The Islamist challenge to secular Bangladesh

Nicholas Schmidle in the Boston Review:

Last December, Shahidul sparked a nationwide furor and reinvigorated a long-standing debate in Bangladesh. Four weeks before the parliamentary elections scheduled for January 22 (but later postponed), his party signed a “memorandum of understanding” with the Awami League, one of the nation’s two mainstream parties and traditionally its most secular one. The agreement stipulated that Shahidul’s Khelafat Majlish would team up with the Awami League for the elections. If they won, the Awami League promised to enact a blasphemy law, push legislation to brand the Ahmadiyyas as non-Muslims, and officially recognize the fatwas issued by local clerics. The deal outraged secularists across the country. “Khelafat Majlish is a radical Islamist militant group which is against the spirit of the Liberation War,” said the Anti-Fundamentalism and Anti-Militant Conscious Citizens’ Society in a written statement. “By ascending to power through a deal with a section of fundamentalist militants, the Awami League… will never be able to create a secular Bangladesh.”

The Western media had been predicting similar things for years. In January The New Republic suggested that, “Left unchecked, Bangladesh could become another Afghanistan—a base for regional terrorism.”

But the prospects for Bangladesh, a country roughly the size of Minnesota, with 170 million inhabitants, are not nearly as certain as such reports would suggest. Islamist parties have multiplied over the past decade and public support for them has grown. Yet Bangladeshi society remains overwhelmingly secular, even militantly secular. And while the Islamists have grabbed headlines, the secularists are holding their own in an intense power struggle.

More here.