic parties have so far remained relatively free from corruption and other vices. Their support base has also remained very low. Islamic militancy is closely linked to both the quality of governance and international developments. Since the 2008 parliamentary elections there has been international pressure on the government to bring about a qualitative change in the prevailing political culture. The process has started but the pace is slow. Nevertheless, in prospect is the hope that, as the private sector develops, the major political parties can temper their behaviour to focus on providing an infrastructure environment conducive to the interests of the wealth- and job-creating capitalist sector. Associated with such a scenario is a lowering of the political temperature, bringing political stability84 and a decrease in the level of terrorist activity, whether Islamic or otherwise.
See Akhtar Hossain, Exchange Rates, Capital Flows and International Trade (Dhaka: University Press Ltd., 2000). 83 M. Kabir Hassan and Mervyn Lewis (eds.), Islamic Finance (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2007), xixxi. 84 See Hossain, Anatomy of Hartal Politics, 5278; and E. Huber, D. Rueschemeyer and J. D. Stephens, The Impact of Economic Development on Democracy, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 7/3 (1993): 7185.


ak h an d a kh t a r h os s ai n

This paper argued that Islamic resurgence in Bangladesh represents a re-emergence of Islams historical status in the peoples culture and society, and as the common thread in their emergence as an independent nation-state. In contrast to the deep Islamic tradition in Bangladeshi culture, Islamic militancy represents a peripheral and transitory phenomenon. It emerged and ourished from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s as a response to several unconscionable developments: the blatant and unapologetic misgovernance of the state; aggressive Indian hegemony in the region; and more latterly, a long-running, oppressive Western hegemony perceived to be the cause of Muslim suffering across the globe. The political and economic implications of Islamic resurgence, both in the regional and in the global contexts, were discussed earlier. Islamic resurgence also has implications for domestic social and political stability. Bangladeshi-Muslim nationalism has emerged as an alternative to Bengali nationalism-secularism. This has created the potential to produce a stable, two-party political system, provided that the two major political parties (the Awami League and the BNP) cooperate in the public interest to develop a competitive political culture. The unacceptable alternative is to maintain the status quo, in which the nations scarce and precious resources are squandered by an ideology-driven, authoritarian system under democratic paraphernalia. Since Bengali nationalism-secularism is unlikely to regain the status of the dominant ideology until (if ever) Bangladesh reaches a higher stage of development,85 one pragmatic strategy for social and political stability is a full recognition of Islamic groups and institutions in the countrys society and polity.86 Bangladesh can follow Western tradition where
The thesis that a society becomes secular with economic progress has not been found valid for most industrialized countries. See Peter Glasner, The Sociology of Secularisation: A Critique of a Concept (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977). 86 One of this Journals anonymous reviewers pointed out that Bengals 1905 and 1947 partitions on the basis of confessional differences reinforced (if not created) the reality of Muslim-Bengali (or Bengali-Muslim) geopolitical formulation. Its negation in 197075 by the Awami League-led nationalist-secular camp challenged that formulation. However, once it became clear that Bangladesh would not be incorporated into the Hindu-majority but formally secular India, Bangladeshs physical boundaries, dened by its confessional origins, created a philosophical conundrum: how could a geopolitical entity fashioned on the basis of its confessional character be transformed into an areligious, secular-nationalist polity unless the foundation of that confessionally-devised edice (partitioned BengalEast BengalEast PakistanBangladesh) was restored



