Bangladesh at a Crossroads: Modernity or Medievalism?



With the recent spate of Islamic State terror attacks in places such as Turkey and now, unfortunately, Bangladesh, we here at The Weichert Report feel compelled to give a brief elaboration of why countries such as these may be targets, what these countries are doing in the ongoing (poorly named) Global War on Terror, and how the U.S. can assist these states in their moment of need. For Bangladesh, much like Turkey, it is technically a secular democratic state that has long since become a hub of globalization. Having once been a proverbial backwater, a neglected portion of Pakistan, the country declared independence and began its raucous journey to become the third-largest economy in South Asia (behind India and Pakistan). Along the way, the Bangladeshis would have to do battle against the perpetual scourge of Islamism, as most represented by the radical Islamic group known as Jamaat-e-Islami. Bangladesh would also have to navigate itself through increased tension with its much more powerful neighbors, Hindu India and fellow Muslim Pakistan–all the meanwhile enduring a terrifying array of natural disasters and military coups. Finally, by the 1990s, things seem to have stabilized.

However, after the removal of Bangladesh’s longest-serving autocrat and reintroduction of democracy, the Islamists seem to be gaining the upper hand. Despite this, the country has slowly been moving toward economic prosperity for the past two-and-a-half decades. Yet, that prosperity is once again threatened by the pernicious presence of Islamist groups within the country’s massive Muslim population, as well as their shocking, immense–and growing–popularity. This article will outline the political realities of Bangladesh, attempt to trace how successful a group such as the Islamic State might be in trying to dominate that country’s politics, and determine what next steps the U.S. should take, in order to prevent Bangladesh from becoming the next Syria, Iraq, or Libya (although, admittedly, they are still a far distance away from that reality). Suffice to say, Islamism is on the rise and it is being met by a tenuous secular government that seems more interested in preserving its grip on power than on resisting the totalitarianism that Islamism represents. Still, the current Awami government is the best hope that the U.S. has at preventing another Islamist Winter from befalling a nominally secular, democratic, and U.S.-friendly state in a critical part of the world (this time, South Asia).

Bangladesh: Forged In Flood, Birthed In Blood

“British rule [of the Indian subcontinent] had been a progressive process of economic integration. Partition [the creation of India and Pakistan] marked the first stage in its reversal. The internal conflicts within Pakistan, especially between its east and west wings, and comparable strains between Indian central government and the provinces, suggested that a fate like China’s in the 1920s was only just round the corner.” – Paul Johnson, “Modern Times: The World From the Twenties to the Nineties”


Bangladesh was a nation formed in division. Like a constantly dividing cell, from the moment that British imperial rule had ended on the Indian subcontinent the natural ethno-religious, socio-economic divisions became exacerbated as the once powerful central government lost authority to control the periphery. Political upheaval following Britain’s hasty decolonization of the subcontinent meant that economic prosperity was stunted as political and religious turmoil roiled the vast land where Islam and Hinduism meet (with Christian and Buddhist elements thrown in, just to confound matters). The period following decolonization could best be described as a period that was dominated by divisions within divisions. Muslims in Pakistan warred with the predominantly Hindu Indians. The Indian periphery, lacking much central control, rebelled over the weak central government’s rule. Within Pakistan, the far more prosperous western portion (which is modern Pakistan) marginalized the more populous yet poorer eastern section.

This is a map of West Pakistan and East Pakistan. East Pakistan, modern day Bangladesh, was kept in perpetual second-class status by the Pakistani central government in West Pakistan.

Much like the world after the Great Flood, a new state, Bangladesh was birthed, in part, after a devastating flood. What is now known as Bangladesh was once Pakistan’s heavily populated yet highly impoverished eastern frontier. From 1956 onward, western Pakistan’s per capita income rose from 366 to 463 rupees whereas, in the east, it rose only from 278 to 313 rupees during the same period. Paradoxically, however, it was the more populous east that produced most of Pakistan’s exports. However, western Pakistan received the lion’s share of the young country’s imports–leaving the east to fend for itself. In fact, just about everything was better in western Pakistan than in the east. The west’s power production was six times higher than that of the beleaguered east, and nearly three times as many hospital beds as the east. Plus, the Pakistani government, based in the west, and therefore not subjected to the same flooding issues as the east, had neglected to invest in crafting infrastructure in the east. In particular, the western Pakistani government withheld vital funding for the crafting of flood infrastructure that would help eastern Pakistan withstand the floods of the dreaded monsoon season.

On November 12, 1970, a record-breaking cyclone would strike the Bay of Bengal–and by extension the eastern portion of Pakistan–producing one of the greatest humanitarian disasters of the twentieth century. A fifty-mile tidal wave consumed the undefended east, washed over the inland regions of eastern Pakistan, then receded back into the Bay of Bengal, leaving a virtual unparalleled path of destruction in its aftermath. Indeed, after all was said and done, 300,000 people would be victims of the great deluge.

The aftermath of the cyclone. 300,000 people would ultimately be killed by this storm and the damage to eastern Pakistan’s infrastructure would be profound. Yet, the central government in western Pakistan cared little.

