Bangladesh: The Rise of Islamism?

Bangladesh: The Rise of Islamism? (Photo: The Daily Star)

On December 16, 1971, Bangladesh became an independent country. The Constitution of Bangladesh, 1972 accepted nationalism, socialism, democracy and secularism as principles of state policy.  For the next several years and through various government changes, the secular character of the Constitution was upheld.  After a series of coups and counter coups, Ziaur Rahman proclaimed himself President of Bangladesh on April 21, 1977.  Rahman began the gradual process of Islamization by removing secular principles and replacing them with religious ones such as Article 8 (1) which stated, “the principle of absolute trust and faith in the almighty Allah, nationalism, democracy and socialism meaning economic and social justice, together with the principles derived from them…shall constitute the fundamental principles of state policy” with an additional clause in Article 25 declaring the intention of the country to be “to stabilize, preserve and strengthen fraternal ties with Muslim states on the basis of Islamic solidarity.” (See: Hiranmay Karlekar, Bangladesh: The Next Afghanistan? p. 50-51).

Within three decades, the secular aspect of the Bangladeshi Constitution initially supported by the Awami League (AL) also began to change. In 2007, the Human Rights Congress for Bangladesh Minorities (HRCBM) expressed their concern towards the de-secularization stance of Awami League, particularly when Awami League signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with an Islamic fundamentalist party, Bangladesh Khilafet-E-Maslish, before the general election.  In a press release, the HRCBM stated, “The MOU, among other ideals, pledged proclamation of fatwa (Islamic edicts), introduction of Shariah Laws, accreditation of Quami Madrasas (private-run madrassas), and in principle laid the foundation for establishing Bangladesh as a religious Islamic state in the future.” However, in October 2010, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said that Bangladesh would soon restore the word “secularism” to the Constitution. She said that it would remain an Islamic state, allowing the religious parties to function.

In some ways, Bangladesh displays a multi-religious character. Though less than 10 percent of the population are non-Muslims, both Muslims and non-Muslims enjoy public holidays granted to all religions such as holidays for Eid (a Muslim festival), Durga Puja (a Hindu festival), Buddha Purnima (a Buddhist festival) and Christmas (a Christian festival). But there has been concern of the rise of Islamism in Bangladesh over the last several years. This has been partly due to the high rate of illiteracy in Bangladesh (58.4% in 2003). While the 1972 Constitution aimed to provide a secular and universal system of education, after 32 years of independence, the rate of illiteracy remained very high. So gradually, as the secular schools (both private and public) were established, many religious schools (madrassas) were established to impart Islamic education. And with the growth of the madrassas, the gradual Islamization of education took place (See Ali Riaz, “Islamist Politics and Education” in Political Islam and Governance in Bangladesh).

Over the past several months, Islamist activity in Bangladesh has been on the rise (as reported here and here). On April 3, Mufti Fazlul Huq Aminee’s Islami Oikya Jote party (IOJ) called for a day-long Hartal (strike), which meant that all shops, businesses and educational institutions had to be closed. The strike was called in protest of the Cabinet that approved the National Women Development Policy 2011 with a provision of equal shares for women in property as well as equal opportunities for employment and business. The IOJ called the Hartal claiming that the policy violates the principles of Quran. Protests against the policy have turned violent with demonstrators vandalizing government cars and buses.

Bangladesh still has a secular legal system, but in matters related to inheritance and marriage Muslims follow Shariah law. According to the Shariah law, women can claim only a quarter of what men get from their parents. Under the government's new rules, every child inherits the same amount. Fazlul Huq Amini, who heads the Islamic Law Implementation Committee, accused the government of violating the Quran with its new policy and its implications for family law, while Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina insisted that the new rules do not hurt Islam.

Though the Prime Minister is downplaying the power of Mufti Aminee and his IOJ party, it should be of concern to the Bangladeshi people that Islamism is on the rise in their country, and that their country was brought to a standstill with the Islamist call for a Hartal. If such radicalism grows further, the first casualty will be the rights of women in Bangladesh.