Why Sheikh Hasina Is the Reason for the Rise of Islamists in Bangladesh

One of the important reasons why these Islamists feel so emboldened is because the Hasina government has been soft on them.

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The birth of Bangladesh was the very antithesis of one religion, one nation principle. Against the quasi theological state of Pakistan, Bangladesh defined itself as a secular multicultural republic. The state, having no truck with religion, was to protect and enhance secular and liberal principles, and respect the right to dissent and democracy. It was an experiment lauded by the world community. Unfortunately, what we are witnessing today may be the unwinding of that experiment. It appears that Bangladesh is moving slowly but surely towards a polity which will be defined by Islamism. 

The recent upsurge in anti-government demonstrations by the Hefazat e Islam, a conglomeration of religious interests, is a pointer that if not handled sternly, Bangladesh might go the Pakistan way which will have implications for the whole of South Asia. The current crisis has been precipitated by the decision of the Sheikh Hasina government to install a statue of Shiekh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh. Arguing that sculpture is against Islam, Hefazat has vowed to tear down any such statue thus setting the stage for another confrontation with the government. The Islamist argument always has been that any representation which might lead to ‘idolatry’ must be prohibited in an ‘Islamic’ nation. The argument is simply ridiculous: there is a difference between idols and statues, the deference shown to both is fundamentally and qualitatively different.

In fact, rather than statues, the threat of idol worship comes from the cult like status which many sovereigns of Muslim nations enjoy. But then, questioning the ‘divine right’ of one family to rule in perpetuity might amount to sedition and hence not just people of the Arab world, but even the Bangladeshi Mullahs will never raise such issues. It is extremely hard to believe that these Mullahs are themselves convinced of the veracity of their argument against installing Mujib’s statue. The problem to understand then is not the absurdity of such claims but what lies behind them. And it is becoming clear that the Islamists in that country want to imagine the state in their own image; in other words it is a power struggle to re-make Bangladesh into an Islamist republic.


One of the important reasons why these Islamists feel so emboldened is because the Hasina government has been soft on them. In 2017, the Hefazat tasted victory when they successfully rallied to pressurise the government to remove the statue of ‘lady justice’ which was installed in front of the apex court. Sheikh Hasina in fact supported the Islamists by publically criticising the installation of the statue. If the idea was that she would gather the support of these Islamists, then surely she did but at what cost? If an officially secular state capitulates to such ridiculous demands, then perhaps it is time to look at how the government itself is undermining the secular system which it claims to uphold.

Similarly, the government was silent and even at times supportive of the Islamists when there was a spate of killing of secular bloggers in the country. Senior ministers put the blame for such terrorist acts on the bloggers themselves, arguing that these bloggers had provoked ordinary Muslims and that they should have been sensitive to their religious feelings. Again, the government was bending over backwards to appease the hardliners. At times, the government was even seen to be actively on the side of Islamist killers by being extremely slow in prosecuting such cases. The government needs to understand that by accommodating the feelings of such hardliners, it is digging its own grave. No matter how popular Sheikh Hasina may be with the Islamists, the latter will not stop until they make fundamental changes to the constitution of that country. Hasina must realise that she will not be able to ‘contain’ the Islamist Ulama through such mollycoddling; they will only be emboldened to make further more hardline demands. Only a principled opposition to the ideology of the Islamists can make sure that these Islamists remain on the periphery.

The Islamist network in Bangladesh is grounded within independent/community (qawmi) madrasas. There are many large madrasas housing thousands of students who act as captive foot soldiers to implement the agenda of their bosses. According to one estimate, these community madrasas together house about 4 million students. The Sheikh Hasina government, again, in order to appease this section, made the certificate of these madrasas equivalent to certificates given by government schools and colleges. This resulted in ‘mainstreaming’ of madrasa education in Bangladesh but at the same time also led to rising aspirations of madrasa graduates. Although their certificates had become recognised and they could apply for government and other jobs, the teaching within their madrasas hardly equipped them to enter the professional job market. So while the aspirations had risen, the harsh reality outside led to rising levels of frustration within these madrasa students. It is not surprising therefore that this section is the first to hit the streets whenever a call is made by the Islamist Ulama. Moreover, this section is now convinced that their interests can only be fulfilled by an overtly Islamic regime and therefore it is in their interest to campaign for the abolishment of the existing secular system of governance.

Lastly, in its quest for absolute power, the Sheikh Hasina government has decimated the opposition. Leading members of the opposition have been jailed on trumped up charges. Even the civil society in Bangladesh is facing the heat. All this has ensured that the Hasina government has no rival in the foreseeable future. This vacant opposition space has now been filled by the Islamists. Since there is no other opposition, even people who are not Islamist have no other option but to support such Islamist parties. A sagacious move by the Hasina government would have been to keep alive the secular opposition space but in her quest for absolute power, she has made sure that the whole polity of Bangladesh has moved decisively to the right.

Sheikh Hasina has managed good press for herself so far. She is portrayed as someone who is fighting the Islamists but it appears that she has in many ways paved the way for such an Islamist scourge to emerge in the first place.

‘This article was first published in New Age Islam and may be read here’.



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