The eastern Pakistanis had come to (correctly) believe that much of the damage could have been mitigated had the central government in western Pakistan made even a modest investment in shoring up the east’s dilapidated flood infrastructure. Out of this disaster came a firebrand political leader, Sheikh Mujib Rahman, who gained political notoriety in the east by campaigning for the creation of a federal government system in Pakistan. After having won the election handily in the east, the central government in the west felt threatened by his campaign. For you see, Pakistan was a military dictatorship (as would be for most of its existence as an independent state). The kind of federal system that Mujibur was campaigning for would have posed a direct threat to the military dictatorship’s rule. Therefore, the central government deployed the Pakistani military to declare martial law over the blighted eastern region of their country, and to squelch Mujibur and his federalist movement.

In 1971, the Pakistani military deployed to the east (placing their army under a general whose nickname, “The Butcher of Baluchistan,” was named for his blood-curdling activities quelling Baluchi separatists in Pakistan’s western provinces) and immediately moved to counter student demonstrations that had broken out in Dacca University. They slaughtered the people protesting for greater freedom and representation in the central government. Following this massacre, Mujibur declared an independent Bangladeshi republic. What followed was a devastating civil war.

It was at this point that regional politics entered into the fray. What would have been a short-lived Pakistani civil war that ended in the destruction of Mujibur federalist movement was given a new lease on life, as the Indians stepped in on the side of the Bangladeshi rebels. The Pakistanis absurdly launched a pre-emptive strike against Indian air bases, fearing that the Indian government of Indira Gandhi, the iron-fisted Indian Prime Minister, was lending aid to the Bangladeshi rebels, the Pakistanis launched a pre-emptive strike that actually forced Gandhi’s government to enter into the conflict against the Pakistanis. In the course of the Indian intervention against Pakistan, Prime Minister Gandhi’s government officially recognized Bangladesh as an independent state and Indian forces promptly invaded the east wing of Pakistan.

The peace signing ceremony, attended by the defeated Pakistanis and victorious Indians. Indeed, as Paul Johnson recounts, the Indian Commander-in-Chief and the Pakistani commander in the east wing had been old chums at Britain’s premiere military academy, Sandhurst. When Indian forces entered the Bangladeshi War of Liberation in 1971, the Indian commander sent his old Pakistani chum a letter that read, “My dear Abdullah [the Pakistani general in the east], I am here. The game is up. I suggest you give yourself up to me and I’ll look after you.” Very shortly the two men would meet and the Pakistanis would surrender, as pictured above.

The war against Pakistan was an easy affair. With the rapid introduction of Indian forces on behest of the Bangladeshi, the war ended in a total Pakistani surrender. The Indians had given a painful blow to their Pakistani rivals on two counts: not only had they humiliated the Pakistani military in war, but they had also ensured that its productive east wing was sliced away from greater Pakistan. Yet, this intervention was to mark the highpoint in Indian-Bangladeshi affairs. By 1972, the Bengladeshi and Indians would be at odds. Also, the Indo-Pakistan rivalry would once again be in full swing. In fact, as an independent state with deep historical and religious ties with Muslim Pakistan, Bangladesh most often sided with its former brothers in Pakistan over India in regional conflicts.

Victory celebrations in Bangladesh, as the people celebrate their liberation from the oppressive yoke of Pakistan’s central government in the west. Despite this momentous event, the Bangladeshis would have a long road from independence to prosperity.

Bangladesh: Turbulent Times

Bangladesh’s position coming out of its war of liberation from Pakistan was quite bad. The war had destabilized much of the region and destroyed much property and killed many. Even still, the cyclone of 1970 which precipitated the war of liberation from Pakistan had already set the stage for a humanitarian disaster. Due to the extreme devastation and poverty in Bangladesh, international aid readily flowed into the new state’s barren coffers. In this chaotic abyss, the Bangladeshis struggled to even eek out a basic living. Plus, following the war of liberation, the Indians had occupied Bangladesh until a new government could have been formed. Ushered in from prison in Pakistan, Mujibur was installed as the Prime Minister, and eventually, was made President of the troubled, young Bangladeshi state.

Despite Bangladesh being overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim, Mujibur declared Bangladesh a secular democratic state, however, within no time, Mujibur’s actions would be anything but democratic. In 1973, Mujibur’s Awami League, a hodgepodge coalition of various Socialist and Communist groups within the country, would be swept into power in a landslide election.

Under Mujibur’s leadership, the government would side with the Arab powers during the hellacious Arab-Israeli War of 1973, he would try to navigate a middle path between the colossuses of the Soviet Union and the United States, and he would attempt to maintain close ties with the Indians. The Socialist government of Bangladesh sought to nationalize much of the country’s economy. As such, the sources of food production became painfully mismanaged, as nationalization had mostly failed. By 1974, the country was racked by twin convulsions: a terrible famine swept across the country and the minority populations of the Chittagong Hill region were in open revolt.

