While its former “partner” and ruler from the other side of India, Pakistan, contends with--and often appears to accommodate--the aggression of the Taliban, Bangladesh (population 160 million, almost entirely Muslim), has quietly adopted a more vigorous policy of legal action to curb Islamist radicals.
Bangladesh has a woman at the head of its government, who also bears the religious title “sheikh”: Hasina Wajed of the secular Awami League, daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (1920-75), the architect of the country’s independence. It has a parliamentary system and an energetic, critical media. Its political elite is guiding the country toward reinforcement of democracy and away from Islamic rule. Bangladesh and Bangladeshis of all opinions deserve more attention and encouragement from the rest of the world, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.
Late in August the country’s Supreme Court, from its capital, Dhaka, declared illegal the imposition of face veils (niqab) for women and skullcaps for men in workplaces and schools. As reported here, the ruling responded to an attempt to force all females to wear the veil at a college in the country’s north. The college is a state institution, and the court ordered that “wearing religious attire should be the personal choice of the students or the employees. No one can be forced to wear them,” according to a barrister, Mahbub Shafique. He added, “some schools force children as young as five years old to wear veils and skull caps.” He further explained, “this particular ruling today doesn’t apply only on females; it also applies to males as well.”
The decision regarding religious dress was only the latest in a series of measures adopted in Bangladesh against the symbols and doctrines of extremist Muslim ideology. In April, the Supreme Court had barred schools from requiring that face veils or headscarves be worn by women teachers and administrators. That action came after a school headmistress said she was verbally abused by a government official for not covering her hair in a staff meeting. The country has experienced increased sexual harassment in schools, and authorities have sent plain-clothes police into Dhaka’s educational facilities to stop girl students from being browbeaten if they do not hew to the Islamist dress code. Some Islamic schools have indicated that they will continue to bar entry to their premises by women students who do not wear niqab and the burqa.
In July, Bangladesh took the extraordinary initiative of banning the books of Abu’l-Ala Maududi (1903-79), the Indian-born ideologue of modern South Asian jihadism, from libraries and mosques. Maududi founded Jama’at e-Islami (JI, or Community for Islam), which remains the most influential radical party in Pakistan and Bangladesh today, and is allied with the Deobandi school, who inspire the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, as well as the Saudi Wahhabis. Maududi’s supporters have penetrated the large contingent of Bangladeshi Muslims in Britain, and they control a leading national Muslim group in the U.S., the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA). ICNA directs numerous American mosques with South Asian congregations.
Maududi’s writings undermine the peaceful and traditional interpretations of Islam the Dhaka government supports, according to Shamim Mohammad Afjal, director-general of the Islamic Foundation in Bangladesh, and it is “not correct to keep books of Mr. Maududi in mosques.” Some 24,000 mosque libraries began removal of his books after the government’s order. A JI representative in Bangladesh, Abu Torab Muhammad Azharul Islam, denounced the removal of Maududi’s works as a measure against Islam. On the other side, the Tariqat Council, representing the spiritual Sufis who are widely influential in Bangladesh, have accused JI of endangering Islam.
The Bangladesh authorities appear to side with the Sufis, since at the end of June, the government detained 65 JI leaders and activists on grounds that their activities are seditious and harmful to Islam. JI cadres are also accused of committing atrocities during the 1971 independence war that brought Bangladesh into being. JI sided with the rulers in then-West Pakistan, and prominent Bangladeshis have unsuccessfully demanded gestures from Pakistan in recognition of the horrors perpetrated by radical Islamists at that time.
Irfan al-Alawi is executive director of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, based in the UK. Stephen Schwartz is author of The Two Faces of Islam and The Other Islam: Sufism and the Road to Global Harmony.