Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Bangladesh to lead 'muslim democracy'?

Charles Tannock, the British Conservative foreign affairs spokesman in the European Parliament who led the European Union's parliamentary delegation of election observers to the recent Bangladeshi elections, has written this commentary in the Daily Star of Lebanon.

As fears about the Islamization of politics in the Muslim world grow, Bangladesh has moved in the opposite direction. The country's relatively anonymous international stature belies its strategic importance. Its secular politicians' ability to defeat the country's Islamists decisively in recent parliamentary elections may, indeed, have revived the viability of "Muslim democracy" around the world.

The recent landslide victory for the Awami League in Bangladesh's first election in seven years, after two years of a military-backed caretaker government, has moved the country to the forefront of the battle between secular democrats and Islamists. The election was a credit to the country's democratic yearnings.

The new electoral register was more robust than in many Western countries, with a photo ID picture alongside each elector. The violence that had been widespread in previous elections was entirely absent, with the security services' professionalism in policing the elections - and the army's willingness to return voluntarily to its barracks - playing a key role.

In Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh now has a charismatic leader whose massive electoral mandate augurs well for strong secular government. She returned to Bangladesh from exile, which the army had imposed on her. After her return she still had to endure imprisonment and trumped-up murder charges.

Hasina's enormous popularity always ensured that she would be a leading contender in the election. Her overwhelming triumph has vindicated her belief that ordinary Bangladeshis want a secular and stable future - one that, in contrast to Pakistan, is characterized by warm relations with their giant neighbor, India.

The comprehensive defeat of the Islamist parties is the real story of the election. The vote demonstrated that Bangladesh's 153 million people have little appetite for bringing Islamism into politics. Bangladesh needs only to look west to India and Pakistan to see the threat posed by Islamist terrorism.

But if Hasina is to succeed in continuing to blunt Islamism, she must address the fundamental problems that have destabilized Bangladeshi society for decades. Chief among these is the poverty endured by the majority of her country's population.

To some extent, it is surprising that the Islamist parties did not do better, considering their success elsewhere in mobilizing the most marginalized and vulnerable in society. If the Awami League is unable to address systematic poverty and social inequality, Islamism may well yet succeed in rallying the impoverished to its banner. The Jamaat-e-Islami Party, indeed, told me that they had a 30-year agenda to introduce Sharia law into Bangladesh.

The examples of Hamas and Hizbullah provide a salutary reminder of the challenges faced by the new government in Bangladesh. Although these groups are better known internationally for their militancy against Israel, they have established strong political support by providing organized social services such as schools and clinics for poor people.

Hamas and Hizbullah have prospered because the governing authorities were either unable or unwilling to address grassroots poverty. In the case of Hamas, this displacement was due largely to the massive corruption of the Palestinian Authority under Yasser Arafat, whose cronies pocketed billions of dollars intended to alleviate poverty and suffering in the Gaza Strip.

Given that endemic corruption in Bangladesh is perhaps the primary obstacle to providing essential services for poor people, it is essential that Hasina adopt a tough approach to corruption from the outset. Corruption is also a potential trigger for intervention by the military, a recurring feature of Bangladesh's history that has impeded the country's development.

Beyond fighting corruption, Hasina must also ban all foreign donations to political parties, in particular the "Wahhabi gold" that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states use to fund Islamist parties.

The challenges facing the Awami League are many and varied, but it is not without resources. Bangladesh is in a better position to weather the global financial storm than most Asian countries, because its banks are not over-exposed and its garment industry focuses on the lower end of the market, which, so far, appears to be holding up. But chief among Bangladesh's opportunities is the chance to show the world that a Muslim-majority country can freely embrace liberal democracy and make it work by confining religion to the private sphere.

With its constitutional majority, the government should ensure this outcome by restoring the 1972 constitution, which established Bangladesh as a secular democratic state. Bangladesh is a country rich with human potential, but that potential can only be realized by making poor people's needs - which Islamists around the world have previously made their own political territory - the new government's top priority.

1 comment:

  1. Bangladesh is indeed well on it's way to becomeing a model Muslim populated country in the world.
    Given the Bengali nation's firm commitment to secular democracy, the new Prime Minister gets yet another opportunity to try all war criminals who collaborated with the Pakistani military's ethnic cleansing in the then East Pakistan in 1971.
    Sheikh Hasina must also renew the warm friendship with India and be careful about Pakistani intentions. She should remember that the notorious Pakistani military agency, the ISI, was directly involved in the killing of her father, Sheikh Mujib who founded Bangladesh.
    Also, Hasina has to ensure that her own military is respectful of democracy and liberalism. The Bangladesh military should emulate it's Indian counterparts in terms of respecting civilian authority.
    The new Prime Minister should realise that her country needs education, the growth of science and technology, healthcare for the entire nation, more than anything else. Therefore the Bangladesh military has to understand reality and give up it's dreams to set up a military-industrial complex as has been done in Pakistan.