BANGLADESH’S GOOD FIGHT AGAINST ISLAMISM
Showing the pluck to take on a movement that would drag the country toward economic stagnation and widespread violence.
Bangladesh this month executed Muhammad Kamaruzzaman, a senior leader of the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party, for war crimes committed during the country’s independence struggle more than four decades ago. Prosecutors accused Kamaruzzaman of involvement in widespread rape, torture and murder as he and his cohorts fought a losing battle to ensure that Bangladesh remained part of Pakistan.
Instead of applauding Bangladesh’s efforts to close a traumatic chapter of its past, Western governments have been lukewarm to hostile. While claiming to “greatly respect” the International Crimes Tribunal set up by Bangladesh to try alleged war criminals, U.S. State Department spokesperson Marie Harf nonetheless cautioned Dhaka “not to proceed with executions given the irreversibility of the death sentence.” The European Union also chimed in to reiterate its opposition to capital punishment. Amnesty International urged Bangladesh’s president to grant Kamaruzzaman clemency. Human Rights Watch accused the Dhaka tribunal of “persistent and credible allegations of fair trial violations.”
Principled opposition to the death penalty is hardly objectionable, and though Bangladesh has addressed many concerns about its trials, judicial standards certainly don’t match those of Denmark or Switzerland. Yet the chorus of criticism in Western capitals ends up serving a perverse purpose. It strengthens precisely those groups in Bangladesh who most threaten human rights, individual liberty and religious freedom.
Anybody who professes concern for human rights in the world’s third most-populous Muslim-majority nation ought to applaud Bangladesh for showing the pluck to take on a thuggish Islamist movement that would drag the country toward the economic stagnation and widespread violence all too common in other parts of the Muslim world.
Unlike many countries, Bangladesh under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has taken the ideological fight to the Islamist camp. By pressing ahead with the widely popular trials, Ms. Hasina, daughter of Bangladesh’s founding president, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, has refused to be cowed by threats of Islamist violence. On her watch, the Supreme Court three years ago restored Bangladesh’s founding status as a secular rather than Islamic republic. (Islam, the faith of about 90% of Bangladeshis, is the state religion.)
Ms. Hasina pays much more than lip service to her country’s moderate Muslim majority. She helps provide it with an ideological alternative to the Islamist call to regulate all aspects of the state and society by the harsh tenets of Shariah law. The presence of a secular leader gives Bangladeshi liberals, such as the organizers of the 2013 Shahbag protests, political cover that their counterparts in many other countries lack.
The stakes could scarcely be higher. The recent murders of atheist bloggers Avijit Roy and Washiqur Rahman —hacked to death in Dhaka by Islamic vigilantes—underscores the fragility of secularist gains in recent years.
As violence continues to flare, Bangladesh faces two distinct futures. Either it will emerge as a symbol of moderation in the Islamic world, or it will go down the path of its sibling Pakistan, where decades of state support and apathy toward Islamist groups have created a downward spiral that is difficult to arrest.
To be sure, when it comes to courting international support, Ms. Hasina is often her own worst enemy. She rarely gives interviews and appears to share the common South Asian political affliction of blaming all criticism on conspiracies. Not long after her landslide election in 2008, she needlessly picked a fight with widely respected Bangladeshi Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, who was evicted from Grameen Bank, the pioneering microcredit organization he founded. The prime minister was reportedly worried about a political challenge from the charismatic banker.
For the most part, Ms. Hasina’s detractors in the West—especially British Islamists and their sympathizers—are better organized and more media savvy than the prime minister’s supporters. In addition, many Bangladeshis blame Ms. Hasina’s long feud with Khaleda Zia, of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), for political gridlock that threatens to erode the country’s impressive gains in human development and per-capita income.
But the battle between the BNP and Ms. Hasina’s Awami League—marked by pitched street battles and paralyzing strikes—isn’t between two equally bad parties. Ms. Hasina stands for a country whose Muslim majority lives in harmony with both its own distinctive Bengali cultural traditions and with other faiths. The BNP, by allying with Jamaat-e-Islami and condoning violence to force fresh elections, mostly offers strife and intolerance.
Over the past four decades, the pendulum in the Islamic world has swung violently away from secularism and toward Islamism. Thanks in part to a plethora of Saudi-funded madrassas, Bangladesh hasn’t been immune to this phenomenon. But here at least the moderate majority stands a good chance of prevailing. If it does, it will be in large part because of the courage to bring powerful Islamist leaders like Muhammad Kamaruzzaman to long-delayed justice.
Mr. Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for WSJ.com
APRIL 22, 2015