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).