In 1975, feeling the pressure on all sides, and under charges of corruption, Mujibur declared martial law and then forced his controversial Fourth Amendment to the Bangladeshi constitution. This amendment, when passed, banned all political parties other than the Socialist Awami League. Now, Mujibur found himself as the supreme leader of the new undemocratic government of Bangladesh. Restrictions to freedom of speech soon follow thereafter. The country was suffering, starving, and nearly bankrupt. Mujibur and his government had little direction for the country, other than to increase their own control. Thus, on a quiet evening in 1975, Mujibur and his Awami League were soon removed in a bloody coup. Mujibur, his wife, children, and others were killed by a cadre of senior Bangladeshi military leaders who had grown disenchanted with Mujibur’s seemingly inept leadership.

What followed was a succession of military strongmen. During this period, the country slowly but steadily grew and moved closer and closer into the orbit of the United States during the Cold War.

Mujibur and his family shortly before their grisly assassination by disgruntled generals. However, the coup plotters missed one daughter, Sheikh Hasina, who was away with her grandparents in Pakistan. She would return to Bangladesh in 1981 to lead her father’s old Awami Party back to power, and either arrest or kill all members of the coup against her father.


Mujibur’s corpse shortly after his murder.

Jamaat-e-Islami and the Rise of Islamism in Bangladesh

Jamaat-e-Islami began as a Wahhabi vanguard political movement designed to create a new Caliphate which spanned the entirety of the Indian subcontinent. When India and Pakistan separated, the movement created two branches, in order to keep the revolution alive among both Muslim populations in India and Pakistan.

As Bangladesh progressed on its path of development, it mirrored the course that many of the new states of the Developing world–particularly those states culturally oriented toward the Islamic world, such as Turkey or Pakistan–took in terms of modernization. In fact, like Turkey or neighboring Pakistan, the Bangladeshis relied significantly on their military leadership to rule the country following the ouster of Mujibur and his Awami League. Indeed, Bangladesh, like much of the Developing world, seemed to vacillate wildly between Socialism among its leaders and deep sympathies toward the Islamic world among its general population–settling on secular military dictatorships to keep the peace and provide a modicum of basic services. Plus, the weak infrastructure, large population, and extreme poverty of the country meant that the government needed to impose its will on its restive population, lest it lose power. This is where Jamaat-e-Islami and Islamism enters into the fray.

Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) began as a Wahhabist movement dedicated to the crafting an Islamic state based upon Sharia Law in pre-partition India. Its founder, Abul A’la Maududi, was an Islamic scholar who believed that for Islam to survive in its purest form, its followers must embrace politics and use Sharia as a shield from which to protect Islam from what he viewed as the pernicious influences of Western philosophy, politics, and modernity. It should be noted that from its earliest iteration, JeI was staunchly opposed to the concept of the Muslim population of the Indian subcontinent breaking away and forming its own state.

Abul A’la Maududi, the founder of Jamaat-e-Islami. Maududi would go on to have intellectual influences upon several Islamist movements across the Islamic world.

Indeed, this is a common notion shared by most Islamist parties throughout modern history. Viewing themselves as a political insurgent party, most Islamist parties prefer to keep the Muslim populations of whatever region they are working in, united in a large group, so as to form a massive voting bloc. Once this massive voting bloc is formed, most Islamist parties seek to gain political power in their respective countries through elections, to give their cause an air of legitimacy it might otherwise be lacking. This is why, for instance, you saw Hezbollah take power in the Palestinian Authority in 2006 through election, as well as why the Muslim Brotherhood followed a similar–albeit brief–pattern in revolutionary Egypt in 2011-12. This also comports with political Islam’s view of the Islamic world. Unlike the Western world which views individual nation-states as the primary actors on the international stage, most Islamists disdain the entire concept of nation-states. Islamists tend to view Western-style nation-states as entirely alien to Islam. For Islamists, as with the Communists of the previous century, the world is dichotomous. It is divided, in the words of one of the fathers of Islamism, Sayyid Qutb, between Dar-es-salaam, the House of Peace (the realm of The Believers), and Dar al-Harb, the House of War (the zone of unbelievers). Therefore, any artificial division imposed upon Muslims by un-Islamic political forces, such as nation-states, must be prevented at all costs.

A general visualization of the original Dar-es-Salaam and Dar al-Harb. Now, today, consider it a picture of the entire Islamic world (Dar-es-Salaam) and the rest of us unbeliever, Dar al-Harb.

Therefore, when Pakistan separated from India, JeI divided as well. Part of JeI remained in India and the other half operated in Pakistan, with a subgroup opening up shop in East Pakistan, under the leadership of Golam Azam. When the Bangladesh Liberation War erupted in 1971, JeI in Bangladesh unleashed several paramilitary units upon the people of Bangladesh, among the most notorious of which were the Al Badr (led by the mass murderer and rapist, Motiur Rehman Nizami), Al-shams, and Razakar brigades. These elements acted as a sort of fifth column for the invading Pakistani army, conducting sabotage missions, committing mass rapes, vicious acts of genocide, and a litany of other atrocious war crimes. Indeed, upwards of a million Bangladeshi civilians would be massacred by these units in conjunction with the Pakistan army.

