How Bangladesh’s Attempt at Democracy and Democratisation is turning into a War of Ideologies

The recent political factions and the ongoing common conflict between Islamism and Secularism has re-enforced a new kind of ideological war. A war that much of the Middle East and North Africa has presently come to experience, commonly known as the ‘Arab Spring’. From the outside our mainstream media-fed common sense would suggest these are religious wars politicised or that this is the nature of non-democratic states lost in the mist of revolution. However it may also be suggested, this is a struggle of cultures masked by ideologies in a fiercely globalising world; cultures that have historically never or hardly known democracy or statehood in their western concepts and cultures who are forced to choose between Secularism and Islamism as guiding polities. Bangladesh stands as an example of such a war after the executions of Islamist leaders and the killing of ‘secular’ bloggers whilst also dealing with contemporary issues of poverty, population growth and climate change. Bangladesh is enmeshed in this war of ideology showing no experience of how to deal with it and showing no signs of escaping it.

As a State, Bangladesh is in its infant phase when we think of it in terms of how long it took Europe to achieve what they now regard as democracy. Nevertheless, as is so easy to do, we might easily critique such states and countries for not democratising overnight into a Western-style democracy and would do so unjustly. Bangladesh was carved up by the British Empire based on ethno-religious identities with the partition of India; it then became East Pakistan but remained constituted by West Pakistani authorities. The state however was never equal in this East-West relationship, often financially marginalised and rarely receiving support during climatic hazards. Bangladesh was born impoverished.

So if we are to understand contemporary Bangladeshi politics we have to understand its beginning and as a result what we find is that politics becomes the continuation of war by other means as French philosopher Michel Foucault put it. A war fought out on the political stage at the cost of peace and stability whereby Bangladeshis are no longer Bangladeshis, a sovereignty that once united them; instead ideology has replaced that once uniting principle of nationhood and Bangladesh is not alone in this as is evident in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey and Syria.

Born in 1971: Hasina vs Khaleda

Bangladesh’s (East Pakistan) independence started off with a glimpse of democracy when, 23 years, after Pakistan’s independence, a West Pakistan-led nationwide election campaign began in which women were allowed to vote. Unfortunately, West Pakistan’s refusal to accept the results that saw East Pakistan’s Awami League win a majority led to civil war. It is often marginalised that Bangladesh during this period was recovering from its own genocide as recorded by US Officials and expressed by Archer Blood’s telegram to Nixon. As such Bangladesh’s political history since independence from Pakistan in 1971 can be broken down into three eras – between 1972 and 1975 the country was ruled by populist authoritarianism after the war with Pakistan. In 1975 the assassination of the founding father of the nation, Mujibur Rahman led to fifteen years of military rule, followed by the adoption of representative democracy in 1991. Since independence, Bangladesh has adopted many styles of governance but also claims to have its own unique form called Caretaker Government which subsumes power as a neutral body during elections.

After the 1971 independence war, Bangladesh emerged as a state based on socialist-secular principles. The 1975 assassination of Mujibur Rahman was swiftly followed by military rule beginning with General Ziaur Rahman. Six years later the assassination of General Ziaur Rahman would introduce another military leader until 1990 whereby external pressure and internal civic opposition would see the end of military rule. From then on parliamentary democracy would be held until 2006.

Two parties would come to dominate the political scene – the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) would be headed by the widow of General Rahman, Khaleda Zia and the Awami League (AL) headed by the daughter of Mujibur Rahman, Hasina Wazed. Their rivalry would be the cause of many future political factions and the demise of political and economic stability that we are seeing today. Though for a while Bangladesh had been a potential example of Islamism and Secularism working together, in 2005 Islamists would say otherwise. 500 bombs went off across the country largely unnoticed by international media, with Islamist group Jamatul Mujahideen Bangladesh demanding the implementation of shari’a. Suicide bombs would follow, killing judges and politicians with no group claiming responsibility. Tensions between the ruling AL and two moderate and influential Islamist parties such as Jamaat-e-Islami (allied with the BNP) and Hizbut Tahrir would further exacerbate political factions.

