Bangladeshis go to the polls Monday 29 December 2008

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- pivotal elections
- elevated threat of terror

On Wednesday 17 December, WEA's Religious Liberty Prayer ministry issued a prayer bulletin outlining the perpetual tug-of-war for Bangladesh between pro-secular and Islamic forces and stressing the great need for prayer for Bangladesh.

Once again the election will pit the Awami League -- which led Bangladesh to independence and stands for secular politics and Bengali (as distinct from Islamic) culture -- against the pro-Pakistan, pro-Islam Bangladesh National Party (BNP) which has always used its power to advance Islamic nationalism and Islamisation.

(From the mid-1970s, during the rule of the BNP's General Zia, secularism was dropped from the Constitution and anti-liberationist Islamists from the pro-Pakistan Jamaat were encouraged to return from their exile in Pakistan, which they did, bringing their increased radicalisation with them. Then in 1988 the BNP's General Ershad introduced Islam into the Constitution as the State's official religion. Neither of these military Islamic dictatorships had been elected, seizing power instead through assassination and coup. Unfortunately, lack of legitimacy never prevents a regime from implementing its agenda.After the BNP-Jamaat-e-Islami alliance was elected in 2001, independent Deobandi madrassas and terrorist training camps predominated by Arabs and Central Asians multiplied while religious and politically motivated violence escalated and intensified.)
Bangladeshis will go to the polls on 29 December. The election lists have been cleaned up and election monitors have been pouring in. The greatest threat to these elections -- which are arguably the most crucial and pivotal since the country's independence -- is Islamic terrorism.

See WEA RLP 509 17 Dec 2008
Bangladesh: Pivotal elections amidst Islamic threats.


In October 2001 the BNP, in coalition with the state's largest Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and a couple of smaller parties (including the radical Islamist Islami Olkyo Jote) swept the Awami League from power. The BNP coalition, which campaigned on a platform of anti-corruption as well as Muslim solidarity with Afghanistan and protest against America's use of Pakistan as a military base, won 199 of  300 parliamentary seats -- an absolute majority. Over the next five years, corruption continued while religious and politically motivated violence escalated until emergency rule was enacted (11 Jan 2007) and the January 2007 elections postponed to resolve the political crisis and quell the escalating civil unrest.

Sajeeb A Wazed and Carl J Ciovacco, both with Masters Degrees from the Kennedy School of Government, note in a 19 November 2008 article in the Harvard International Review: "If July's local elections, where theAwami League won 12 of 13 Municipal elections, are any portent of future national elections, the League appears to be the favourite in the national election." However they then warn: "With the rise of Islamic extremism encouraged by the last two years of military rule and five years of BNP governance, the Awami League will certainly be fighting an uphill battle both before and after the elections in stemming this movement." (Link 1)

As Wazed and Ciovacco note: "When the BNP formed a coalition government with JI, it opened the door to increased Islamic influence on the governing party." And, "BNP has come to rely heavily on JI's highly focused fundamentalist Islamic base."

Furthermore: "The alliance of anti-liberationists, JI, and the BNP has also had direct and indirect involvement with Islamic fundamentalist groups that masterminded 500 coordinated bombings across Bangladesh in 2005. This display of terror was an attempt to showcase their growing power. These shadow groups, namely Jamat-ul Mujahid Bangladesh (JMB), Jagrata Janata Muslim Bangladesh (JMJB) and Harkatul Jihad (HuJi), have been the militant arm of JI. They overtly denounce the Constitution and
seek to replace democracy and secularism with a governing construct based on Sharia Law.

"Islamic extremism is also on the rise in Bangladesh because of the growing numbers of Islamists in the military. The Islamists cleverly began growing their numbers within the Army by training for the Army Entrance Exams at madrassas. This madrassa training was necessary because of the relative difficulty associated with passing these exams. The military is attractive because of both its respected status and its high employment opportunities in a country where unemployment ranges from 20 percent to 30 percent for younger males. High demand formilitary posts has resulted in an entrance exam designed to limit the number of recruits. Before this madrassa Entrance Exam campaign, only 5 percent of military recruits came from madrassas in 2001. By 2006, at the end of the BNP's reign, madrassas supplied nearly 35 percent of the Army recruits. In a country that has seen four military coup d'etats in its short 37 year history, the astronomical growth of Islamists in the military is troubling to say the least."

Wazed and Ciovacco question if it would actually be possible to stem the "growing tide of Islamism in a country that has seen the sale of burkas rise nearly 500 percent in the last five years"? After answering "yes", they spend the rest of their paper (the next 3 of 5 pages) outlining their plan for secular renewal.

In conclusion, Wazed and Ciovacco lament how the "questionably administered elections in 2001" nullified the progress made under Awami League from 1996. According to Wazed and Ciovacco the five years of Awami League administration between 1996 and 2001 saw poverty and inflation decrease while literacy, longevity and foreign investment increased. They compare this to the subsequent years of BNP rule (Oct 2001- Jan 2007) which saw poverty increase, literacy decrease, and Islamisation advance dramatically. As the authors note: "The correlation of secularism and positive results is difficult to dispute in Bangladesh."

