Bangladesh: A Poor Muslim Democracy

Muqtedar Khan

Bangladesh is an interesting puzzle. It is representative of the contemporary postmodern condition when nothing is clear-cut. It is at once both highly developed as well as underdeveloped. Bangladesh is a country that is economically backward and politically quite advanced. Many political and social scientists have often equated democracy with development and capitalism with political freedom. Bangladesh belies both these assumptions. It is a reasonably free society while being one of the world’s poorest economies. Even the Freedom House ratings, which are quite biased against non-Western societies in their measurements, rate Bangladesh as a reasonably free state.

In July of this year, the present government of the Awami League party with Sheikh Hasina Wajid as Prime Minister will complete one full electoral cycle. For a nation that has existed for only 30 years this is quite an achievement.  In fact, if one were to compare the Bangladeshi democracy with the American democracy at the age of thirty, the nation of Bengalis will come out quite favorably. In 200 years, the US has yet to allow a woman to run the state.

Bangladesh has already had two women heads of state and the present head of the government, Sheikh Hasina, and the leader of the opposition party, Begum Zia, are both women. It is amazing that this country of a hundred million Muslims looks like a matriarchical society, belying another myth that associates patriarchy with Muslim culture. Bangladesh apparently is destined to destroy widely held myths. First by its very origins it has exploded the myth of Islamic unity. By breaking away from Pakistan, Bangladesh has shown that asabiyyah (Ibn Khaldun’s term for ethnic solidarity) can at times overwhelm Islamic unity. Perhaps the rupture of the united Pakistan is more a commentary on the lip service given to Islamic brotherhood by Muslim leaders than the relative powers of Islam and ethnicity. Nonetheless, the very existence of Bangladesh is a blow to the rhetoric of Islamic unity that most Muslims like to crow about. The present day Muslims of Bangladesh live in greater harmony with its 11% Hindu minority than they did with Muslims of non-Bengali origins. 

Bangladesh is not the only case where interests other than Islamic unity have proven more powerful. The quick disintegration of the United Arab Republic, a union of Syria and Egypt that combined Islam, asabiyyah (Arab nationalism) and external threat (from Israel), is another case of Islamic entities splitting for interests other than Islam.

The second myth that Bangladesh has exposed is the claim by some Muslims and many westerners that Islam and democracy are incompatible. Bangladesh while not exactly an exemplary democracy or an advertisement for Islamic governance has nevertheless succeeded in demonstrating that a community dominated by Muslims can have Islam as the state religion and still provide democratic rights to its citizens and freedom of religion to its minorities.

Yes, there are cases of religious discrimination and harassment of minorities in Bangladesh. For example in 1992, when the Babri Masjid was destroyed in India by Hindu nationalists nearly 80 Hindu temples were desecrated in Bangladesh as an act of revenge. If what the Hindus did was a travesty, then what the Bangladeshi Muslims did was 80 times worse. Also in April, unknown miscreants blew a Roman Catholic Church. But these infrequent tragedies apart, Bangladesh is striving to be a good state that treats all its citizens justly.

Its constitution at least is determined to do justice to all. It recognizes the primacy of Islam (Article 2A) but guarantees the freedom of religion of all communities (Article 41). Article 11 of the constitution asserts that the Republic will be a democracy that respects all the human rights and freedoms of all its citizens.  Article 39 specifically protects the freedom of speech and expression of every citizen (39a) and 39b guarantees the freedom of the press.

Cynics, especially those who neither understand nor respect democratic principles, maybe tempted to underestimate the importance of their constitution. However, the key is their implementation. In the era of globalization and global interdependence, having these rights enshrined in the constitution is an important first step.  International pressure, especially from NGOs and human rights activists has a greater impact on states that already claim to respect these rights. Often moving court in cases of human rights violations provides effective remedy. But in states whose constitutions do not already enshrine human rights; states can continue to violate their own citizens with impunity leaving no recourse to domestic as well as international human rights activists.

As already discussed above Bangladeshis have also shown that Muslim societies allow women more opportunities for self-expression in the public arena than they are given credit for.  Bangladeshi women are not only well integrated into the political arena but are also quite active in the economic sphere. The micro-enterprise project (Grameen Bank) initiated by Dr. Muhammad Yunus has shown that empowering women is an important strategy to fight poverty and underdevelopment. Bangladeshi women have shown that while remaining within the moral sphere of Islamic values, women can play an important role in the economic well being of their immediate families and the political well being of their nation.

Yes, indeed Bangladesh is a highly developed state in political terms. But sadly it exposes an American myth that prosperity follows freedom. Bangladesh is a “poor democracy”. Its per capita income is less than $500 a year. 36% of the population is below poverty level and nearly 35% of the population is unemployed. Annually a large section of the country is submerged in floods and as sea levels rise with global warming Bangladesh will face more drastic environmental threats with devastating economic implications.

Lack of industrialization, poor infrastructures, and untapped human resources will continue to challenge Bangladesh in its quest for economic well being. Poverty and disasters will continue to test the moral and political fiber of the nation. There are no shortcuts out of the environmental and economic troubles of Bangladesh.  But we must remember that in spite of all its difficulties, Bangladeshis have found a way to live in freedom, respect each other’s dignity and remain connected with God.


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