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Asia

Secular Bangladesh under threat

Bangladesh won its independence from Pakistan in 1971 on the basis of nationality and has maintained a secular identity since then. But after four decades, the rise of Islamist extremism haunts the country.

Bangladesh is heading towards general elections in an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty. The Awami League-led ruling alliance and opposition parties have yet to come to an agreement on the issue of the caretaker government. But experts say the biggest concern for the people of Bangladesh is related to the rise of Islamist fundamentalism in their country, as it could be a big factor in the upcoming elections.

Months of riots have cast a shadow over the entire democratic process, and at present, it is doubtful whether the elections, which are scheduled to be held in January, will take place on time.

Riots and chaos

More than 100 people have been killed in violent protests since January, when the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT), began delivering verdicts against people accused of committing crimes during the 1971 war of independence. The ICT was set up in 2009 after the Awami League of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina won a resounding parliamentary majority at a general election in the previous year. Among the sentenced are senior figures of the country's main Islamic party, the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), which opposed Bangladeshi independence during the war, but has denied accusations that some of its leaders committed murder, rape and torture during the conflict.

The ICT has so far convicted seven people, the first six were members of the JI. Recently, the tribunal sentenced the BNP leader Salauddin Quader Chowdhury to death after convictions on "nine charges of war crimes including genocide."

The JI received a big blow on August 1st when Dhaka's High Court ruled in favor of a long-running petition which argued that the party should never have been allowed to register as a political party.

But JI and other Islamists groups have proven that they can paralyze the country through their mass protests.

History of secularism

Trade union leader Jolly Talukder is confident that Islamists will not get the upper hand in Bangladeshi politics. “We have a glorious history of secularism. Hefazat-e-Islam and the Jamaat-e-Islami will never be able to dominate Bangladeshi politics," Talukder told DW, adding that the BNP should stop patronizing the Islamists.

Journalist Probhash Amin is also of the view that religious parties have no future in Bangladesh. "Bengalis are religious but not fanatics. I do not think that religious parties can get mass support in this country," Amin said.

But many in Bangladesh think the future of secularism is very much under threat in the country and the Islamists are gaining ground.

A real threat

Ayesha Khanam, president of the Bangladesh Mohila Porishad (Women's Council of Bangladesh) is alarmed by recent events. "Islamists are organizing themselves in a new way and there are signs that Islamic fundamentalism is on the rise. We are very concerned about the whole situation because these people are now supported by some mainstream political parties," Khanam alluded to the BNP.

Secular Bangladeshis fear that the BNP might come to power again and with it the Islamists. But experts are unsure to what extent the BNP can go to accommodate Islamists in order to return to power, as it can be a double-edged sword even for the predominantly nationalist party.

Few years ago, the rise of Islamism in Bangladesh was not even a possibility. Today, the threat looks real.