In the ongoing debate over Islam and democracy, Bangladesh, the eighth largest country in the world, with 164 million people—90 percent of them Muslim—is, oddly enough, seldom discussed. Yet Bangladesh has been a democratic, parliamentary republic since 1991. The country will hold new general elections no later than January 2014. The government of female prime minister Shaikha Hasina Wajed and the Bangladesh Awami League has barred the radical Muslim party Jamaat-e Islami (JEI) from participation in the balloting. The Bangladesh government judged the JEI program incompatible with the country’s secular constitution. JEI was founded in British India in 1943 by ideologist Abu’l Ala Mawdudi.
JEI is influential across the Indian subcontinent and is committed to jihad and establishment of a global Islamic state. Its outlook is similar to that of Saudi-financed Wahhabism, the ideology of al Qaeda. Notwithstanding later differences, JEI originated in the education of Mawdudi by the fundamentalist Deobandi sect, inspirers of the Taliban. The JEI’s parliamentary successes have been limited; since elections in 2008 it has held only two out of Bangladesh’s 300 legislative seats. There is a reason for this: the party’s deadly local history.
From the breakup of the former British India into Hindu- and Muslim-majority areas in 1947 until 1971 Bangladesh was identified as “East Pakistan” and was separated by more than 1,000 miles of Indian territory from then-“West Pakistan.” The two wings of Pakistan had no common border or single language. The Bengali culture native to Bangladesh differs significantly from the traditions found in what is now, simply, Pakistan.
In 1971 Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the Awami League, as it was then called, representing Bengali nationalism, won a majority in elections to the common parliament representing the two Pakistans. But Islamabad-based General Yahya Khan, who had declared martial law the year before, refused to allow “Sheikh Mujib” to form an administration.
An uprising began in East Pakistan, followed by violent repression from Islamabad, and a year-long war ending with pro-Bengali intervention by India and the proclamation of independent Bangladesh. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was assassinated in 1975, with most of his family. The country suffered a series of coups until the restoration of parliamentary rule in 1991.
Shaikha Hasina, the elder of Sheikh Mujib’s two daughters who avoided murder because they were away from Bangladesh when he was slain, returned to the country in 1981 and assumed leadership of the renamed Bangladesh Awami League. She was elected prime minister from 1996 to 2001 and, escaping an assassination attempt against her in 2004, regained power in 2009. Shaikha Hasina has stood out among Sunni Muslim national leaders in condemning the infiltration of radicals in her country’s affairs. JEI, assisted by Pakistan, has been a crucial channel for such extremist efforts.
In the 1971 Bangladesh independence war, JEI, directed from West Pakistan, organized Islamist contingents that wrought considerable violence against the partisans of Bangladesh’s sovereignty. At that time, the involvement of Muslim fanatics in the war was ignored by the rest of the world. The BBC has noted that the Bangladesh authorities estimate three million civilians were killed in the fighting, while independent observers concede a death toll of 300,000 to half a million.
During the four decades since, Bangladeshis have not forgotten the atrocities inflicted on them by religious radicals. In response, Shaikha Hasina’s government established an “international war crimes tribunal” in Dhaka, the Bangladesh capital, in 2010. The court initiated charges in 2011 against a group of JEI figures, including its 90-year-old national leader, Ghulam Azam. In July 2013, Azam was found guilty of war crimes and sentenced to 90 years in prison.