Bangladesh: Pot calling kettle black

SYLHET, Bangladesh – Khaleda Zia, the leader of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, her son and some of her political associates go on trial April 21 to face charges of corruption during her two terms as Bangladeshi prime minister.

On the face of it, it’s a good thing. Investigation by media and a previous government indicated that Zia and her son Tarek Rahman were involved in financial corruption of massive scales.  Bangladeshis need to begin to see that corruption in high places can be subjected to public scrutiny.

The problem, though, is that the case against Zia is selective and has been initiated by an apparently illegitimate government. The current Awami League party government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed hangs on to power by excluding most of the main opposition parties from the Jan. 5 parliamentary elections.

Her popularity sagging, Hasina got the outgoing parliament to scrap a law that called for holding elections under a neutral, caretaker government. The opposition saw it as a prelude to her rigging the vote and insisted on having the voting done under a caretaker government. When Hasina refused, 18 opposition parties, including Zia’s, boycotted the vote, as did U.S. and European Union election monitors.  A majority in the new parliament – 154 out of 300 – was elected unopposed, belonging to the ruling Awami League party, and Hasina continues as the country’s prime minister.

Secondly, Bangladeshi courts have historically been amenable to government pressure.  And Bangladeshi political and bureaucratic establishments have been among the most corrupt in the world. Very few politicians in the government or opposition can stay outside the jailhouse, if properly investigated for corruption.

In 1974 Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh and Hasina’s father, was having a meeting with Bangladeshi expatriates at New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel. One of the attendees asked what he was going to do about the “unprecedented levels of corruption” in Bangladesh.

Prime Minister Mujib asked the questioner to “tell me” what he could do about it.

“Everybody [in Bangladesh] is corrupt. I am corrupt, too.” he added.

Mujib’s  answer was of course rhetorical. He didn’t mean “everybody” in his country was affected by the vice. Neither did the father of the Bangladeshi nation obviously want to say that he was guilty of the crime as well.  Yet he had been the object of widespread rumors and ridicules about corrupt dealings ever since the mid-1950s, when he became a government minister in what was then East Pakistan and is now Bangladesh.

So have many in Hasina’s Awami League today.

Zia’s prosecution by the Hasina government amounts to “pot calling the kettle black.”  Whether the charges against Zia and her colleagues are true (which may well be the case), Hasina is obviously trying to divert Bangladeshi and international attention away from her government’s lack of legitimacy.

  • Mustafa Malik hosts the blog Beyond Freedom: http://beyond-freedom.com. 

 

 

Liberal counterrevolution

SYLHET, Bangladesh – Reazul Karim was poring over the list of the newly elected members of the Bangladesh parliament, published in the Bengali-language newspaper Jugantar. A majority of them – 153 in the 300-member legislature – was elected unopposed. Most of the opposition parties had boycotted the elections.

Bangladesh is going through an anti-democratic secularist wave that’s sweeping many other Muslim countries, where democracy turned up Islam-oriented governments or movements.

“This is our kind of democracy,” said Karim, my fellow alumnus of the local Murarichand College.  We were having tea and sticky-rice pudding at my home in this Bangladeshi town of Sylhet. “Very few of these touts would have been elected if the BNP had put up candidates.”

The BNP, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, is a pro-Islamic political party allied with the now-banned Islamist party, Jamaat-i-Islami.  The BNP is the largest of the 18 opposition parties that had sat out the Jan. 5 vote.  They were protesting the secularist government’s refusal to hold the elections under a neutral caretaker government, which had been in practice in Bangladesh.  The ruling Awami League party, as also some of the others, has a record of rigging elections when in power.

Since 2010 the Awami League government of Sheikh Hasina Wajed, the prime minister, has become increasingly unpopular. And it got the parliament to rescind the caretaker law, apparently fearing losing this year’s elections, if held under the supervision of a caretaker government.

A week after Hasina put together her new, undemocratic Bangladeshi Cabinet, the military-appointed secular Egyptian government announced that its undemocratic constitution had been endorsed in a referendum by 98 percent of the votes. Just six months before, in Egypt’s first-ever free and fair elections, the Islamist Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) had routed the liberals and other secularists. The FJP is rooted in the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood movement and Mohammed Mursi, a leader of both organizations, became the country’s first democratically elected president.

The defeated liberals turned to the traditionally power-hungry Egyptian army to overthrow the Mursi government through a coup d’état, which it did enthusiastically. The military junta was, however, bitterly criticized by the international community for its murder of democracy and more than 1,000 Egyptians who protested it. So it got its subservient civilian Cabinet to produce a new constitution, allowing the military a central role in the country’s governance.

The Egyptian regime’s announcement that its constitution had won 98 percent of the votes reminded me of a similar Bangladeshi vote. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh and father of Hasina, the current prime minister, was reputed to have received 98.5 percent of the votes cast in the last election of his life.

Yet when Mujib was assassinated in a 1975 military coup, not a single soul in Bangladesh mourned the father of the nation (not publicly, at least) and the country celebrated its freedom from the tyranny under his one-party rule.

The anti-democratic secularist movements such as have flared up in Bangladesh and Egypt have also been stalking Turkey, Tunisia, Mali and other Muslim countries where democracy turned up Islam-oriented governments, or promised to do so. I’m not surprised by it. Just about all revolutions – the French, the American, the Lutheran, and so forth – have been followed by a violent reactionary phase.  Post-Revolutionary France had its Girondin-Jacobin Reign of Terror. Post-Reformation Switzerland its often-violent Calvin-Zwingli pogroms.  In post-Emancipation America, the Jim Crow-era persecution of African Americans and white progressives was as reactionary and brutal. But they all fizzled, often contributing to the revolutions the healthier aspects their agendas.

The Islamic revivalist and reformist movements that have been smoldering in much of the Muslim world since the late 1970s are  a revolution in progress.  We’re in the eye of that tsunami, and hence often fail to see its epic proportions.  Today’s anti-democratic irruptions of liberals and other anti-Islamic elements in the Muslim world are a transient episode. It eventually will give way to the widening and deepening Islam-based movements for social renewal. Most other counterrevolutionary movements have throughout history.

Anup Kumar Datta, a philosopher in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, said to me last week that Bangladeshi society has, in Hegelian parlance, entered upon its antithetical phase.  Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel had said that a social paradigm, or “thesis,” spurs forces resisting it. He called it “anti-thesis.”  Eventually, said the German philosopher, the clash between the two trends leads to the evolution of a healthier social “synthesis.”

To me, today’s liberal reactions to Islam-oriented democratic governments and movements are a precursor to the evolution and renewal of many Muslim societies. The process of that evolution will synthesize Islam’s key principles of justice, charity and fraternity with the liberal values of freedom, tolerance and pluralism.

  • Mustafa Malik is a columnist and writer in Washington. He hosts the blog Just Freedoms (http://beyond-freedom.com).