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  • "God Willing":The Politics and Ideology of Islamism in Bangladesh
  • Ali Riaz

"God willing, we shall form the next government," declared Khaleda Zia, former prime minister and then leader of the opposition at a rally in the port city of Chittagong on April 4, 2000 almost eighteen months ahead of the general elections in Bangladesh. Pointing her finger to the leaders of her four-party alliance sitting on the dais, Khaleda Zia declared firmly that "we have united to protect the nation, our hard earned independence and Islam." Present on the dais were Golam Azam, the Ameer (chief) of the largest Islamist party, Jaamat-i-Islami; Azizul Haq, who claims himself a Shaikhul Hadit (meaning an interpreter of Prophet Muhammad's words) and a leader of a militant Islamist organization called Islami Oikya Jote; and former military dictator General H. M Ershad, who was previously convicted on graft charges and indicted on a number of other corruption related matters. "Representatives of 66 percent of the people are here," Zia told the meeting.

About a year and half later, on 21 September 2001, during a three-day northern region campaign tour, Zia told her applauding supporters in Naogaon, "Insha Allah, the alliance will be voted into power riding on popular support." A few kilometers away, in another rally in Joypurhat, she confidently declared that the alliance would bag a two-thirds majority in the parliament. The last campaign meeting held in Dhaka on September 28, three days ahead of the elections, was a replay of the Chittagong meeting of April 2000; flanked by the leaders of the Jaamat and the Oikya Jote, Khaleda proclaimed, "God willing, the alliance will get two-thirds majority and will form the next government." "We stand united," she said, referring to the alliance, "for the sake of Islam."1

On October 1, Khaleda Zia got what she wished for—a two-third majority for her alliance, and within a week a new cabinet was installed with two members from the Jaamat-i-Islami. For the first time in the history of the nation, a center-right coalition had come into power. It was an ironic moment for a nation that had emerged in 1971 on the basis of secular-socialistic principles, and whose first constitution—framed in November 1972—imposed an embargo on the use of religion in politics. Thirty years later an election had brought a coalition to power with two Islamist parties as partners. The more prominent of the two is the Jaamat-i-Islami (JI), a party which openly professes "Islamic revolution" and calls for the establishment of an "Islamic state" in Bangladesh.2 The other, smaller, partner of the alliance, the Islami Oikyo Jote (IOJ), is even more radical having previously expressed solidarity with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.3 The leading partner of the alliance, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), views Islam as an integral part of the socio-cultural life of Bangladesh.4

The obvious question that comes to mind is: what made it possible for the Islamists, especially the Jaamat-i-Islami, to rise to power? Can this be seen as a sympathetic gesture of a large number of Muslims toward the Taliban and Al-Quaida? Since the tragic events of 11 September 2001, media and political analysts have paid enormous attention to a de-territorialized, supranational, uprooted activism conducted in the name of Islam.5 Undoubtedly this transnational movement has become a serious threat to international security, however it is yet to become the principal mode of domestic politics in Muslim societies. Impacts of international events notwithstanding, the growing strengths of Islamists are shaped by the national particularities and they are largely products of the political culture and society of a given country. This phenomenon can be described as "nationalization of Islamism."6 The rise of the Islamist forces as prominent legitimate political actors in Bangladesh follows this trend rather than as a sympathetic gesture to any extraneous organization or ideology. It is the specific dynamics of domestic politics that allowed the pre-eminence of Islamic forces in the polity, and their successes in the electoral process.

My contention is that the rise of the Islamists in general...


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pp. 301-320
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