The world’s eighth most populous country is drifting toward Islamism
by John Richards
The Western media usually limit news coverage of Bangladesh to casualties from collapsed buildings, factory fires, cyclones and capsized ferries. In the last several years, coverage has extended to brutal assassinations of “atheist bloggers” and, in the summer of 2016, to the murder of 20 foreigners in a Dhaka restaurant.1
One evening last summer a half dozen young men invaded a popular restaurant in the diplomatic zone of Dhaka. By the next morning government commandos had stormed the restaurant and killed them. During the night the terrorists killed two policemen and the 20 foreigners who had the misfortune to choose this particular restaurant. Seven of the victims were Japanese engineers designing a subway system for Dhaka; nine were Italians involved in the garment sector.
The terrorists were not psychologically disturbed loners; they were from prosperous families, well educated and idealistic. During the night, Nibras Islam, their leader, lectured the restaurant staff. A staff member later reported that Nibras reassured them:
We are not here to kill you who are Muslims. We are here to kill non-Muslim foreigners who, by helping the government and business elites, are providing an undeserved legitimacy to a corrupt non-Islamic state. Bangladesh needs devout Muslim leaders committed to governing on the basis of shari’a. Both major parties are equally corrupt and non-Islamic. As good Muslims, you should never vote.
With approximately 170 million people, Bangladesh is the world’s eighth most populous country. It deserves closer attention from the world’s media. What follows is a very brief introduction to the country’s political history over the 20th century, the paralysis afflicting its governance and the threat that it could follow the unfortunate path taken by Pakistan.
An ineffective democracy and an Islamist response
In the 1940s, the last decade of the British Raj, Bengal was a province with an elected assembly enjoying sovereignty over domestic matters – not unlike Canada in the mid-19th century. Its residents shared a common language, the great majority were farmers, and its one metropolitan centre was Kolkata. What Bengali did not share was a common religion: the majority were Muslim, a large minority Hindu. At the time, many among the Muslim elites, including the Bengal chief executive (i.e., premier), favoured a postcolonial future as a sovereign country, separate from the rest of South Asia.
It was not to be. The Hindu elites adamantly opposed becoming a minority in a sovereign Bengal. The Muslim League, dominated by elites in the Indus Valley, wanted to assemble all Muslim-majority regions of the subcontinent into a new – inevitably noncontiguous – state. The provinces of East and West Pakistan remained formally one state from 1947 until the 1971 “war of liberation” whereby East Pakistan seceded. Constitutionally, Bangladesh emerged as a secular, socialist republic. Many of the first generation of Bangladesh leaders and senior civil servants subscribed to the Marxist tradition of Bengal, which was prominent from early decades of the century.
Why, over the last half century, has idealism in Bangladesh evolved from a secular rebellion against a government in Islamabad, dominated by feudal elites in the Indus Valley, to a religiously inspired rebellion against a government in Dhaka, dominated by nominally democratic elites engaged in modern activities such as managing garment factories? There are many answers. We might start with the answer given by Nibras: secular democracy as practised in Bangladesh has not lived up to minimal expectations.
The collapse in 2013 of Rana Plaza, a garment factory, is worth a detour. At least 1,100 workers died; most of the 2,000 survivors suffered serious injuries. By far the most serious industrial accident in the history of Bangladesh, Rana Plaza was the result of appalling government laxity in regulating industrial safety.2 Many members of Parliament have direct or indirect ownership stakes in garment factories and the building’s owner was a local leader of the governing party. It is a reasonable hypothesis that political influence prevented adequate regulation.
Hizb ut Tahrir, founded in Palestine, is a prominent international Islamist organization that proselytizes on behalf of shari’a and reestablishment of a caliphate. The organization is banned in Bangladesh but it has an underground presence. While its leaders are ambiguous about use of violence to realize their goals, its publications provide arguments similar to those of Nibras. Below is the text of a Hizb ut Tahrir media release, widely distributed online, following the Rana Plaza tragedy:
The Only Way to Free the People from the Clutches of Politics [dominated by the two major parties] is for the Sincere Military Officers to Overthrow the Ruling Regime and Transfer the Authority to Sincere and Aware Politicians who will Establish Islamic Rule
… Democracy has been killing the people of the country all along and in numerous ways. The desperate cries of those who lost their loved ones in Rana Plaza still ring loud in our ears. We can make an endless list of killings by democracy. Furthermore all of the following hold true of democracy:
Democracy = corruption and looting
Democracy = half the people living in poverty
Democracy = oppression of women
Democracy = vilifying Islam and [Muhammad]
Democracy = imperialist domination
One does not need to subscribe to the solutions posed by Nibras and Hizb ut Tahrir to acknowledge that their critique of the political status quo rings true. The bitterly polarized “winner take all” tactics adopted since the 1980s by the two major parties have deeply disappointed the majority of Bangladeshi. Since its birth, Bangladesh has oscillated between corrupt, ineffective, nominally democratic governments and somewhat more effective but also self-serving military-led ones. During the most recent general election, in 2014, the governing party won reelection by default, gaining a majority in parliament by acclamation. It kept the leader of the major opposition party under house arrest. This is not to imply that the major opposition party is much better. When in office, it adopted similar tactics.
The young have known nothing better all their lives. Is it surprising that some among them, at this point only a small minority, advocate violent opposition to the status quo?
The governance factor
How bad is Bangladesh governance? The short answer is “pretty bad.” Comparing governance among countries is inevitably subjective, but many organizations prepare indices of national governance quality. The exercise illustrated in figure 1 relies on two dimensions of the comprehensive governance indicators prepared annually by the World Bank.3
Quality of governance and economic prosperity are linked in reciprocal ways. Citizens of more prosperous countries can more effectively demand, and usually get, better governance than do citizens of poorer countries, but causation also runs the other way, from better governance to higher incomes. Bangladesh has suffered a “winner take all” dynamic whereby the political party that manages to win an election does its best to crush opposing parties and buy loyalty via clientelism in appointments at all levels of the public sector. These practices are so excessive and so obviously counterproductive to social and economic progress that they are undeniably part of the explanation for the country’s low per capita income, slow rate of per capita income growth and high income inequality.
For the five major South Asian countries, figure 1 plots each country’s 2014 per capita income against its percentile ranking on two governance dimensions.4 For each dimension, the horizontal axis illustrates the country’s percentile ranking relative to all countries (approximately 200) included in the World Bank assessment. The two trendlines illustrate, among the five countries, the bilateral association between each governance dimension and per capita income.
For both control of corruption and effectiveness of delivery of basic services the association is obviously positive. In terms of control of corruption, Bangladesh is lowest; in terms of effectiveness, second lowest. On both dimensions, roughly 80 per cent of the world’s countries display higher governance quality.
There are qualifications to make. India’s population is 1.2 billion, and its most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, has a population larger than that of any of the other four countries. The quality of governance among Indian states varies widely. In general the quality is superior in the south; in some northern states governance quality is similar to that of Bangladesh and Pakistan. In 2009 India, at the 11th percentile, ranked highest in terms of political stability (not shown in figure 1). In 2014, the three populous countries (Pakistan, India, Bangladesh) remained below the 20th percentile. The two others improved domestic political stability dramatically and rose above the bottom quintile: Nepal from 7th to 22nd and Sri Lanka from 10th to 35th.
Currents from the Middle East
Pakistan and Bangladesh are respectively the second and third most populous Muslim-majority countries in the world. Counting 140 million Muslims in India there are 500 million Muslims in South Asia, more than in Arab countries of the Middle East plus North Africa. The overwhelming majority are Sunni – as opposed to Shi’i or some other minority denomination. However, the theological centre of Sunni Islam is not South Asia. In explaining the changing role of Islam in Bangladesh, we cannot understand events such as the recent assassinations without taking account of religious and political currents transmitted from the Middle East.
The fundamental religious shift over the last half century in the Middle East has been the waning influence of Islamic “modernizers” in the tradition of Atatürk, Nasser and Bourguiba, and the rising influence of Islamist political parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Wahhab-inspired imams of Saudi Arabia. Many political and religious leaders in the Middle East subscribe to a variant of Salafism, an austere reform tradition in Sunni Islam that claims that the writings of Muhammad and the early generations of his followers are to be read literally. Salafist teachings are dismissive of modernism as practised by Muslim leaders in the last century, and highly critical of all theological traditions that do not subscribe to Salafist ideas.
Why Salafism has achieved its present prominence among Sunni Muslims is open to several explanations, not necessarily contradictory. Nibras’s lecture to the restaurant staff embodies one of them: like Bangladesh, most nominally democratic, nominally socialist postcolonial governments in the Middle East degenerated into corrupt hypercentralized states dependent on a politicized police force. Salafism provides a counter-discourse.
Another explanation is the role of Saudi Arabia, where imams in charge of the two holiest sites of Islam enjoy an implicit contract with the Saud family. They legitimize family control of the country, provided the state finances an ambitious proselytizing campaign throughout the Islamic Ummah on behalf of a Salafist interpretation of Islam. The most extreme manifestation of Salafism is the Islamic State (IS) caliphate.
Jamaat, the largest organization with Salafist tendencies in South Asia, was founded in the 1940s. It is active in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. In 1971 it opposed secession of East Pakistan, and many Jamaat leaders actively collaborated with the Pakistani army in combating the guerrillas fighting for a sovereign, secular Bangladesh.
From March 1971, when East Pakistani leaders announced secession, to December 1971, when the Indian army invaded and routed the Pakistani army, a brutal civil war raged. The great majority of deaths were due to the army, dominated by soldiers from the western provinces aided by local collaborators. Estimates of the number killed during the nine-month civil war vary widely; a low estimate is 300,000. Motivated by the need for reconciliation, Sheikh Mujib, the first prime minister of the new country, declared an amnesty on war crimes. Four decades later in 2010, Sheikh Hasina, the present prime minister and daughter of Sheikh Mujib, organized a “war crimes tribunal” to prosecute Jamaat leaders who, in their youth, had allegedly committed atrocities.5
An unexpected consequence of the tribunal was extensive blogging by university students on behalf of Bangladesh’s secular traditions and against the Islamist leaders on trial. Not surprisingly, the government supported this student activism. However, Jamaat and other Islamist organizations exploited the presence of “atheist bloggers” as a means to mobilize. A rallying cry was for their execution as apostates. Since 2013 unidentified jihadists have tracked down and killed several bloggers and secular liberals allied with them. Initially enthusiastic about student support for the war crimes tribunal, the government subsequently disowned the bloggers.
Initially, jihadists restricted assassinations to Bangladeshi liberals. The first among the recent assassinations of foreigners in the name of Islam took place in the autumn of 2015. A trio of jihadists shot and killed an Italian NGO worker who was jogging in the diplomatic zone of the capital. The Islamic State claimed credit and called for expulsion of all foreigners from Bangladesh. Whether IS has had a direct role in the assassination of foreigners over the last year, provided financial support to local jihadist organizations or merely claimed credit for activities undertaken independently is unclear.
Until the mass murder of foreigners this past summer, the government minimized the significance of a few random religious-inspired assassinations. Cabinet ministers implied that Jamaat, in alliance with the major opposition party, was probably organizing the assassinations to sully the country’s international reputation. While Jamaat is sympathetic to Salafist Islam, there is no evidence that the organization is responsible for recent assassinations.
What happens next?
The impact of Salafism is more evident in Pakistan than in Bangladesh. Many predict, however, that the violence and political instability apparent in Pakistan will in time loom equally large in Bangladesh. I hope those foretelling doom will be proved wrong, but maybe my hopes are naive. What is the evidence?
To be optimistic …
While partition in 1947 divided Bengal, Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal share a sophisticated culture most – although certainly not all – of whose iconic writers have promoted interfaith tolerance. The tip of this iceberg, visible even in the West, is Tagore.
The Pew Research Center has this decade conducted an ambitious series of international surveys on “religion and public life.” Table 1 provides some germane results from a 38,000-person random survey of Muslims across the world (the Bangladesh sample is 2,000). I contrast attitudes in Turkey, a relatively modernized Muslim country, with Pakistan and Bangladesh. Question 10 surveys respondents’ perception of the extent of tolerance in their country for “religions different from yours” and whether they approve what they perceive to be the present degree of tolerance. The question is somewhat ambiguous: does “different” refer to non-Muslims or solely to Muslim denominations other than that that of the respondent? Nonetheless, the overwhelming majority perceive the practice of other religions in their respective countries as “very free” or “somewhat free,” and virtually all think that that is a “good thing.”
To the extent that improvements in social outcomes predispose a society to peaceful reform over violence, Bangladesh public health outcomes, the best among the three populous countries of South Asia, are a source of optimism. Life expectancy at birth is 71, compared to 66 in Pakistan and India. Bangladesh is known as the “country of NGOs.” A network of very large, competently managed NGOs compensates, in part, for the low quality of public administration. The NGOs are more adept than the government in forging institutional compromises and improving on-the-ground outcomes. For example, over the last quarter century imams in Bangladesh have cooperated with NGOs and the government to lower the birthrate. The present total fertility rate in Pakistan is about 3.5 children per woman; the rate in Bangladesh is below the Indian rate and is now at the replacement level of 2.2. The under-five mortality rate has declined by over half since the early years of the previous decade. It is half the rate in Pakistan and a fifth lower than the rate in India.
In 1971 Bangladesh had no substantial industrial sector able to compete internationally. It is now the world’s second largest ready-made garment exporter. The garment sector employs four million workers (the great majority women) with above-average education levels, earning wages well above what they could earn in their villages or in the urban informal sector. The silver lining to the Rana Plaza tragedy is that it obliged the government and garment manufacturers to increase wages, and the major importers are imposing improvements in factory safety.6
To be pessimistic …
It is hard to exaggerate the importance of universal literacy as a means to enhance equality between men and women and to facilitate economic progress. Bangladesh is far from having achieved universal literacy. The second Millennium Development Goal was universal primary education by 2015. The Bangladesh government blatantly “gamed” this particular goal. Over the last quarter century the official primary school completion rate among children in the relevant age cohorts has risen from about 40 per cent to 80 per cent. However, government certification of children as having completed the five-year primary school cycle has been achieved by a lowering of standards.
As an alternative to low-quality government schools, parents may choose a religious education for their children. Currently, over a million Bangladeshi children are studying in madrassas (5 to 10 per cent of the total). Saudi Arabia generously finances these madrassas, which serve as a means to spread conservative religious ideas.
Question 58 in the Pew survey asks who should decide about wearing a veil. In Turkey 90 per cent respond that it is a matter for women to decide. In both Pakistan and Bangladesh the minority who deny women such a right is much larger. According to question 79a, in Turkey there is little interest in adopting shari’a as the basis of family law and criminal punishment. In both Bangladesh and Pakistan large majorities favour implementation of shari’a. In contrast to the tolerance implicit in responses to question 10, the distributions with respect to question 92b about apostasy are not optimistic among Bangladeshi – and even less so among Pakistani. A telling demographic statistic on the fate of religious minorities in Bangladesh is that, at the time of the liberation war, approximately 20 per cent were non-Muslim – mostly Hindu but also Buddhist and Christian. This decade that share has fallen below 10 per cent.
Bangladeshi cannot count on NGOs to preserve them from a fate comparable to Pakistan. Unless the next generation of political elites abandons “winner take all” tactics and devotes itself more diligently to better governance, it is hard to be optimistic.
1 I thank Jon Scott for detailed comments on a previous draft. The Asia-Pacific Foundation commissioned this article, but subsequently decided it was not suitable for their audience.
2 For more detail, see my study Diplomacy, Trade and Aid: Searching for “Synergies,” Commentary 394 (Toronto: C.D. Howe Institute, 2013), retrieved from https://www.cdhowe.org/diplomacy-trade-and-aid-searching-synergies
3 Among roughly 200 countries, the World Bank annually summarizes perceptions of governance quality by aggregating multiple comparative surveys. The Worldwide Governance Indicators disaggregate governance into six dimensions (voice and accountability, political stability, government effectiveness in delivery of basic services, quality of regulation, rule of law, control of corruption). See World Bank, Worldwide Governance Indicators, 2016, retrieved from http://info.worldbank.org/governance/WGI/#home
4 Bhutan and Maldives have been excluded. Each has a population under a million.
5 The Western media paid scant attention to the star-chamber nature of the war crimes tribunal and its consequences. The Economist is an honourable exception. For a fuller account of the war crimes tribunal and its political consequences see my article with Owen Lippert, “The Eternal Colony,” Inroads, Summer/Fall 2013, pp. 130–137.
6 See my forthcoming article with Labin Rahman and Nazmul Huda in the Asian Journal of Public Health, “Rana Plaza Three Years After: Physical and Mental Morbidities among Survivors.”
John Richards is co-publisher of Inroads, teaches in the School of Public Policy at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver and works regularly in Bangladesh.