When the war was won, the people of Bangladesh demanded retribution for the violence that JeI perpetrated against their kin. Mujibur’s government banned JeI and refused Golam Azam, who had fled to West Pakistan during the course of the war, reentry into Bangladesh, viewing him as a traitor and war criminal. In 1975, following the coup against Mujibur and his Awami League, Bangladeshi General Ziaur Rahman became Army Chief of Staff. However, the government that Mujibur and his Awami League left behind was in chaos. What’s more, the country was completely divided over whether to support the government that had been formed by the killers of Mujibur. After a series of murderous coups and counter-coups, eventually, General Rahman ascended to the Presidency and brought order.

President Ziaur Rahman, the man who opened the gates once more for Jamaat-e-Islami to become the lynchpin organization of Bangladeshi political life, and for Islamism to become the defining cultural narrative for most of the country.

If there were two decisions that Rahman was most remembered for it was his decision to embrace the Islamist political parties–particularly Jamaat-e-Islami–and to pass the Indemnity Act, which not only gave immunity to those men who had plotted the assassination and overthrow of Mujibur’s government, but also, to bring the Islamists back into the political fray. Rahman was a devout Sunni Muslim but he was also a strident nationalist. He believed that Bangladesh was weak and that that weakness was exacerbated by the divisions embedded within the country’s political structure. Therefore, he chose not to reopen old wounds by prosecuting the original coup plotters (even promoting them to high position within the government), he essentially pardoned the mass murderer Golam Azam and allowed him to return to Bangladesh, without being tried for war crimes.

Golam Azam, leader of Jamaat-e-Islami during the Bangladeshi Liberation War and current Islamic scholar. He is believed to have been responsible for the genocide that had committed by JeI and the Pakistani army upon the Bangladeshis during their Liberation War. He is a highly divisive figure in Bangladeshi politics today: revered by Islamists (over 80% of the country is Sunni Muslim) and hated by Bangladeshi nationalists.

President Rahman even made Shah Azizur Rahman his Minister of Labor. Shah Azizur Rahman was a highly controversial figure in Bangladesh for his opposition to Bangladesh’s independence away from Pakistan in 1970, as well as his hand in the war crimes that the pro-Pakistani paramilitary brigades perpetrated in Bangladesh during the war. Indeed, he was imprisoned by Bangladeshi authorities and later released in 1973 by Mujibur. During and after his release, Shah Rahman never ceased in his opposition to Bangladeshi independence. Upon his release, he was known to have actively lobbied other Muslim governments not to recognize Bangladesh as an independent state. When President Ziaur Rahman discontinued the ban on Islamist parties, Shah Azizur Rahman would be the man to rebuild the shattered Muslim League that had been banned alongside the Jamaal-E-Islami movement. Yet, President Ziaur Rahman felt that he needed to bridge differences by bringing the disparate groups of Bangladesh together.

Shah Azizur Rahman, head of the Muslim League, Pakistani collaborator during the Liberation War, noted war criminal. He would eventually serve as Bangladesh’s 4th Prime Minister following the assassination of President Ziaur Rahman.

As per President Ziaur Rahman’s Islamic nationalist agenda, he made Islamic studies required teachings at all Bangladeshi schools, he encouraged Mosque attendance, and he insisted that Islamic verses be added to the opening preamble of the Bangladeshi constitution. This act, more than anything, paved the way for the normalization of Islamist ideology in the political culture of Bangladesh. For, despite the fact that many Bangladeshis opposed Jamaat-e-Islami, for their genocidal mania exhibited during the Liberation War, the Islamist ideology became ingrained in the cultural zeitgeist of Bangladesh’s politics. So, while the people would be deeply divided over the acceptability of having Jamaat-e-Islami involved in Bangladesh’s politics, the people were also unopposed to the notion of intensification of stringent Islamist principles being woven into the country’s socio-political fabric. It is safe to say that whether he meant to or not, President Ziaur Rahman paved the way for the Islamization of Bangladesh’s political discourse, thereby removing the secularization that Mujibur had insisted upon for Bangladesh’s government immediately following the country’s independence. This Islamization of the country’s socio-political structure would have deep reverberations through today’s political discourse in Bangladesh.

In fact, President Rahman would make the National Party his political party, which had aligned with Jamaat-e-Islami in order to gain–and retain power. However, as was the case with many Muslim governments during this period of the Cold War, there was a slow move toward distancing their countries from the Soviet Union and toward realigning, however nominally, with the United States. President Rahman was one such leader who swiftly took his country away from its traditional Soviet sympathies–that had been stoked by Mujibur–and toward the embrace of the waiting U.S. Due to this, a strong military and economic partnership would develop over the decades that remains in place to this day (particularly on the military side of things).

Although Zia’s reign (from 1977-1981) would find support from a healthy cross-section of Bangladeshi citizens, his rehabilitation of the former assassins of Mujibur, his kindness toward Pakistani collaborators, and his reintroduction of Islamism into the mainstream Bangladeshi culture earned his many enemies. What’s more, his stern treatment of any opposition from within the Bangladeshi army, the institution from whence Zia had risen, ultimately sealed his fate. Sensing that factionalism was once more consuming the fractious nation, Zia journeyed with his entourage to Chittagong Valley region of Bangladesh to settle a regional dispute within his Nationalist Party. While there, however, he was gunned down by elements of the army who opposed his reign.

