Is Bangladesh headed into the black hole that consumed Afghanistan under the Taliban? Fears are mounting, as official and fundamentalist religious forces now seem to operate with impunity – and the apparent support of local police, the ruling Bangladeshi National Party, and local authorities.
For many years Bangladesh was an exception in the Islamic world, pursuing an independent course in a peaceful, secular, and democratic fashion. Traditionally, under Bengali Sufi mystical teachings, the majority Muslim population lived peacefully with other religions, and Bangladesh had a good record on education and civil rights for women. Until recently, Muslim fundamentalists were discredited, because militias such as “al-Badr” and “Razakar” had supported atrocities against civilians during the civil war of 1971.
That began to change in 2001, when Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia, the widow of the assassinated military strongman General Zia, replaced secularism in the Constitution with the “Sovereignty of Allah.” Encouraged by this change the BNP’s junior coalition partner, Jamaat-e-Islami, which has links with the militias and remains close to Pakistan, has been calling for imposition of Sharia (Islamic law).
The BNP appears to view religious extremism as a tool to break the power of the opposition Awami League, which is largely supported by the secular and urban middle classes. Similarly, the massive rise in the number of madrassas (religious schools) financed by Saudi and Gulf money – totalling roughly 64,000 and operating under the same fundamentalist Deobandi Islam that inspired the Taliban – is part of a clear effort to change Bangladesh’s culture of religious tolerance.