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Wednesday, 3 October, 2001, 17:25 GMT 18:25 UK
Bangladesh's Islamic revival
Anti-US demo
There are concerns about anti-Western feeling
By Alastair Lawson in Dhaka

Bangladesh has been and remains a moderate Islamic country in which secular Bengali culture is celebrated as much as the Muslim faith.

Election results
BNP 186 seats
Awami League 61 seats
Jammat-e-Islami 16 seats
Jatiya Party 14 seats
Independents 3 seats
Minor parties 3 seats
Repolling in 16 seats
Voting delayed in one seat
On those grounds alone the success of the Jammat-e Islami in winning 16 seats in the election has come as something of a surprise.

That is especially the case when the party's policies and history are examined.

During the Bangladesh war of independence, the Jammat-e Islami leader, Motiur Rahman Nizami, sided with Pakistan.

He is accused by political opponents of leading a group at that time called Al Badr, which allegedly executed and tortured those fighting against Islamabad.

In Bangladesh, those who fought against the Pakistani army are called freedom fighters and are almost universally revered.

Liability

This alone, say Mr Nizami's critics, should be grounds enough to make him an electoral liability rather than an asset.

Woman voting
The success of Islamic parties surprised observers
They argue that his staunchly conservative definition of Islam - including restrictions on the rights of women and minorities plus his determination to turn the country into an Islamic republic - is out of place in a liberal democracy.

But if that argument were completely true, the Jammat-e-Islami would not have won so many seats.

The fact is that many in the electorate were not even alive during the war of independence.

Many others backed the party because of its rejection of Western values and its tough line on corruption and law and order, which they believed to be spiralling out of control.

The other, far smaller, Islamic party under Khaleda Zia's umbrella is the Islami Oika Jote party.

It has an even harsher interpretation of Islam than the Jammat-e Islami and believes in the strict enforcement of Sharia law.

US concern

The emergence of the two radical Islamic groups has made officials in the American embassy twitchy.

Bangladesh recently allowed the US to have use of its airspace as part of the military build-up against Afghanistan.

The Jammat-e-Islami have publicly questioned Washington's motives, saying that they want more evidence against Osama Bin Laden before military action goes ahead.

While there is no suggestion that Bangladesh may re-consider its airspace decision, anti-American sentiment was plainly visible during the election campaign.

In some places, pictures of Osama bin Laden competed for wall space alongside photos of the parliamentary candidates.

But despite these concerns, it looks as if the influence of the two Islamic parties will not be significant.

The sheer scale of the BNP's victory means that Mrs Zia is in a powerful enough position to take decisions without requiring the support of her controversial allies.

And although the Jammat-e Islami may have firm views about the role of women and the presence of Wimpy burger bars in Dhaka's city centre, it does not indulge in the same level of hostile anti-Western rhetoric as its counterparts in Pakistan.

See also:

03 Oct 01 | South Asia
Bangladesh revote demanded
30 Sep 01 | South Asia
Deaths mar Bangladesh election
02 Oct 01 | South Asia
Analysis: A tale of two women
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