The Chittagong Circuit, where President Ziaur Rahman was staying the night he was murdered in the military coup.

Eventually, after multiple successions, General Hussain Muhammad Ershad obtained power through a bloodless military coup in 1982. Once in power, he would eventually found the Jatiyo Party, and began a massive modernization of the country’s economy that has led to it being the third-largest economy in South Asia. Ershad and his Jatiyo movement would denationalize several sectors of the Bangladeshi economy, incorporate Bangladesh as a founding member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), as well as several other forward-thinking reforms. During his tenure in office, Bangladesh became an integral member of the international community and a serious military partner of the United States. Indeed, Bangladesh sent a large military contingent to join President George H.W. Bush’s coalition for invading Iraq in 1991. However, he too, was ultimately removed from office in 1986 during a popular uprising (although he would not actually leave until 1990). His reign also reflects the longest autocratic rule of Bangladesh in its history.

Hussain Muhammad Ershan, the longest serving autocrat in Bangladeshi history.

Ultimately, he would be undone by two fiery women: Khaleda Zia of the Nationalist Party (who was also closely aligned with Jamaat-e-Islami) and Sheikh Hasina Wajed of the Awami Party. Sheikh Hasina, of course, was the daughter of the murdered founder of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Khaleda Zia was the wife of assassinated President Ziaur Rahman, as well as a former Prime Minister of Bangladesh. These two unlikely allies led their respective political movements–two groups, the Islamic and nationalist elements for Zia and the Socialist and secular elements for Hasina–in an erstwhile campaign for democracy.

The campaign resulted in the return of Zia into the Prime Minister’s position, coupled with the increase of influence for both her Nationalist Party, but also, more importantly, for the Islamist movements–particularly Jamaat-e-Islami. Just as I elucidated earlier, Islamist groups prefer to play by democratic rules in order to achieve power, then they attempt to remove democracy entirely once they are in power. The building blocks have slowly been put in place. And, even though the Islamist movements had not yet had significant electoral victories, the fact remained that they had a grip on a majority of Bangladeshi culture–running the Mosques and schools in particular.

Sheikh Hasina Pulls an Arya Stark on Her Family’s Killers

In the popular Game of Thrones series on HBO, the primary group of protagonists emanate from the Stark Family. During the course of the show, the once mighty family is systematically humiliated, tormented, and assassinated. However, there is one character, the young girl, Arya Stark, who has vowed to avenge her family. She spends most of the series biding her time, hiding out, and training herself to be ready for the day when she exacts terrible vengeance upon those she felt wronged her family. I can only assume that something similar drove the surviving daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Sheikh Hasina Wajed.


See the resemblance?

When she was a young girl she stayed with her grandparents in Pakistan. It was a contentious time in that part of the world. The subcontinent was yet again fragmenting, the Pakistanis were still incensed over the loss of Bangladesh, Islamist groups were raging alongside their allies in the Pakistani government, and back home, her father’s leadership was not being received very well. While she was in Pakistan, in fact, she received word of the brutal murder of her father and mother, as well as 17 other members of her family. After that, Sheikh Hasina became a political refugee. She was disallowed from returning to her native land, she was likely a target for political assassination (or at least she feared she might have been), and she ultimately fled to India. She would not go meekly into the night, however. As has been previously documented in this article, the politics of Bangladesh during this time was dysfunctional and the situation was grim. By the time she was a young woman, Hasina was already plotting her vengeful return to the land she had been forced to flee years prior. Indeed, even though she were running for office–leader of her father’s old Awami Party, no less–she would not be allowed to return to Bangladesh until after she had won election.

While autocratic President Ershad maintained his firm grip on power through martial law, he decided to allow for parliamentary elections in 1986. Hasina led her party into the political fray once more. However, her decision was highly controversial at the time and was met by considerable resistance from other quarters of Bangladeshi political society–most notably her perpetual rival, Khaleda Zia, and the coalition of nationalists and Islamists that she controlled. These groups felt that, since Ershad was presiding over the elections via martial law, that they were undemocratic and therefore rigged. These groups decided to protest the election. Sensing opportunity to further her own political interests, Hasina stayed strong and ran for office. This ended in disaster for the opposition movement, resulting in the death of a Hasina supporter, and the continuation of Ershad’s autocratic rule. However, from 1991-1996, Hasina and the opposition movement nursed a movement for free-and-neutral elections to life. However, both in 1994 and 1996, elements of the opposition movement, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, as led by Khaleda Zia, essentially rigged a series of elections to make it so that, when the time came, they would ultimately become the dominant party within the Bangladeshi political structure.

In 1996 that is what happened. While Hasina became the Prime Minister from 1996-2001, the Awami League was in a minority position in Parliament. After much back-and-forth (and several corruption and potential murder charges in 2007), Hasina would become Prime Minister in 2008, where she remains in office today.

