Huma Yusuf


Bangladesh’s Supreme Court has affirmed a ban on religion-based parties. While this could be in line with the founding principles of the country, it is feared that this might encourage illegal extremist fundamentalist activities as happened in Pakistan.


The supreme court of Bangladesh recently upheld a 2005 high court judgment banning religion-based parties. That said, if it is appealed, the ruling could set an interesting precedent for the separation of religion and politics in Muslim-majority countries.


The supreme court ruling reverts to Bangladesh’s original, secular 1972 constitution, drafted by the Awami League (AL), which is currently in power. The ruling will force religious parties to drop religious references from their names and prevent religious sloganeering during election campaigns. About 12 Bangladeshi parties, including the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) — an ally of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) — will be affected. However, the verdict does not touch on 1988 amendments that made Islam the state religion and introduced Quranic text in the constitution.


Since 1990, the rivalry between the AL and BNP has weakened Bangladesh’s political institutions. Whichever party has been in the opposition, it has made a sham of democracy by boycotting parliament and calling for nationwide strikes. Amidst the tussle, religious parties have done well. In 2001, the JI and Islamic Oikya Jote even formed the government with the BNP. With the support of these religious parties at the centre, Islamic militancy has flourished in Bangladesh through the activities of groups such as the Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh, the Harakat ul-Jihad-i-Islami and the Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh.


Although linguistic nationalism trumps religious identification amongst the Bangladeshi public, religious parties have also won many supporters in the past decade. People are impressed by their highly organized cadres; their involvement in a range of charitable, welfare and service-provision activities; and their gumption in standing up to India and protesting the maltreatment of Muslims in that country. The religious parties have also made the most of the influx of Saudi religious charities, taking credit for the education and free housing provided by an extensive network of Wahabi madarssas.


Some fear that a ban on religious parties will drive this religiously motivated activism underground, where it will drift even further towards extremism. And while in principle it is unfair to compare religious parties to militant outfits, Bangladesh should keep in mind the consequences of Gen Pervez Musharraf’s ban on militant and sectarian organizations: ‘jihadis’ from across Pakistan relocated to the tribal belt to continue training and recruiting and the fallout from their proximity to the Taliban and Al Qaeda is all too obvious today.


For fear of a similar scenario, many liberal, civil society activists in Bangladesh oppose the ruling and instead call for more regulation and monitoring of the religious parties. Their contention is that legalities cannot undo gains achieved by organized militancy.


But the secular-minded can take heart as the ruling comes when a religio-cultural shift is already under way. Bangladeshis have become more religious in their private lives: a Gallup poll in May 2009 showed that all Bangladeshis believe religion is an important part of their daily lives and 98 per cent claim their confidence in religious organizations has increased over the years. But this religiosity has spiked at the same time that Bangladeshis overwhelming voted for the AL, which championed reform and secularism, in the 2008 elections.


In tandem, these facts suggest that Bangladeshis prefer to keep politics and religion separate — and it is this distinction that the ruling can help concretize.


Meanwhile, those concerned about driving religious politics underground should remember that the AL’s crackdown on a growing extremist threat is under way. Last October, the government outlawed a controversial Islamic party after accusing it of destabilizing the country (four other Islamic organizations were banned in 2005 after nation-wide bombings left 28 dead). And throughout 2009, security forces arrested 600,000 people — including 518 terrorists — for ties to about 122 extremist organizations. These actions are a response to increasing attacks against secular politicians since 2004. In this context, the ruling reiterates Bangladesh’s resolve not to emerge as an extremist hub.


Pakistan should keep a close eye on how the ruling is received by the Bangladeshi public. Now, more than ever, we need to shake off our complacent attitude towards Pakistan’s religious parties. Owing to their historically poor record at the polls, we have written off the 2002 MMA victory in Balochistan and the Frontier as an anomaly.


But as recently pointed out by newspaper columnists, victory was fuelled by soaring anti-American sentiment in the wake of the US invasion of Afghanistan. Eight years later, Americanism has reached new heights in Pakistan. Widespread and rabid, this xenophobic sentiment could herald the return of religious parties in the next election. Such an outcome would make it almost impossible for Pakistan to separate religion and politics. And that separation — as the Bangladesh supreme court ruling suggests — is a democratic necessity.

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