Christianity, for example, has been internalized within national institutions in a way that does not, in practice, exclude religion from the affairs of state, even as the organization of the state and its institutions have carefully maintained the principle of formal separation between church and state.87 A peaceful accommodation of the deep-rooted Islamic inuence in the society and polity of Bangladesh can be expected to marginalize Islamic militancyin reducing the depth of the well of popular indignation, it reduces also the abundance of resources upon which militancy is able to draw.88 This has the potential to create the environment and the motivation needed to close the ideological gulf between secularists and Islamists and lay a solid foundation for political stability. Smith suggests89 that that gulf is wider than ever, mostly because of the extreme positions taken by secularists to dene Islam as a matter of personal faith set against those for whom the reimposition of Islamic laws based on the Qur8:n and the Sunna and Islamic political authority is essential. Furthermore, as Hassan has argued,90 the mainstreaming of Islam or integration of religion into the national
to its pre-partition conguration? Ziaur Rahman rationalized the existence of Bangladesh as a separate sovereign country by presenting Bangladeshi nationalism with an emphasis on the Muslim-nationalism that emerged over centuries. The Awami Leagues rejection of this formulation underscores the existence at the elite level of a fundamental dichotomy that cannot be resolved. This is the context in which Islamic resurgence in Bangladesh needs to be understood and accommodated. 87 Charles Smith, Secularism, in John Esposito (ed.) The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), iv. 201, explains this phenomenon as follows: In the European historical experience, which itself varied widely, the secularization process coexisted with an intensication of religiosity on the personal and popular level . . . . Religion today coexists with industrial, technically secular society and has intensied its activities in the United States where in ofcial circles it is considered an almost essential part of being American (Glasner, 1977:115). The secularization process in Europe was gradual, evolving in conjunction with socioeconomic developments. In contrast the Islamic experience has been one of secularism as an ideology imposed from outside by invaders, a product of European imperialism and its extension of a foreign culture initiated at the beginning of the nineteenth century. 88 Under a competitive democratic system, the distribution of voters in terms of political views takes the form of a normal distribution. If elections are held regularly, the share of voters supporting extreme views diminishes with each succeeding election. For details, see Hossain, Anatomy of Bangladesh Politics, 51721. 89 Smith, Secularism, 21. 90 Hassan, Faultlines, 233.


ak h an d a kh t a r h os s ai n

political process would redress the imbalance between what Gellner calls the two traditions of Islam: high Islam (scripturalist and puritan) and folk Islam (pluralistic and exible). A healthy political system cannot be established in Bangladesh by attempting to exclude Islam: Islamic traditions, customs, institutions, and beliefs are part of everyday life and are often the only familiar forms of social being and consciousness.91 The country remains a nascent, illiberal democracy in need of stability to sustain economic growth. Under a competitive political system, it is futile for any political party to seek to impose an extreme ideology, whether religious or secular, on the nation. Experiences in countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Turkey and Tunisia show that state-sponsored secularism cannot produce a mass secular culture. Consequently, when Western liberal democracy is introduced in pseudo-secular Muslim societies, the outcome is Islamic reassertion as a political factor.92 As elsewhere, the experiment with secularism in Bangladesh failed to create a secular culture or society. Emphasis on secularismBengali nationalism in disregard of a deeplyingrained Muslim identity is bound to sit uncomfortably with, and ultimately be rejected by, the overwhelmingly Muslim populace. The importation of European secularism (or a variant of it) has yet to be internalized in the nations body politic, despite the secularists relentless proselytizing. Muslim societies, like all others, transform by evolution at their own pace, not by revolution entailing abject surrender of their customs and traditions. Secularism has the potential to be a constructive element of Muslim society, if complementary with it, not as any form of substitute for Islam as a religious, cultural and social system.93 One impact of Gutenbergs printing press was the popular internalization of European religious and cultural traditions, not their abandonment. Also, the social, economic and political experiences of Europe were fundamentally different from those of Muslim countries, including Bangladesh. The works of Eaton (The Rise of Islam and the Bengal
Ahamed and Nazneen, Islam in Bangladesh, 803n. See John Esposito, Islam in Asia: Religion, Politics and Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987); and J. Esposito and Franc ois Burgat, Modernising Islam: Religion in the Public Sphere in the Middle East and Europe (London: Hurst and Company, 2003). 93 Karen Armstrong, The Role of Religion in the New Millennium, The 2007 MUIS Lecture delivered at the Ritz-Carlton Millennie, Singapore, 18 June, argues that the way secularism was introduced in modern Turkey and Iran was brutal and lethal. Available at Research/Research_Publications/Karen-content.pdf (accessed 16 September 2011).
92 91



