Wednesday, February 21, 2007
Governments which aim for a high degree of political organisation without real democracy, sometimes discredit and/or marginalise the civilian parties because these parties are the opposition they fear. This leaves only the Islamist parties as the legitimate opposition.
Sinclair Lewis, the great American novelist of the 1920s and 30s, is almost forgotten today, despite winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930. He was the first American novelist to win that great honour, which was based on his series of novels which took a very dark view of American society.
Over those years, his most famous books—Main Street, Babbit, Elmer Gantry, Kingsblood Royal, and Cass Timberlane—were banned in various US cities, states or regions for their unsympathetic portrayal of aspects of American capitalist and/or social values. Lewis’s writings were perhaps best epitomised by the quotation, “I love America, but I don’t like it,” a sentiment that many seem to share these days.
Lewis’s last great novel, It Can’t Happen Here, published in 1935, was a political satire about the election of a fascist as US President. A man of his time (the 20s and 30s), Lewis wrote it as satire but meant it as a warning that fascist political movements, such as Nazism, could come to power in the US if the American people blindly support their leaders.
That this book has inspired some variants in the last six years is not surprising. Blind support of any government anywhere is less and less likely these days, I suspect. Nonetheless, I think of the Lewis book occasionally because it still says something about the willingness of people everywhere to ignore facts and stick to national myths long after they should have been abandoned.
This is certainly true in the two countries of South Asia that I write about. Lewis’s book comes to mind when I consider the almost unseen growth of Islamism in Bangladesh. This first became apparent to the naked eye in August 2005, when an extremist Islamist group which called itself the Jamat ul Mujihadeen Bangladesh (JMB) announced its presence in Bangladesh by setting off about 400 bombs simultaneously.
After this introductory episode which served to attract attention to itself, the JMB announced that it would target the Bangladeshi judiciary for applying secular law instead of Shariat. It killed at least one judge in the subsequent campaign against the courts.
The reaction of the Bangladesh government and much of the Bangladeshi political class to the 400 bombings in August echoed Lewis’s title, It can’t happen here. There was much fumbling and name-calling, as each party tried to blame the bombings on the other, while the establishment denied that an ‘Islamist’ problem couldn’t possibly exist in a Bangladesh celebrated for its tolerance and Sufi tradition.
This state of denial was interrupted, however, by the subsequent bombing campaign against the judiciary. The coalition BNP/JI government of the time went from denial of the problem to an all-out campaign against the JMB. It succeeded in running many JMB leaders to ground and trying them for terrorism. Several are now on death row awaiting execution.
Yet it is naïve to believe that the JMB is finished, or that there are no other similar organisations just lying low until the government’s attention shifts elsewhere.
Islamist influence has grown almost geometrically in Bangladesh in the past decade.
The primacy that mystic, syncretic Sufism had in the religious discourse of the country has disappeared over this time.
Instead a harder-line discourse has appeared, one which is manifest in growing discrimination of minorities, especially Hindus and perceived apostates such as Ahmedis, and a steady rise in violence against secular elements and against individuals, especially women, who are perceived to have violated the strict Islamist social codes.
This growth is the result of a number of things. It began about 30 years ago when ZiaurRahman reached out to the Islamists to build the BNP. In his campaign to make Bangladesh a two-party state, he created an alternate vision of the nation to the primordial one, based on language and culture, which the Awami League had incorporated into the constitution.
Zia based his coherent, conservative national vision on territory and religion. Muhammed Ershad, during his eight years as military ruler continued to open up the political process to the Islamist political parties. The zero-sum-game political culture of Bangladesh has greatly added to this growth. The two major parties have not only been open to, but have aggressively pursued, political alliances with Islamist parties for a few extra votes.
It comes also from the dysfunctional governance of both parties when they have been in power, the rapid growth of madrassas of a hard-line nature, and the millions of economic migrants back from the gulf imbued with a more conservative mindset.
Islamist parties have gone from being reviled just after separation from Pakistan (for supporting the Pakistani cause) to almost-equal partners in the most recent government. They have become an accepted part of the governing structure—almost a preferred part given their reputation for competence and incorruptibility—despite their clear aim to restructure society to reflect their scripturalist agenda, which is certainly in conflict with the tolerant, mystic Sufi tradition of the Bangladesh past.
In Pakistan, Islamists have also forged ahead in the past 30 years. Faustian bargains between the military governments and the Islamists remain a staple of political life. Nor have civilian political parties been immune to this, whether in power in their own right or as part of a military/civilian hybrid government.
Since Zia ul Haq’s time, with the increased influence of the Wahhabi/Salafist and Deobandi schools of thought, Islamism has seeped into the very bones of the society. As in Bangladesh (perhaps to a greater degree), the religious discourse is now controlled by the Islamist vocabulary. In both countries, Islamism and Islamist political parties appear on the rise.
Is this a permanent feature of political life in the two countries, or will civilian political parties recapture their former primacy? In my view the answer depends on the civilian political parties themselves and on the present governments in Bangladesh and Pakistan. The parties must open themselves up to democratisation and the give-and-take of real democratic discourse in which compromise is a first principle.
The governments, which have something in common right now, should be working with the major parties toward these ends, not marginalising them. The civilian political parties also need to have agendas—political, economic, or development programs they intend to implement — but they need to differentiate themselves from the Islamist parties which intend to bring about changes in the fundamental character of the state or the society.
The Islamist parties begin as fringe parties, but sometimes they are turned into the real opposition when the civilian parties make common cause with them.
Governments which aim for a high degree of political organisation without real democracy, sometimes discredit and/or marginalise the civilian parties because these parties are the opposition they fear.
This leaves only the Islamist parties as the legitimate opposition. This has been the scenario in the Middle East. Can it happen Here—In Muslim South Asia?
William Milam is a former US ambassador to Pakistan and Bangladesh. He is currently at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC