Bangladesh has been a secular Muslim state since its independence from Pakistan and founding by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1971. While its short history has been full of military coup d’états, it has always returned to its roots as a secular democratic state. There are, however, troubling new signs of a shift towards a growing Islamism that could jeopardize the sanctity of secularism in the country. While the governing construct’s legitimacy is suffering politically from the past two years of emergency military rule, Islamism may be the biggest threat to the country’s Constitution and secular underpinnings. As elections are scheduled for December 18th and the two major political parties jostle over the country’s future, each party’s vision for the proper mix of Islam and government will be at the forefront. Rahman’s Awami League has long been the standard bearer of secularism and if elected, it could roll back the growing tide of Islamism in Bangladesh. The Awami League must, however, implement certain changes to proactively check this Islamism if it hopes to secure long-lasting secularism and democracy. If successful, an Awami League-led Bangladesh could be the global example of secular governance in a Muslim country.

The Situation on the Ground

During the turmoil in Bangladeshi politics over the past two years, the military government has imprisoned two former Prime Ministers on trumpted-up charges of corruption. Yet, Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League and Khaleda Zia of the Bangladeshi Nationalist Party (BNP) continue to enjoy overwhelming support from their party’s grassroots. While Sheikh Hasina has already been released and is on parole in the United States for medical treatment, Khaleda Zia remains in prison. Though the military caretaker government had originally intended to imprison all of the popular politicians before the impending December election, it appears that both Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia will be allowed to participate.

Bangladeshis will once again go to the polls to decide between the Awami League and its record of secularism and the BNP with its public support of Jamat-e-Islami (which supports Islamic-leaning governance). If July’s local elections, where the Awami League won 12 of 13 Municipal elections, are any portent of future national elections, the League appears to be the favorite in the national election. This result would return Hasina, the daughter of the country’s founding father Rahman, to the Premiership that she held from 1996 until 2001. If however, the BNP wins by consolidating its Islamic-leaning power base, Zia will reoccupy the nation’s top position that she held from 2001 to 2006.

With the rise of Islamic extremism encouraged by the last two years of military rule and five years of BNP governance, the Awami League will certainly be fighting an uphill battle both before and after the elections in stemming this movement. The ascendancy of Islamists (moulobadi in Bangali) in national politics was partly due to how Zia and the BNP structured their 2001 campaign to include the Islamic party Jamat-e-Islami (JI). When the BNP formed a coalition government with JI, it opened the door to increased Islamic influence on the governing party. Before JI became part of the ruling coalition, it had minimal influence on the government. The greatest number of seats that JI had ever garnered in any election prior to 2001 was three. After the BNP allied with JI however, its legitimacy grew within the governing construct.

BNP has begun to rely heavily on JI’s highly focused fundamentalist Islamic base. The Islamists tend to support reunification with the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and do not share the Awami League’s affinity for Rahman and the liberationists that fought Pakistan in the 1970s. The alliance of anti-liberationists, JI, and the BNP has also had direct and indirect involvement with Islamic fundamentalist groups that masterminded 500 coordinated bombings across Bangladesh in 2005. This display of terror was an attempt to showcase their growing power. These shadow groups, namely Jamat-ul Mujahid Bangladesh (JMB), Jagrata Janata Muslim Bangladesh (JMJB) and Harkatul Jihad (HuJi), have been the militant arm of JI. They overtly denounce the Constitution and seek to replace democracy and secularism with a governing construct based on Sharia Law.

Islamic extremism is also on the rise in Bangladesh because of the growing numbers of Islamists in the military. The Islamists cleverly began growing their numbers within the Army by training for the Army Entrance Exams at madrassas. This madrassa training was necessary because of the relative difficulty associated with passing these exams. The military is attractive because of both its respected status and its high employment opportunities in a country where unemployment ranges from 20 percent to 30 percent for younger males. High demand for military posts has resulted in an entrance exam designed to limit the number of recruits. Before this madrassa Entrance Exam campaign, only 5 percent of military recruits came from madrasses in 2001. By 2006, at the end of the BNP’s reign, madrassas supplied nearly 35 percent of the Army recruits. In a country that has seen four military coup d’états in its short 37 year history, the astronomical growth of Islamists in the military is troubling to say the least.

Toward Renewal: A Secular Plan

As the country was founded on a secular system of governance, the entire political system is now vulnerable. Can the Awami League stop the growing tide of Islamism in a country that has seen the sale of burkas rise nearly 500 percent in the last five years? The answer is yes if it implements the following secular renewal plan. First, it must modernize the curriculum of the madrasses. Second, it must build proper, secular elementary schools and hospitals. Third, it should increase the recruitment of secular-minded students into the military from secular cadet academies. Fourth, it must attempt to rehabilitate known extremist clerics. Lastly, and perhaps the most abstract solution, it must push to vanquish Bangladeshi poverty and illiteracy that consistently ranks among the worst in the world. This plan would make the country less hospitable to a growing Islamist movement and help return Bangladesh to its secular roots.

Modernize Madrassa Curriculum

Since madrassas are educational institutions within the country, they are under the purview of the country’s educational ministry. While almost all funding for these institutions comes from private donors in Saudi Arabia, there is no statute against their regulation by proper national authorities. Furthermore, nowhere in Islam or the Koran does it say that science, math, and history cannot be taught alongside religion. This enlightened education would show students that there is more to the world than only religion and that there are additional opportunities to earn a livelihood than merely religious or radically religious pursuits.

Build Effective, Secular Elementary Schools and Hospitals

Too often, the excuse that Bangladesh is a poor country is offered to counter the idea that proper, secular schools can be built. In reality, funding from international organizations and domestic tax revenue is sufficient to build these schools if they are a high enough priority. They should be, and each student should be taught to read and write and understand basic math and science. These schools would be a deterrence to the monopoly on education that madrassas currently enjoy. Relying on Saudi and Kuwaiti funding that dictates rote Koranic memorization is counterproductive for a nation that desires growth, productivity, and a brighter future, because it limits the population’s skill-set. Currently, madrasses have the advantage, because they recruit from poor families with many children; promising to feed and educate one or two children who are not absolutely necessary for the harvesting of crops. Secular schools could be a popular alternative to the madrasses that have been so attractive to poor farmers. The national government could help by building free secular schools and encouraging families to send their children by providing a small stipend to offset the lost income tied to not having children in the fields.

This same idea of providing a viable alternative to Islamic-leaning institutions can be applied to hospitals. When people are sick or dying, they are most vulnerable, and Islamic hospitals capitalize on this to convert Bangalis to a more extremist lifestyle. Secular hospitals would serve as an antidote to the Islamism that is propagated in these Islamic hospitals.

Increase Recruitment into the Military from Secular Schools

To counter the increased military recruitment from the madrassas, more youths—especially the secular-minded—must also be taught how to pass the Army’s Entrance Exams. It is not enough to desire more secularly-taught youth to enter to the military, but the plan must place them on the same playing field with the madrassa recruits. Instead of outwardly restricting madrassa training for the Entrance Exams, secular school Entrance Exam training would counter JI’s strategy to Islamify the military and thus the nation. An alternative source of recruits could switch back the military’s ideological balance to a more secular recruit base.

Rehabilitate the Extremist Clerics

The Bangladeshi government should ask moderate Muslim clerics to issue fatwas contrary to the Jihadist movement and its extreme clerics. While fatwas are technically illegal in Bangladesh, they regularly occur and people continue to live by them. Thus, the use of fatwas to dissuade potential Islamists from following extremist preaching could do much to stem the growth of extremism. This proposal would first require the identification of moderate clerics.

This rehabilitation campaign would also target extremist clerics and pressure them to recant and recall their previous incendiary remarks. This would have an incredible impact in cutting off the cancer of Islamic extremism at the root. Peter Bergen, a counterterrorism expert, has compared this type of intervention on the part of clerics to religious chemotherapy that eradicates extremism. Since only a small number of extremist clerics around the world spawn a disproportionately high number of jihadists, this targeted chemotherapy would remove the instigators of violence. In fact, Bergen has stated that three clerics living in Britain, Sheik Omar Bakri Mohammed, Abu Hamza Al Masri, and Abu Qatada, have had a critical influence on global terrorism. By removing the few, radial clerics around the world, Islamism will whither on the vine.

Bangladesh should attempt to replicate the recent successes in Saudi Arabia and Egypt to force the hand of extremist clerics to recant their past remarks and speak out against jihadists. They have even used moderate and reformed clerics to retrain jihadists in prison with a more moderate interpretation of the Koran. Heading the list of notable ex-extremist cleric success stories is the Saudi religious scholar Sheik al Oudah. Lending to his credibility within the jihadist movement, he was the founder of the Islamic awakening movement in the 1980s known as Sahwa. In September 2007, he began to criticize Osama bin Laden, stating that al Qaeda’s leader had “hijacked Islam.” While Oudah believed he was unable to influence bin Laden himself, he wanted to inform bin Laden’s followers about the problems with al Qaeda. The transformational impact of Oudah on future jihadist recruitment and retention within al Qaeda has been enormous and his further exposure can only hurt the jihadist movement.

