Image source: Organiser - Photo: 2023

The Spectre of Islamists’ Return to Power Haunts Bangladesh

Analysis by Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury

DHAKA. 15 July 2023 (IDN) — Bangladesh, a vibrant and diverse nation in South Asia, has made remarkable strides in economic growth and social development in recent decades. However, there is growing concern about the potential consequences of the return of Islamists to power, as it poses significant challenges to the country’s secular fabric, democratic principles, and social harmony.

Bangladesh emerged as an independent nation in 1971 after a bloody liberation war that sought to preserve its cultural and linguistic identity. Since then, the country has embraced a secular and democratic framework, upholding the principles of pluralism and religious freedom. However, recent years have witnessed a resurgence of Islamist political forces, threatening the foundations of Bangladesh’s progressive society.

The resurgence of Islamist parties and groups in Bangladesh is attributable to a complex interplay of factors, including a perceived vacuum in political representation, disillusionment with mainstream political parties, and a growing influence of conservative ideologies. Some Islamist groups have capitalized on social issues, such as poverty and unemployment, to gain popular support, presenting themselves as the champions of Islamic values and social justice.

Existential challenges

Bangladesh’s secular fabric has been integral to its national identity, fostering coexistence among people of diverse religious beliefs. However, the rise of Islamists threatens to erode this secular foundation, potentially leading to the imposition of religious norms on society, curtailing individual freedoms, and restricting the rights of minority communities.

Under the leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh has made significant progress in empowering women and achieving gender equality. However, the return of Islamists raises concerns about the potential rollback of these gains. Islamist ideologies often promote patriarchal norms, which could hinder the advancement of women’s rights and undermine their participation in various spheres of society.

Ultra-Islamist forces such as Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)’s ascent to power may challenge Bangladesh’s democratic principles, as some groups advocate for implementing Sharia law or a more authoritarian governance structure. This could undermine the foundations of democracy, suppress dissent, and limit the space for political pluralism and free expression.

While not all Islamist groups espouse violence, radical elements within these factions are emerging. Radicalization and the potential for extremist ideologies to take root pose a serious security threat to Bangladesh. Such developments could undermine social stability, disrupt economic growth, and tarnish the country’s international reputation.

Bangladesh’s economic progress has been impressive in recent years, attracting foreign investments and creating employment opportunities. 

However, the return of Islamists to power may introduce policies prioritizing religious agendas over economic considerations. This shift could discourage foreign investors, hinder economic growth, and negatively impact the lives of ordinary citizens.

Striving to avoid becoming a neo-Taliban state

Recent geopolitical shifts have raised concerns about the potential for Bangladesh to devolve into a neo-Taliban state, particularly if ultra-Islamist and jihadist forces such as Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its ideological ally succeed in returning to power. Given the country’s strategic location, sizable population, and progressive accomplishments, such a scenario would have far-reaching implications for Bangladesh and regional stability and global security.

Bangladesh has made significant strides in various domains, including social development, women’s empowerment, and economic growth. The nation has successfully uplifted millions out of poverty, achieved gender parity in education, and become a major player in the global textile industry. Its secular and democratic values have fostered harmony and stability within its diverse population.

Threats to Bangladesh’s progressive path

The rise of Islamist extremism is a growing concern in Bangladesh. Radicalized factions, inspired by global jihadist movements, aim to impose a narrow interpretation of Islam and undermine the country’s secular fabric. While Bangladesh has effectively combated such threats in the past, the emergence of new extremist groups poses challenges to its security apparatus and social cohesion.

The evolving geopolitical landscape in the region, coupled with the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, has created an environment conducive to the spread of extremist ideologies. The porous borders and shared cultural and linguistic ties between Bangladesh and its neighbours amplify the risks of radicalization and the potential for the exportation of extremist ideas.

Socioeconomic factors, including poverty, unemployment, and lack of access to quality education, can contribute to the growth of extremism. 

Disenfranchised individuals, susceptible to radical ideologies, may find solace and purpose in extremist narratives that promise change and empowerment. Addressing these socioeconomic challenges is crucial to preventing extremism in Bangladesh.

Political polarization and instability can create an environment where extremist ideologies flourish. The politicization of religion and the marginalization of dissenting voices can pave the way for radical groups to exploit grievances and gain support. Strengthening democratic institutions, fostering inclusive governance, and promoting dialogue are essential to mitigating this risk.

The transformation of Bangladesh into a neo-Taliban state would have severe consequences, both regionally and globally:

Bangladesh’s destabilization would fuel extremism in neighbouring countries and undermine regional stability. It could provide a haven for terrorist groups, facilitating cross-border terrorism and impeding efforts to combat transnational threats.

Bangladesh is already grappling with the Rohingya refugee crisis, hosting over 1.20 million displaced individuals from Myanmar. A neo-Taliban Bangladesh would exacerbate the situation, leading to additional waves of refugees seeking safety and straining resources both within the country and in neighbouring nations.

Bangladesh has proactively partnered in global counterterrorism efforts, cooperating closely with international stakeholders to combat extremist organizations. A radicalized Bangladesh would undermine these efforts, hampering the collective fight against terrorism and hindering intelligence sharing.

Bangladesh’s continued progress as a secular, democratic, and progressive nation is crucial for its own citizens and regional stability and global security. Policymakers, civil society, and international partners must collaborate to prevent the country from succumbing to extremist ideologies.

By addressing socioeconomic challenges, promoting inclusive governance, and reinforcing the rule of law, Bangladesh can strengthen its commitment to pluralism, tolerance, and progress. Safeguarding Bangladesh’s trajectory is essential to ensure a stable, prosperous, and harmonious future for the nation and the world.

Bangladesh stands at a crucial juncture, facing the challenge of preserving its secular, democratic, and progressive character in the face of the resurgence of Islamist forces, especially when the conglomerate of Islamists and jihadists are making frantic bids in unseating the current Awami League government from power—by hook or crook.

Balancing religious values with a commitment to pluralism, human rights, and social development is essential to ensure the country’s continued progress. Policymakers, civil society organizations, and citizens must engage in constructive dialogue, promote tolerance, and safeguard the principles that have defined Bangladesh’s identity for decades. By doing so, Bangladesh can navigate this existential challenge and continue toward a prosperous and inclusive future. [IDN-InDepthNews]

Image source: Organiser

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