Growing instability led to a military intervention in 2007 until elections were held once more in 2008/09 whereby the AL came to power once more. Between 2001 and 2006 Islamist parties grew under the BNP and even formed coalitions now that secularism as a core principle was removed from the original constitution. This would lead to rising extremism and the AL boycotting parliament and calling for strikes. In 2008 however, the AL, known as the ‘secularist party’, would claim majority of seats in parliament and defeat any Islamist influence. As summed up by Tahrat Shahid – “whatever efforts BNP has made to ‘Islamize’ the Constitution, AL has sought to undo”.

2014 Election Boycott: Islamism vs Secularism

The political factions would all come into fruition when the January 2014 elections would be marred by violence and a complete boycott by all opposition parties. In late 2013, the AL abdicated the Caretaker Government system whilst also re-opening cases of crimes committed in 1971, which led to a crackdown on the largest Islamist party Jamat-e-Islami who were banned altogether from the political process. Opposition leaders would call for the return of the Caretaker Government to oversee the elections but AL’s refusal to comply resulted in more conflict. Allied-opposition parties then enforced a nationwide road-rail-water blockade which continues to be in-effect today weighing heavily on the economy, the very thing Bangladesh survives on. As a result, 21 political parties were banned and Hasina was re-elected unopposed.

Whilst Bangladeshi politics have failed its citizens, it has also divided the country into not only associations with various parties, as democracies do, but rather into ideological categories. The popular black-or-white narrative that began with the ‘war on terror’ when George W. Bush declared in 2001 after 9/11 “you are either with us or against us” has now become the international excuse in denying Islamists a role in politics. In the case of Bangladesh where more than 90% of the population follows Islam not only as a faith but a guiding principle for political life seeing Islamist parties being banned disregards their representation and representativeness for political Islam in Bangladesh. Furthermore, to then execute members of the largest Islamist party for crimes that had been pardoned in 1971 raises suspicion among citizens that this is an attack on representatives of their faith and thus an attack on their faith. The consequences are nothing more than what can be expected in this war of ideologies as bombs are targeted at Prime Minister Hasina and in response her opposition leader Khaleda Zia is charged with murder as she continues to call for free and fair elections.

To make matters worse, citizens have not only become victims but also perpetrators that are frenzied by the tense political atmosphere. Free speech, as is often the case, is the first victim when democracy fails and chaos ensues. First, the head of ETV a television station was arrested and the channel taken off air due to televising a speech from Khaleda Zia’s son or as AL authorities suggests displaying pornographic material. Then, a string of attacks on what are deemed secular bloggers sees the brutal killings of three men who sought nothing more than to do away with conservative and extreme interpretations of Islam. All three of them had opposed politicised religion (Islamism) in their writings with the first two finding it necessary to attack the faith by publishing books such as ‘Virus of Faith’. But the third victim Ananta Bijoy Das was quainter than the others with his final post stating “all of us are human, and all of us are Bangladeshi Bengalis”. In that there is a certain level of sentiment that opposes the foundations of ideologies – premised on the notion that to defeat an opposing force we must attack it, but as Das showed: there is still a desire that transcends the separatism brought forth by ideologies whether secular or Islamist. Whether or not this desire is representative of the majority is yet to be known as it seems highly unlikely the AL will hold fresh elections. The lines of ideology may become ever more defined until the next elections in 2019, however, it might prove to be too little too late as Bangladesh becomes well accustomed to the continuation of war by the means of politics.

Author Biography

Rubel Mozlu has recently obtained an MSc from the University of Bristol in International Relations with the intention of pursuing a PhD on the topic of philosophy, religion and terrorism. His MSc main thesis focused on ‘Liberal Democracy and Culture’ with a particular focus on Egypt’s revolutions and Bangladesh’s election boycott. His current interests are in the MENA region, Islamic history, Western and Eastern Philosophy and Culture.

*Cover image ‘Shahbag Chottor (Square)‘ by Rubayat Habib

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