David N Rosenberg
Bangladesh, a Muslim majority country with around 170 million people is world’s eighth most populous country. The politically dominant Bengali Muslims make the nation the world’s third largest Muslim-majority country where Islam is the official religion.
During the period of Pakistani rule (1947-71), the Pakistani establishment and military regimes in the western capital of Islamabad, dominated by Urdu-speaking West Pakistanis, treated Bengali East Pakistanis as “neo-colonial subjects.” Discriminatory and exploitative political, economic, social and cultural policies and strategies were undertaken to disenfranchise Bengali people and to subjugate them.
Bengalis in East Pakistan shared a common faith, Islam, with West Pakistanis. However, the rulers in Islamabad considered them to be “bad Muslims” who held liberal views on religion and mixed easily with other faiths in striking contrast to orthodox Islamic West Pakistan. This oppression by successive Pakistani regimes sparked a resentment in the Bengali people. The anger developed into the demand for greater autonomy and consequently, secession.
The crisis was full-blown when the Awami League headed by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (father of current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina) won an absolute majority in Pakistan’s first general election in 1970. But the military regime refused to handover power. Strong nationalist protests erupted and the Pakistani government failed to offer a political solution and instead launched a genocidal military crackdown on March 25, 1971.
The country got liberated from the Pakistani occupation on December 16, 1971. Unfortunately though, Indian policymakers till date show this war of independence of Bangladesh as “Indo-Pak War” simply because of India’s support extended to the Bengali freedom fighters during the war of independence.
The 1971 war continues to inform politics in Bangladesh 46 years later. Political parties of all stripes tend to link all national issues with the spirit of the liberation war and compete to prove who best embodies this spirit. The legacy of war is strongly ingrained in the psyche of most Bangladeshis and any attempt to denigrate the war and its role in national life amounts to political suicide.
Ever since creation of Bangladesh, the country was under military dictatorship, for fifteen years; where the military dictators played the religion card with the ulterior motive of getting support from the masses. While Gen Ziaur Rahman began the process of Islamization of a secular Bangladesh, another military dictator Gen Hussein Muhammad Ershad went further by making constitutional amendment thus giving Islam the status of state religion. Gen Ershad did not participate in the war of independence. Instead he remained loyal to the Pakistan.
Bangladesh returned to parliamentary democracy in the 1990s, following 15 years of military rule. The Awami League, founded in 1949, is the country’s oldest and largest political party led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
For decades, this Muslim nation has been in the unusual situation of having two female political leaders face off in an increasingly bitter rivalry. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party chairperson, Khaleda Zia, is the widow of military ruler Ziaur Rahman who founded the party in 1978 after the military takeover.
Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s founder Gen Ziaur Rahman intended to give Bangladesh an Islamic, nationalist identity with the formation of the party and helped revive political Islam and political parties including the radical Islamic terror linked Jamaat-e-Islami, which opposed Bangladesh’s war of independence and collaborated with the Pakistani occupation forces.
Several months back, Abha Shankar, Senior Intelligence Analyst at the Investigative Project on Terrorism, and Sam Westrop, Director of Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum had elaborately exposed Jamaat-e-Islami’s terror connections. In United States, Jamaat-e-Islami had established Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA).
ICNA operates an international relief arm named Helping Hand for Relief and Development, a 501(c)(3) which raised an astonishing $40 million in 2016. Despite its position as one of the wealthier charities in America, Helping Hand organized a conference in Pakistan last December with the Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation, which was designated as a terrorist organization by the State Department in 2010 because of its function as the charitable wing of the Pakistani terrorist network Lashkar-e-Taiba, which helped mastermind the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
Since 2013, Islamic militants have killed over 50 people including atheist bloggers, academics, gay activists, religious minorities and foreigners in Bangladesh. In the absence of a peaceful political culture, religious extremists have asserted their calls for a Sharia-based Islamic State.
Bangladesh now has its own homegrown militant groups. But there are also transnational jihadist groups – Islamic State and Al-Qaeda – that ideologically influence them.
More disturbingly, these groups have international financial backing, especially from Saudi Arabia where Wahhabi, or the extremist version of Islam, is practiced. The Saudis have sent billions of dollars to Bangladesh since the 1970s, funding thousands of radical mosques and madrasas, the primary breeding grounds for militancy.
The next general election in Bangladesh is scheduled to be held on December 30 and there are sharp speculations of pro-radical Islam and anti-Semitic Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) led coalition of winning a majority. It should be stated here that Jamaat-e-Islami is a coalition partner of BNP. Although Jamaat’s registration was cancelled by the Election Commission, this radical Islamic party is going to contest in the upcoming election under the banner of BNP. It should also be mentioned here that, Pakistani spy agency Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) is going to spend millions of dollars in snatching a landslide victory for BNP and Jamaat in the election.
This is the point where the Western policymakers should start worrying, as both BNP and Jamaat are in favour of transforming a secular Bangladesh into a Sharia state while another ally of BNP, Hefazat e Islam is demanding transforming Bangladesh into a Caliphate.
David N Rosenberg is a contributor of Blitz