DAKKA – As fears about the Islamization of politics in the Muslim world grow, Bangladesh, with the world’s fourth-largest Muslim population (126 million), has moved dramatically in the opposite direction. Bangladesh is usually heard about only when cyclones and tsunamis ravage its low coastline, but the country’s relatively anonymous international stature belies its strategic importance. Its secular politicians’ ability to defeat the country’s Islamists decisively in the recent parliamentary election may, indeed, have revived the viability of “Muslim democracy” around the world.
The recent landslide victory (with a huge turnout) for the Awami League in Bangladesh’s first election in seven years, after two years of a military-backed caretaker government, has moved the country to the forefront of the battle between secular democrats and Islamists that is now underway across South Asia. The election was a credit to the country's democratic yearnings – and I say that as the chairman of the European Parliament's short-term election observation mission to Bangladesh.
The new electoral register was more robust than in many Western countries, with a photo ID picture alongside each elector. The violence that had been widespread in previous Bangladeshi elections was entirely absent, with the security services’ professionalism in policing the elections – and the army’s willingness to return voluntarily to its barracks – playing a key role.
In Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh now has a charismatic leader whose massive electoral mandate augurs well for creating the type of strong, secular government that the country needs. She returned to Bangladesh from exile, which the army had imposed on her. After her return she still had to endure imprisonment and trumped-up murder charges.