While in office, Hasina has repealed the Indemnity Act which granted immunity to the coup plotters who murdered Hasina’s family. She has also reneged on her predecessor’s agreement with Islamist leaders, like Golam Azam and Motiur Rehman Nizami. Indeed, in 2013, Hasina managed to outlaw Jamaat-e-Islami on the grounds that the existence of Islamist political parties challenged the integrity of the overtly secular Bangladeshi constitution. As Hasina’s 2013 Al Jazeera interview on the matter illustrated, her thirst for vengeance–either against those who had slain her family in the coup, or those who had partaken in the Islamist-fueled genocide during the Liberation War–was profound.

In early 2016, the Bangladeshi government upheld a wildly unpopular ruling to hang firebrand Jamaat-e-Islami leader Motiur Rehman Nizami. As noted earlier in the article, Nizami is believed to have been responsible for some of the worst offenses of rape and genocide as commander of the Al Badr paramilitary unit fighting in support of Pakistan during the gruesome Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. The entire country was consumed with Islamist protests following his execution and much of the country is brimming with hostility just beneath the tightly policed surface of Bangladeshi society. It should be no surprise that the Dhaka Attacks occurred where, when, and how they did last week.

Islamism vs. Secularism in Bangladesh: Islamism Wins

An important theme here is that Hasina and her Awami League, the Socialist party that her father had created to run Bangladesh before being assassinated, were never overly popular. They always had problems forging coalition governments to gain dominance in the Parliament throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. It was always Khaleda Zia’s Nationalist, aligned with Islamist parties, such as Jamaat-e-Islami, who managed to come out with overwhelming electoral majorities (whether through corrupt means or not). Indeed, Hasina’s actions taken against the Islamists illustrate both the cultural and demographic divide between her secular, pro-Western politics and the inclinations of most of the Sunni population in Bangladesh.

How the mighty have fallen: Golam Azam, beloved Islamist scholar and former leader of Jamaat-e-Islami was convicted by one of Hasina’s courts to 90 years in prison.

In the case of Islamic scholar and war criminal, Golam Azam, the older Bangladeshis who were lucky enough to survive the horrors that Jamaat-e-Islami visited upon them widely supported Hasina’s campaign against these individuals. Even some of the more forward-thinking youth of Bangladesh can support it, on the grounds that these people are traitors to Bangladesh. However, a great many more are almost in open revolt over these decisions. There is a deep–and growing–divide in Bangladesh. The Islamist ideology has influenced a great many people, which explains the high popularity for the Islamist political parties, as well as the fact that Bangladesh has become a cauldron of Jihadist activity since the 1990s. This trend has only worsened under, or rather, in spite of Hasina’s rule.

Hasina’s security forces arrest an Islamist protester, calling for an end to the arrest and trials of Jamaat-e-Islami leaders. Image courtesy of Al Jazeera.

As Hasina’s rule has intensified her aims of bringing those individuals to justice whom she feels harmed Bangladesh, Islamist resentment has surged throughout the country. It has gotten to such a point that Hasina has started to rely on undemocratic methods to ensure that her country’s security is not threatened by the explosion in Islamist groups. It is no longer just Jamaat-e-Islami or the Muslim League, these groups have been joined (or, possibly, invited) by al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

In her quest to right historical wrongs, Hasina may have sparked a cultural and demographic backlash that will consume the country. Hasina and her secular Awami League have a growing economy in a fertile part of the world, they have overwhelming military might, they have close ties with the U.S. and UK, but they do not have the people. Most of the people are, at the very least, sympathetic to the Islamist cause. Therefore, Hasina’s secular politics are pushing against an unstoppable tidal wave of popular Islamist sentiment. As we have seen throughout the Middle East, such governments that possess a monopoly of power are rarely able to resist the overwhelming forces of populism, Islamism, and nationalism. Indeed, as was the case in many of the other nationalist strongman-type regimes in the Muslim world, the illiberalism of the regime was commensurate with the level of Islamist opposition to the government in power. Due to this, the 2016 Freedom House Index rates Bangladesh as only “Partly Free”–with a rating of “Not Free” in 2016 in terms of freedom for the press. These trends are only getting worse, not better.

It is within this context that the Dhaka Cafe Attacks occurred last week.

The Questionable Future of Democratic Bangladesh

Bangladesh is a founding member of the Developing 8 (an economic development organization for Turkey, Malaysia, Egypt, Nigeria, Indonesia, and Iran), it has deep security ties with the United States, and it is the leading contributing to a majority of United Nations peacekeeping missions globally. Despite this, however, the democratic future of Bangladesh seems dubious. Indeed, the 2015 Freedom House rankings give Bangladesh a “Partly Free” ranking and states that there is no press freedom in Bangladesh. What’s more, recent political developments in Bangladesh are compounding this intensifying anti-democratic streak. As has been noted, this is largely in response to an uptick in Islamist political activity.

Islamists clash in Bangladesh over Hasina’s religion ban. Look at the crowd. You have an age range of what looks like 10 (lower right corner of the image) years of age, to someone in their mid-40s (lower left). This the age group (and, the gender group, given the culture) that will likely determine Bangladesh’s future.