In an appeal for greater protection of minority rights, Naeem Mohaiemen (who writes on minority issues) provides insights into what Wazed and Ciovacco describe as the "questionably administered elections in 2001". According to Mohaiemen (in an article in the Daily Star dated 16 Dec 2008), the October 2001 elections were marred by extreme intimidation of and violence against minorities before, during and after the voting. "According to research done by a rights NGO, based on the National Democratic Institute (NDI) data-set, the 1991 and 2001 Bangladesh election results could have been different given the razor-thin margins by which many seats were won, and the huge number of minority voters that were prevented from voting in those very seats." (Link 2)


AFP reports: "Bangladesh's two former female prime ministers have launched their campaigns ahead of December 29 elections, playing up their Muslim beliefs and promising to uphold the country's Islamic traditions." (Link 3)

Political Science professor Golam Hossain, who works at Jahangirnagar University outside the capital Dhaka, told AFP that the two political leaders -- the BNP's Khaleda Zia and the Awami League's Sheikh Hasina -- are seeking to bolster their Islamic credentials in the hope of dragnetting the Muslim vote. "Islam is being used as an effective political campaign tool for the first time here where politicians are increasingly invoking Islamic symbols," said Hossain. "Even the Awami League, which has rarely used religion to campaign in the past, is competing with Zia to show who can be a better Muslim."

As noted in the Religious Liberty Prayer bulletin, Bangladesh's largest Islamic party, the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) -- a hard-line, pro-Sharia Islamic party in coalition with the BNP -- has promised that if the BNP coalition is elected they will enact a blasphemy law (Link 4) and introduce military training into the madrassas (Link 5).

While the BNP has been evading questions on the issue of a prospective blasphemy law, its election manifesto includes the pledge: "Malicious attempts to label Bangladesh an intolerant, extremist and radical country will be effectively prevented." (Link 6)

Unfortunately, while the Amawi League is promising to uphold secularism it has introduced a pledge into its election manifesto that threatens to undermine the secularity of the party and cripple its counter-terrorism efforts.

Article 21.3 of the Awami League election manifesto pledges: "Laws repugnant to Quran and Sunnah shall not be made. Due respect will be shown to the principles and values of all religions." (Link 7)

According to Awami League presidium member Matia Chowdhury, the Awami League will not formulate any anti-Islamic law if voted to power since the party is committed to restoring the image of Islam as a religion ofpeace and equality. (Link 8)

The pledge has doubtless been inserted to reassure "moderate" Muslims that the Awami League is not anti-Islam but is actually committed to advancing "peaceful Islam", a concept very attractive to liberal Muslims everywhere.

However there is little doubt Islamic fundamentalists will demand that the pledge be honoured to the letter. This would affect the way religious freedom is defined as the Islamic definition is very different from that found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: to start with it prohibits apostasy and establishes the inequitable, rights-abusing laws of dhimmitude. The very notion that Muslims should be free to choose their own religion, or should have infidels as their equals, is "repugnant" to Islam.

But further to this, the pledge would also necessitate some sort of blasphemy or anti-defamation law to enable the implementation of the promise.


Storm clouds are already gathering over Bangladesh. Most analysts agree that the Awami League is the front-runner and that the BNP is in disarray. Yet at a nationally televised election rally on Friday 19 December, BNP leader Khaleda Zia told a rally of some 20,000 supporters that she suspected that "unseen hands" were controlling media coverage of the elections. "Enough doubts and confusions are surfacing, but consequences will not be good if there is any vote rigging. If the elections are free and fair, BNP and its alliance will again be returned to power." (Link 9)

As noted in the 17 December Religious Liberty Prayer bulletin: "The terrorist outfit Jama'at-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) has been issuing death threats against commentators and Awami League ministers who have spoken out against the Islamic agenda. [See: "Bangladeshi jihadi movement sends threats of a new bombing campaign by registered mail"; Link 10]. JMB -- which has reportedly spent the last almost two years of emergency rule regrouping -- has also declared jihad against the secular judiciary, the media and 'the evil system' of democracy.

"If the BNP coalition can win political power then the Islamic parties will act fast to further consolidate Islam. […]  If the Islamic parties fail to win political power then Islamic militants will doubtless react and seek to discredit, destabilise and bring down the elected government through terrorism. Security is being tightened across the state to prevent a JMB terror campaign from threatening the elections themselves. Tensions are escalating."

By Elizabeth Kendal


1) Stemming the Rise of Islamic Extremism in Bangladesh
by Sajeeb Wazed, Carl Ciovacco, 19 November 2008

2) Election 2008: Defenders of the minority vote
Naeem Mohaiemen, 16 Dec 2008

3) Islamic spin in Bangladesh election campaign. 16 Dec 2008

4) Jamaat pledges blasphemy law
12 December 2008

5) Bangladesh Islamist party pledges military training in seminaries
  Dhaka, Dec 12 (IANS)

6) BNP unveils manifesto. 14 Dec 2008

7) Awami League manifesto

8) No anti-Islamic law if AL voted to power Says Matia Chowdhury

9) Bangladesh's Zia says polls being manipulated
19 Dec 2008, DHAKA (AFP)

10) Bangladeshi jihadi movement sends threats of a new bombing campaign by registered mail. 12 Dec 2008
Jamestown Terrorism Focus Volume: 5 Issue: 42


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