But the Islamists she is courting will never be satisfied
SHEIKH HASINA WAJED has inflicted many injuries on Bangladesh’s democracy. She has pursued a dogged vendetta against her main rival for the job of prime minister, Khaleda Zia, hounding her supporters and persecuting her party. She has picked on any prominent person or institution that is not beholden to her, from Muhammad Yunus, a microcredit pioneer, to Bangladesh’s biggest Islamic bank. Citing atrocities committed during Bangladesh’s war of independence from Pakistan in 1971, she oversaw the dismemberment of the country’s main Islamic party, executing many of its leaders. By those standards, her latest failing—pandering to the demands of Islamist agitators and refusing to defend the secular principles of the constitution—may seem relatively mild. But its consequences will be lasting.
By and large, Bangladesh is as moderate as Sheikh Hasina is intemperate. Although 90% of the population is Muslim, the constitution guarantees freedom of religion. Sufism, a mystical form of Islam that purists in Arabia frown on, is widespread. Hindus are 9% of the population and hold many prominent jobs, including chief justice of the supreme court. Yet Bangladeshi society has experienced something of a religious revival in recent years. Islamist groups have stirred up anger at perceived slights to religion, bringing protesters onto the streets. Violence has proliferated against non-Muslims, as well as those who speak up for secularism or for causes such as gay rights that are deemed sacrilegious.
Instead of trying to dispel the climate of fear that the Islamists have created, Sheikh Hasina’s government has suggested that the murdered liberals had it coming. Indeed, having undermined Bangladesh’s democracy, and thus deprived itself of the legitimacy that free elections might have brought, the government is trying to win support by courting the devout. With the help of a $1bn gift from Saudi Arabia, it plans to build a mosque in every town. It has backed away from reforming inheritance laws to make them fairer to women, and from cracking down on child marriage. Most absurdly, it has agreed to move a statue of justice, depicted as a blindfolded woman in a sari, from in front of the supreme court, to placate protesters railing against idolatry (see article).
Ironically, it was Sheikh Hasina’s father, Bangladesh’s first president, who insisted on enshrining secularism in the constitution. Sheikh Hasina herself crushed the Jamaat-e-Islami, the biggest Islamic party. Her son has admitted that the government is resorting to pious gestures not out of conviction, but to insulate itself from religious criticism.
Zealots are never satisfied
Such appeasement never works, however. It will simply embolden the agitators to demand more. Already, they are calling for schools to be segregated by sex and for a blasphemy law to be adopted. Authoritarian rulers in many other countries (Pakistan leaps to mind) have tried to bolster their legitimacy by pandering to religious sentiment only to find themselves in a vicious cycle, in which moderates are cowed, giving rise to ever more extreme demands from the religious fringe.
The only antidote is the free exercise of democracy. That will let ordinary Bangladeshis decide how religious they want their government to be. Most voters are probably interested chiefly in the economy, which has been growing healthily. Sheikh Hasina might even find that, if she allowed voters a genuine choice, they would return her to office—with a mandate to ignore the angry clerics.
This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline “Sheikh Hasina’s folly”.
Courtesy: The Economist