This increase in illiberalism, coupled with a surge of Islamist political activism, coincides with the recent Islamic State-backed terrorist attack in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital city. The prevalence of a fairly prosperous developing economy (one that is modernizing, no less), coupled with the fact that Islamist ideology has deep roots in the Bangladeshi community, seems to dispel the common Western assertion that what’s needed to combat terrorism globally are jobs for Jihadis programs. With Bangladesh’s role as a key driver for the Developing World’s economy–its place as a significant partner for U.S. and Western security programs, its central role in international UN peacekeeping missions–there seems little reason to suspect that Bangladesh should be home to Islamic extremism. This is especially true, given the role that Jamaat-e-Islami played in the genocide against the Bangladeshis in their Liberation War. Yet, the reports are clear: the Islamic State is finding refuge among a significant minority of the Bangladeshi population. And it is not only the Islamic State. It is al Qaeda as well. Indeed, al Qaeda was initially thought to have been responsible for the Dhaka Cafe Attack, because they were known to have a better infrastructure for conducting the kind of operation that the cafe attackers performed.  Of course, this has proven to be a false assessment. It is now believed to have been the work of the Islamic State.

These are the five young men who perpetrated the grotesque attack on foreigners at a posh Dhaka cafe. They were well-educated and came from well-to-do families. They spoke English well and dressed in jeans and T-shirts. Yet, they tortured those hostages who could not recite critical suras of the Qur’an with knives–including a pregnant woman. The prevalence of Islamism in Bangladeshi culture and, more importantly, education is profound. Given the reactions to the trials against Jamaat-e-Islami leaders who were suspected of war crimes, it is hard to imagine that Bangladesh’s future is either secular or democratic.

In fact, the young men who carried the horrific attacks out were not the uneducated poor that many assume are drawn to Jihadism. Quite the contrary, as I outlined in my most recent article, No, the Islamic State Is Not On the Run, the young men who attacked the Dhaka cafe were urban sophisticates. They were well-educated, spoke English, dressed well, and were all from well-to-do families from Bangladesh. These young people, like so many from around the Islamic world, were inculcated from a very early age in a puritanical form of Wahhabi Islam. And, of course, this is to say nothing of the traditional older generations who have always supported Islamist groups, such as Jamaat-e-Islami, on religious and moral grounds.

The reason that I bring this up is due to the fact that the Dhaka Attacks highlight a Bangladesh that is at a crossroads. It is very much a multicultural society–while it is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim, it still has significant minorities of Hindus, Buddhists, even Christians, not to mention countless scores of varying ethnic minorities. It has capitalized on its position near the Bay of Bengal, as well as being possessed of a large (and young) population, to begin to craft a somewhat dynamic economy (though there is still a great deal of work to be done). They have become a major global trading hub and they are still technically committed to being a serious contributing member to the Western-oriented International Community. Furthermore, the constitution does still technically have secular democracy enshrined as its governing principle.

Of course, in practice, as this article has shown, whether it be Socialists, Militarists, Nationalists, or Islamists, democracy will be in serious retreat. Given population density and cultural trends, there is little doubt that Bangladesh will have to choose between a corrupt, secularist government–as it has now. A secular government that uses overwhelming force to oppress the majority will of its people. Or, it will have to embrace the madness of Islamist politics. This is hardly a fair choice. Yet, it is the choice that previous leaders have set up for the current crop of Bangladeshis.

A map of countries around the world with Islamic State activity (this is an older map and excludes many Western countries that we now know have IS elements within it).

And, as for the presence of foreign Jihadist groups, such as the Islamic State and al Qaeda: this should hardly be surprising. The fact is that Islamist political parties, while nominally distinct from one another, are possessed of the same goal: the implementation of a universal Islamic Caliphate predicated on Sharia Law. Therefore, they giddily work together to further their universal goal. In the political realm, as was the case in Bangladesh’s history, independent groups like Jamaat-e-Islami and the Muslim League (and other smaller groups) worked together to form coalition governments. Also, these political Islamist groups have no qualms about lending various forms of support to likeminded Jihadist terror groups, such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State. It is all, after all, in the pursuit of a terrifyingly totalitarian goal. Such a mission requires patience, coordination, and flexibility, as the Islamist political parties and Jihadist terror networks have displayed over the decades.

In 2015, Boko Haram in Nigeria swore allegiance to the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (pictured on the left).

The social and political fault lines that have been created in Bangladesh are ripe for a group like the Islamic State to extend its reach. As Boko Haram and other affiliated Jihadist groups have proven (newsflash: Boko Haram’s religious philosophy is deeply rooted in the teachings of Jamaat-e-Islami’s founder, Abul A’la Maududi), there are massive benefits to even nominally aligning with the Islamic State. Jamaat-e-Islami and the other Islamist political parties in Bangladesh, under pressure Sheikh Hasina’s anti-Islamist campaign, see this. I fully believe that within the context of Bangladesh’s ongoing Secular-Islamist divide, elements of the Islamic State are finding refuge, likely with Jamaat-e-Islami (as well as other Islamist groups in Bangladesh) support.

