Blindfold in Bangladesh: Western Democracies’ Support to Islamic Forces


I just recently learnt about the lack of response from the majority of the Western countries to the recent electoral outcome in Bangladesh.  In a meeting with a senior Japanese diplomat, I found out that Japan had wisely decided to break the ranks of developed democracies to write a congratulatory letter to Sheikh  Hasina on her electoral victory. India had of course conveyed its support and good wishes to the prime minister immediately after the results were declared. And Pakistan for obvious reasons has not done that so far. Several ASEAN countries have acknowledged the Awami League victory but not whole heartedly supported it.

The reason given for this lack of recognition of Sheikh Hasina’s electoral success is the boycott by the main opposition party, the BNP, led by Begum Khalida Zia. It is clear that the elections followed the constitutional provisions and process and BNP chose to boycott the elections at its own risk. The stand taken by the US and its European allies along with others like Pakistan is that an election boycotted by the largest opposition party does not measure up to the global democratic benchmarks. According to them, Sheikh Hasina does not command sufficient legitimacy to deserve to be congratulated on her victory.

This is  a bogus stand and one which demonstrates lack of understanding of the complex realities of South Asia. To couch it in high moral rhetoric does not hide the fact that western powers completely fail to understand the dangers posed by a fundamentalist political Islam in South Asia and other parts of the world. Also it reveals dangerous inconsistency on their part as they condone and connive with the dismissal of Mohammed Morsi in Egypt while calling for a re-election in Bangladesh. This is despite the fact that Begum Zia derives her principal support from the Jamait- e Islami and other more fundamentalist Islamic groups in Bangladesh. It will do a lot of good for Americans and Europeans to realise the Sheikh Hasina has been fighting their  war against the ‘Islamisation’ of Bangladesh society. By this I do not for a minute mean that the people of Bangladesh or for that matter any other country should not have the unabridged right to choose their religion. What Sheikh Hasina and her party have been bravely fighting against is the attempt of part of a small minority to impose on the vast majority a form of jurisprudence and social norms that they have openly rejected time and again. How can all of us in the democratic world not support Hasina’s struggle and commitment to sustain Bangladesh as a secular democracy.

Perhaps it is not clear to western observers that Begum Zia’s last innings as Prime Minister was characterised by closest of cooperation between her government and the most right wing and fundamentalist Islamic forces. She had actively given succour and sanctuary to Islamic terrorists who were operating across the border and had openly declared their animosity to Bangladesh’s neighbours. In 2009, Bangladeshi voters  quite rightly and quite unambiguously rejected her form of politics in that was based on fomenting communal strife and was taking Bangladesh towards becoming a theocratic state, in complete defiance of the founding principles of that country.

What is more perplexing is the un-ending search on part of the US and its NATO allies for a ‘moderate version of Islamic fundamentalist.’ The irony and inconsistency in this formulation itself is for some inexplicable reason not visible to them. Because if it was, they would not spend that much energy and resources in trying to identify the moderate Taliban in Af-Pak and make similar efforts now in Bangladesh. All of us will have to understand that there cannot be a moderate agenda for a Islamic fundamentalist. As several Muslim scholars from South Asia have pointed out the fundamentalist Muslim does not accept a minority existence in any society. He firmly believes that his sole and highest duty is to ensure somehow that the  Shariyat law prevails and the  writ of the Islamic clergy is supreme in any society that he lives in. Therefore, to think of a moderate Taliban is only to fool oneself or to make the untenable assumption that for some unknown reason, the moderate fundamentalist will undergo a metamorphosis into a democrat  once he seizes or is handed over political power. How naive is that?

The fact is that if Begum Zia were to come back to power in Bangladesh, she will actively connive and condone the activities of the Islamic fundamentalists. This would imply a rapid degeneration of the hard won women’s rights and secular practices in Bangladesh. The hope that the middle class will mobilise against these fundamentalists and push them back is as much wishful thinking as it has turned out to be in Egypt, Libya or indeed Tunisia. The only means to push them back,  again as in Egypt, will require the armed forces to step in, democracy being suspended and the dangerous prospect of an all out civil war breaking out in Bangladesh. This is highly avoidable.

Instead, Sheikh Hasina, having constitutionally won the elections  should be supported in her efforts to sustain rapid economic growth and eliminate poverty and squalor from her country as she has successfully done in the past five years. This is the only way forward to build a genuine middle class in Bangladesh. Once that happens, the Bangladeshis will have both the democratic institutions and the material resources to exercise the choice between remaining a secular democracy or opt for a theocratic state. For the time being holding back their support for Sheikh Hasina will only contribute to her less than optimal showing in the forthcoming local ‘sub-zila’  elections-which then will be used by the fundamentalists to make a case for general re-election. It will not only be a huge irony but indeed a historical mistake for North American and European democracies to aid and abet the growth of fundamentalism in South Asia.


Author is senior fellow Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi and a member of SAISA. Views expressed are personal.

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