Sayyid Imam al Sharif, aka Dr. Fadl, is another significant cleric who has turned his back on extremism and jihad. As the ideological godfather of al Qaeda and Ayman al-Zawahiri’s mentor, Dr. Fadl published the Bible of modern jihad called, “The Basic Principles in Making Preparation for Jihad.” He also provided the religious basis for the idea that Muslims martyring themselves in an act of jihad go straight to paradise. Then, in November, 2007, Fadl momentously withdrew his support for al Qaeda in the blistering book entitled “Rationalization of Jihad.” Fadl later called bin Laden and Zawahiri “extremely immoral” and cautioned Muslim youth against being “seduced by them.” With similarly influential clerics in Bangladesh, the government must utilize them to show how Islamists within their own country have hijacked religion for political reasons.

The significance of Oudah’s and Fadl’s reversals cannot be overstated. Whether they were products of the new reprogramming initiatives or not, these rehabilitation programs in the Middle East and Asia have thus far had an excellent track-record and should be attempted in Bangladesh for both radical clerics and captured militants. Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan currently run very effective programs in which those rehabilitated persons must sign forms agreeing to avoid jihadist activity. In honor-based societies, those family members and local clerics that pick up their ex-jihadist from prison agree to ensure there is no relapse. In Saudi Arabia, this type of program is called de-radicalization and in Afghanistan it is amnesty. Semantics aside, Yemen, Indonesia, Egypt, and Singapore have also followed suit with similarly effective retraining systems.

In the 500 separate bombings by Islamists in 2005 in Bangladesh, 82 Islamists remain in prison and should undergo this type of rehabilitation program. The power of moderate clerics working in prisons and using their religious backgrounds to debunk violent interpretations of the Koran has paid huge dividends in dissuading jihadists from returning to action. This policy will work in Bangladesh as well.

Reduce Poverty and Illiteracy

Islamists have capitalized on the poverty-stricken nature of Bangladeshis in recent years. They have harnessed the age-old recruiting technique of telling the people that they are destitute and that only complete servitude and support for an Islamic state and a radical interpretation of Islam will solve their problems. Many poor Bangladeshis have fallen prey to this line and have begun to internalize the hope for a better life in an Islamic state. If, however, poverty is reduced and Bangalis see the potential for progress, they will not be as beholden to radical Islam. Simply put, if the economy gets better, the grip of JI and Islamists will weaken.

The numbers from the last term of the secular Awami League speak for themselves. With Sheikh Hasina’s five year term bookended by the BNP, it is relatively easy to see the effect of secularism on the country. From 1996 at the start of her term to 2001 when she left, the poverty rate decreased from 58 percent to 40 percent, literacy rate increased from 45 percent to 66 percent, longevity was extended from 57 to 64 years, foreign investment from the United States rose from US$20 million to US$2 billion, inflation dropped from 6.4 percent to 1.59 percent, and GDP growth increased from 4 percent to 6 percent. Also of great import, the national food deficit of 4.5 million metric tons was transferred into a 2.6 million metric ton food surplus by the end of her term. Moreover, the focus on education, jobs, food-growth, and secular government kept the numbers of Islamists within the government down and marginalized the power of JI.

The success story of Sheikh Hasina was nullified by questionably administered elections in 2001; however, the Awami’s loss allows us to see the deleterious effect of the BNP and JI on the country. In 2006, after five years of BNP-JI rule, poverty increased again from 40 percent to 48 percent and the literacy rate fell from 66 percent to 63 percent. The military caretaker government has only aided in this downward death spiral that has seen poverty increase, literacy decrease, and the growth of Islamism. Notwithstanding the systemic corruption introduced since 1975 by past military dictators, the correlation of secularism and positive results is difficult to dispute in Bangladesh.

If Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League win the upcoming December election, this downward trajectory of poverty, literacy, and Islamism will be averted. This de-radicalization plan has great potential for success. The Bangladeshi people are starting to see the connection between secularism and success in Bangladesh. The time is ripe for them to support these initiatives. In the careful balancing act between Islam and governance in a Muslim country, it appears that the pendulum has tipped to the side of secularism. The Awami League must build on this momentum to ensure its long-term success.