Toward Modernity or Medievalism?

The forces of modernity, however rough-and-tumble, seem to be strong–for now. The Bangladeshis have benefited from the kind of secular rule that many have understandably come to resent. Under various leaders (some mentioned in this brief history, many others not), slow but important economic reforms and infrastructure investments were made that helped to make Bangladesh a viable player in the globalized economy today. Yet, whatever increase in standard of living that it may have enjoyed, the blood of reactionary conservatives within the Muslim population continues to boil with rage over the consequences of modernization. Therefore, Maududi’s original critiques of Western modernism and his calls for a universal Islamic state governed by Sharia to be the defense against Western modernism, ring as true to a vast majority of Bangladeshis today, as it did decades ago. This explains why the various Islamist groups have not gone the way of the dodo, as the country’s share of global prosperity and promise has increased.

Islamic State militants in Bangladesh on June 7, 2016, claiming responsibility for vicious murder of a Hindu priest.

There is much to lend itself to the assessment that an Islamist victory in Bangladesh is not assured. Indeed, Sheikh Hasina, whatever her flaws–and there are many–seems dedicated to the marginalization and destruction of Islamist groups, if only for her own political gain. While she and her government have denied IS claims that they are operating in Bangladesh, the recent Dhaka attacks must force a reassessment. If they do not, then the U.S. will have little to work with on the ground. Yet, I cannot help but wonder how much of Hasina’s denials are mere ignorance or simple bravado. A country as linked into the American security apparatus as Bangladesh’s armed forces are, must comprehend the threat. The mere fact that for several months, Bangladeshi forces have contended with Islamist rebels, and they have dealt with those Islamists is such draconian ways, indicates to me that Hasina’s government is unlikely to take the IS threat–as exemplified by the recent Dhaka attack–with the glib indifference that it has thus far. However, that is merely speculation.

There are vast contingents of people, young and old, who see the benefits of modernism and champion a more cosmopolitan existence for Bangladesh. These are mostly the people who support Hasina and her Awami League. Yet, the call for Islamic purity, for a return to Mohammed is very strong. Unfortunately, Hasina is likely working against a clock–if she is seriously working at all–that is rapidly running in her disfavor. The presence of Hasina’s longtime rival, Khaleda Zia, still controlling her Nationalist-Islamist political coalition, patiently nipping at Hasina’s political heels, waiting for her own return to the Prime Minister’s position, only compounds the situation for the more secular, modern elements of Bangladeshi society. What’s more, the very measures that Hasina is taking to prevent an Islamist challenge to her political rule, seem to be precipitating the very same seismic political shift from secular democracy to Islamist theocracy that Hasina is intent on preventing.

A group of Bangladeshi civilians call for strength in resisting the call toward Islamism. These secularists are fewer and fewer.

The solution is simple: whatever her flaws, the U.S. likely has an ally in Hasina. She has benefited from the U.S. military alliance. Her forces are equipped and trained by the United States and the United Kingdom militaries. They have close ties and the Bangladeshis have consistently assisted the U.S. in vital counterterrorism efforts. Furthermore, the Bangladeshis remain the largest contributing nation for United Nations peacekeeping missions. Whatever one’s opinion on the efficacy of UN peacekeeping missions (I am certainly skeptical of most of them), the fact remains that the Western world has a committed ally in Hasina. The fact that she is so publicly linked to the U.S. also means that its her rear-end on the line when it comes to dealing with Islamist resentment–there isn’t anything more an Islamist hates than a political figure backed by the U.S. Okay, most Islamists hate Israel more than they hate that, but you get the meaning!

U.S. Navy Special Warfare group aboard an American warship, conducting a joint training mission, 2011.

The U.S. needs to reassess its actions in the past eight years. As I have noted in previous articles for The Weichert Report, the U.S. has spent an inordinate amount of time empowering its regional adversaries at the expense of its stalwart friends. With the diffusion of the Islamic State and the reinvigoration of al Qaeda, the U.S. can ill afford to let another flawed, but vital, ally in Bangladesh go the way of Qaddafi and Mubarak. The U.S. needs to intensify its counterterrorism efforts with Bangladesh, it needs to help them seriously squelch the Islamist threat, and it needs to ensure that Hasina remains in power as long as the U.S. must fight the scourge of Jihadism. America is losing its allies in the Muslim world. It must fight to keep whoever remains, at least until the U.S. can effectively pivot and crush the Islamic State.

The future for Bangladesh is uncertain. It stands at a crossroads. All the U.S. can do is try to support the forces of secular modernity. The U.S. must stand by its principles and also its interests. An Islamist regime, or some variation thereof, is not something that the U.S. can get behind. Even if it were a coalition government led by a woman who has twice been featured on the Forbes Most Powerful Women List, such as Khaleda Zia. The Islamic State must be fought. It must destroyed. The U.S. will need allies in this battle. Bangladesh is a small, but important piece of curbing the Islamic State’s spread.

This article is part of The Weichert Report’s ongoing Backgrounder Series.


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