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The rise of radical Islam in Bangladesh

The legacy of war is strongly ingrained in the psyche of most Bangladeshis
The rise of radical Islam in Bangladesh

Pope Francis leads a mass to mark the first World Day of the Poor, on November 19, 2017 at St Peter's basilica in Vatican.
(Photo by Vincenzo Pinto/AFP)

Published: November 21, 2017 09:56 AM GMT
Updated: November 17, 2022 08:17 AM GMT

Pope Francis will visit Bangladesh Nov. 30-Dec. 2. A Muslim-majority country with a troubled political history, Bangladesh now has its own homegrown militant groups besides those that are influenced by transnational jihadi groups such as the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda. Here we trace how the scourge of radicalism, which preys on poverty ridden communities, has become all too evident in Bangladesh.



Despite many similarities, Bangladesh and Myanmar in racial terms could not be more different.  In Bangladesh, 99 percent of its population are ethnic Bengalis whereas Myanmar is one of the most ethnically diverse nations on earth with 135 different, officially recognized religious and ethnic groups.

The mono-ethnicity in Bangladesh is matched by the overwhelming number of Muslims in the country and has seen minority religions targeted at various times since 1947 when it became East Pakistan. In recent years, the scourge of radicalism, which preys on poverty ridden communities, has become all too evident in Bangladesh.

During the period of Pakistani rule (1947-71), the Pakistani establishment and military regimes in the western capital of Islamabad, dominated by Urdu-speaking West Pakistanis, treated Bengali East Pakistanis as "neo-colonial subjects." Discriminatory and exploitative political, economic, social and cultural policies and strategies were undertaken to disenfranchise Bengali people and to subjugate them.

During Pakistan rule, religious and ethnic minorities were also targeted by the state. Hindus, the largest minority, faced persecution due to Pakistan’s animosity towards Hindu-majority India. A discriminatory land law called "Enemy Property Act" passed in 1965 allowed the government to confiscate property of people it deemed "enemies of the state" and the prime targets were Hindus.

Bengalis in East Pakistan shared a common faith, Islam, with West Pakistanis. However, the rulers in Islamabad considered them to be "bad Muslims" who held liberal views on religion and mixed easily with other faiths in striking contrast to orthodox Islamic West Pakistan. This oppression by successive Pakistani regimes sparked a resentment in the Bengali people. The anger developed into the demand for greater autonomy and consequently, secession.

The crisis was full-blown when the Awami League headed by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (father of current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina) won an absolute majority in Pakistan’s first general election in 1970. But the military regime refused to handover power. Strong nationalist protests erupted and the Pakistani government failed to offer a political solution and instead launched a genocidal military crackdown on March 25, 1971. 

During the war, Pakistani military and their local Islamist collaborators killed up to 3 million civilians, raped some 200,000-300,000 women and about 10 million fled to India as refugees, according to Bangladesh Genocide Archive.  For nine months Bangladeshi freedom fighters, supported by India, fought against the Pakistani military until victory was won on Dec. 16, 1971.

The 1971 war continues to inform politics in Bangladesh 46 years later. Political parties of all stripes tend to link all national issues with "the spirit of the liberation war" and compete to prove who best embodies this spirit. The legacy of war is strongly ingrained in the psyche of most Bangladeshis and any attempt to denigrate the war and its role in national life amounts to "political suicide."

Bangladesh returned to parliamentary democracy in the 1990s, following 15 years of military rule. The Awami League, founded in 1949, is the country’s oldest and largest political party led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, 70. 

For decades, this Muslim nation has been in the unusual situation of having two female political leaders face off in an increasingly bitter rivalry. The Bangladesh National Party chairperson, Khaleda Zia, is the widow of military ruler Ziaur Rahman who founded the party in 1978 after the military takeover.

Unlike Myanmar where one coup was enough, Bangladesh has seen 19 military coups since 1975, if only two have been successful in toppling the existing regime. Both parties have alternated in power since the restoration of democracy in the 1990s. Hasina and Zia, who have a deep personal animosity towards each other, are both the sole decision-makers for their parities and enjoy massive popular support. 

National Party founder Ziaur Rahman intended to give Bangladesh an Islamic, nationalist identity with the formation of the Bangladesh National Party and helped revive Islamic politics and political parties including the radical Jamaat-e-Islami party that opposed Bangladesh’s independence.

Its leadership stands accused of committing war crimes against civilians as collaborators with the Pakistan military during the 1971 war. Since 2013, a domestic war crimes court has convicted Islamist leaders from Jamaat and Bangladesh National Party, sentencing some to death and others to life sentences for war crimes, sparking deadly political violence. 

Ziaur’s liking for Islamists and support for Awami League’s opponents among Islamists made his party a perpetual enemy of the Awami League. Following Ziaur’s assassination in 1981 by a group of disgruntled officers, military chief H.M.

Ershad took over in a "bloodless coup" and ruled the country until a 1990 public uprising forced him to step down and paved way for democracy. Ershad also followed Ziaur’s policy of drawing near to Islamists and during his rule Islam was constitutionally declared as the "state religion."

As national election looms at the end of 2018, political rivalry is likely to rear its ugly head again. Bangladesh National Party leaders say they will not participate in an election under Awami League citing concerns about manipulation and vote rigging. 

Since 2013, Islamic militants have killed over 50 people including atheist bloggers, academics, gay activists, religious minorities and foreigners. In the absence of a peaceful political culture, religious extremists have asserted their calls for a sharia-based Islamic state. The ruling Awami League saved face after global criticism by launching a security crackdown and killed about 50 militants including top leaders, and arresting dozens.

Bangladesh now has its own homegrown militant groups. But there are also transnational jihadi groups — Islamic State and Al-Qaeda — that ideologically influence them.

More disturbingly, these groups have international financial backing, especially from Saudi Arabia where Wahhabi, or the extremist version of Islam, is practiced. The Saudis have sent billions of dollars to Bangladesh since the 1970s, funding thousands of radical mosques and madrasas, the primary breeding grounds for militancy.

Recently, Saudi Arabia announced it would donate US$ 1.07 billion to Bangladesh to set up 560 mosques, sparking renewed concerns about radicalism. Saudi Arabia is also considered the chief backer of hardline groups and Islamic parties including Jamaat. 

No elected government in Bangladesh dares to anger Saudi Arabia or resist its extremist maneuvering directly. Bangladesh has some 20 million migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, who play a vital role in that country’s economy with billions of dollars returning to Bangladesh in remittances. Fears abound that any anti-Saudi move might result in the expulsion of Bangladesh workers and cause an irreparable political disaster.

To be continued.

For a comprehensive understanding of Pope Francis’ visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh and to read the entire article “Myanmar and Bangladesh: Two Nations in the Heart of Asia" subscribe to La Civilta Cattolica available in both print and digital formats. UCAN publishes La Civilta Cattolica in English. The monthly is a highly popular and non-specialist review of religion and theology, culture and science, literature and art, politics and society and has a reputation for being the best barometer of thinking inside the Vatican.


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