Frontier), and Roy (Islamic Syncretistic Tradition in Bengal) explain why Islam remains a marker of identity for the people of rural Bengal, as summed up by Jaya Chatterji:
Islam did not descend upon a ready-made ancient agrarian civilization [. . .] On the contrary, it advanced hand in hand with a new agricultural civilization. It developed in eastern Bengal as a vector not only of religious change, but of social and technological revolution. It was locally understood as a civilizationbuilding ideology, a religion of the ax and the plough and was analogous with economic development and agricultural prosperity. It is in this context that one must interpret the extraordinary popularity of Islam in rural Bengal, as also its depth and tenacity.94

Western secularism is touted as an alternative to Muslim identity. However, most aspects of it are yet to be taken seriously by the masses. Even the bulk of the urban intelligentsia and political elite who profess and propagate secularism have yet to internalize it fully. Most of them remain psychologically and emotionally attached to the traditions of the common folk, who consider and feel their Muslim identity to be sacrosanct, non-negotiable.95 Under these circumstances, political stability requires an ideological balance between secularism and Islam as attractive, powerful and pragmatic principles of social organization.96 The problem for accommodation of Islamic forces in Bangladeshs society and polity is not that Islam is incompatible with democracy and human rights. Rather, it represents a challenge to the elitist idea that modernization means secularization and Westernization.97 This idea had its time but is no longer valid for Muslim societies. In Europe, secularism evolved over centuries and co-exists with Christianity. Similarly, as argued above, Islam can co-exist with secularism in Muslim societies.
Jaya Chatterji, The Bengali Muslim: A Contradiction in Terms? An Overview of the Debate on Bengali Muslim Identity, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 16/2 (1996): 1624, at 21. 95 It is to be noted that even most Communist parties in Bangladesh use Islamic slogans during election times. The Awami League has already perfected the art of deploying Islamic symbols and idioms if and when needed for election purposes. For details, see Riaz, God Willing, 389. 96 For examples of the refusal to seek that balance, and the consequences thereof, see Khan, Islam and Bengali Nationalism, 83949; and Hassan, Faultlines, 227. 97 Esposito, Islamic Threat, 243: [. . .] Islamist movements or parties that participate in the system, engaging in social and political activism, do not necessarily threaten the political system as such but can be perceived as a threat by entrenched rulers and political elites when Islamists offer an attractive political alternative.


ak h an d a kh t a r h os s ai n

In fact, Esposito nds a parallel between the Judaeo-Christian and Islamic traditions in their accommodation of democracy:
The Judaeo-Christian tradition, while once supportive of political absolutism and divine right monarchies, was reinterpreted to accommodate the democratic ideal. Islam also lends itself to multiple interpretations; it has been used to support democracy and dictatorship, republicanism and monarchy. The twentieth century has witnessed both tendencies.98

The pervasive inuence of Islam in Bangladesh cannot be wished away on the jingoistic grounds that some Islamist parties opposed the countrys independence and/or some fringe Islamist groups have engaged in violence activities. Such groups can, and of course should, be controlled because they pose a threat to the countrys well-being. In addition, political and economic reforms are essential to address the conditions in which fringe militancy emerges. If, in the name of controlling Islamic militancy, the authorities target mainstream Muslims or those who demonstrate religiosity, it will be counterproductive.99 A major policy implication is that the West would do better to assist Muslim countries to establish political systems which accommodate the Islamic value system, including both democratic and human rights principles.100 Karen Armstrong has argued that religious extremism in the Muslim world is politics- rather than religion-driven.101 The US, it seems, may be thinking along these lines in its approach to Bangladesh.
Ibid, 216. Oppressive regimes in the Muslim world have routinely used Islamic radicalism as an excuse to suppress Islamic movements which challenge them. The conclusions drawn by Esposito (Islamic Threat, 2534) about Islamic resurgence generally are valid for Bangladesh: Islam and most Islamic movements are not necessarily anti-Western, anti-American, or anti-democratic [. . .]. 100 Ziauddin Sardar, The ReformistInterview with Ziauddin Sardar: See also his Muslim Societies Must Discover Contemporary Meaning of Islam: contemporary-meaning-islam/, (accessed on 13 April 2011), on the compatibility of Islam with democracy and humanist values. 101 Karen Armstrong, We Cannot Afford to Maintain These Ancient Prejudices Against Islam, The Guardian, 18 September 2006: commentisfree/2006/sep/18/religion.catholicism.print (accessed on 13 April 2011), writes: The extremism and intolerance that have surfaced in the Muslim World in our day are a response to intractable political problemsoil, Palestine, the occupation of Muslim lands, the preservation of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, and the Wests perceived double standards, and not to an ingrained religious imperative.
99 98



For example, it does not approve the Awami Leagues project to ban the religious parties from politics so that it can establish what it calls a Bengali-nationalism-driven secular state. The present Awami League government would surely fail if it tried to implement such a project.102 Drawing on experience in other countries, this paper has argued against any attempt to bury Bangladeshs political and cultural identity under an extreme form of secular state. Such an attempt would create economic, social and political damage, with the potential of escalating to chaos. Finally, to understand Islamic militancy in Bangladesh, it is necessary to understand the Islamic character of Bengali culture and traditions among the common folk. The syncretic elements in Bengali Muslim culture have probably been overstated by secularists and Bengali cultural activists. While Muslims share the same space with non-Muslims, there are clear boundaries between the Muslims and Hindus when it comes to understanding their identities. The emergence of Bangladesh has sharpened, rather than narrowed or blurred, those boundaries. While the Hindus see India as their saviour and the division of Bengal between India and Bangladesh as a major setback, the Muslims have developed a pan-Islamic identity and distanced themselves from their actual or perceived Hindu past. This is reected in the religious and cultural practices of Bangladeshs Muslims. Based on her survey of the early 1990s, Razia Banu observed:
Our survey shows that the vast majority of Bangladesh Muslims do not share any saint, or god and goddess with the Hindus. The pirs, and gods and goddesses which, according to historians of Bengal, had been widespread among both Muslims and Hindus even as late as the rst part of the nineteenth century, seem to have passed into legend, and now the legends themselves are fading away. We nd that only 6.5 per cent of our rural respondents and 1.8 per cent of our urban respondents make votive donations to Hindu pirs; while 85 per cent of our rural sample and 81 per cent of our urban sample do not even watch the colourful Hindu puja celebrations. Thus, accretions from Hindu beliefs and practices do not seem to be a signicant component of popular Islam in Bangladesh today. Popular Islam in contemporary Bangladesh centres mainly around the institutions of the Muslim pirs and mazars. These elements of popular Islam in As Khan, Islam and Bengali Nationalism, 845, notes, neither H. S. Suhrawardy nor Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was able to secularize Bengali Muslims. (Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy (18921963) was a Bengali politician, originating from a distinguished Muslim family. He served as Prime Minister of Pakistan during 195657. He had a long, respectable and inuential career at the forefront of Bengal politics while performing an historic role for the establishment of Pakistan. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was a keen follower of Suhrawardy and himself played a role in the Pakistan movement as a student leader.)


ak h an d a kh t a r h os s ai n

Bangladesh represent folk religion which is the usual characteristic of any traditional society, and seem to be a common feature in other Muslim countries too.103

This early study is a pointer to Islamic militants attacks on those literary gures and cultural activists who, in the 1990s and early 2000s, were seen as propagating Hindu cultural and religious practices in the name of Bengali culture. The recent aggressive inltration of Indian Hindu culture into Bangladesh society is therefore likely to create further backlash from Islamic militants. Political leaders and policy-makers clearly need to take this into account before Bangladesh becomes a religious-cultural battleground.


Razia Banu, Islam in Bangladesh, 17980.

Copyright of Journal of Islamic Studies is the property of Oxford University Press / UK and its content may not be copied or emailed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holder's express written permission. However, users may print, download, or email articles for individual use.