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Georg Evers {*}

Politically and Religiously Strained

Bangladesh After the Suspension of the Parliamentary Elections


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 3/2007, p. 154-159


    Since 1971 independent Bangladesh, the homeland of Muhammad Yunus who in 2006 got the Nobel Peace Prize, is politically notoriously unstable, as just the last months have shown again. The situation of the small Christian minority in the country has become more difficult with the radical Islamic movements growing stronger.


Bangladesh is a country that always then gets into the headlines of the world press when there are large floods in consequence of the cyclones annually rushing over the country, or as it is at present the case, unrests and acts of violence lead to political tensions. With an area of 147.570 qkm Bangladesh is almost as large as Nepal. But while there only 25 million people live, Bangladesh with 148 million inhabitants has the seventh-largest population and with a population density of a little more than 1000 people per square kilometre is the most densely populated country in the world.

Bangladesh has got almost no raw materials. In the last years the textile industry grew strongly. At present it employs 1.8 million people and in 2006 made 5.5 billion euro. In the fast established factories the labour above all of semi-skilled women, who in long shifts in piece-work manufacture textiles for the international market is ruthlessly exploited. In spring 2006 it came in Dhaka and other cities to violent clashes of several days, when female workers and workers protested against the working conditions in the textile industry, and demanded a rise of the minimum wages, a weekly day of rest and the right to belong to a trade union.


Shaped by Political Unrests and Violence

Led by the textile industry, other industries too show positive figures at present. But the in 2006 achieved rate of 6,3 per cent economic growth per year is by far not sufficient to adapt the necessary development of the infrastructure of the country to the population growth of 2,1 per cent and to fight poverty effectively. With more than half of the population of the country the standard of living is under the poverty limit. 36 per cent of the population have only one dollar per day to pay their living with. With a quota of alphabetization of now 43.1 per cent there is a lack of trained specialists in many places. Wide-spread unemployment forces many men to make their money in the oil states at the gulf. The migration of those men has very negative consequences for the family life. Many single mothers see themselves overtaxed and resort to drugs. On the other hand the money transfers of the Bangladeshis living and working abroad represent a very decisive factor in the country's foreign trade balance, since the sum of these transfers is higher than the total amount of foreign development aid and direct investments.

Bangladesh belongs to the more recent independent states, since it could free itself from Pakistan after a bloody civil war only in 1971 and win political independence. East Pakistan, which was formed after the division of the Indian subcontinent in 1947 from the former East Indian province Bengal, had only because of the spatial distance of more than 1000 km by which it was separated from West Pakistan, never felt at home and respected in the Pakistan controlled by Karachi respectively Islamabad. The political development after independence was moulded by political unrests and violence. The foundation father of the nation, Mujibur Rahman, was murdered in 1975 with many members of his family. The two prominent political parties of the country, the Awami League (AL) under the daughter of the founder of the state, Scheikh Hasina Wajid, and the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), likewise led by a woman, Begum Khaleda Zia, have deeply split the country and up to this day cause tension and unrest.

Begum Khaleda Zias way into politics began after the murder of her husband Ziaur Rahman, who in May 1981 fell victim to an assassination attempt. Ziaur Rahman, who had come to power as General of the Army, had before succeeded in bringing about the transition to parliamentary democracy from the up to then military governments replacing each other. After his violent death the series of military governments continued again



under the authoritarian General Hussain Ershad (1982-1990). In order to secure the heritage of her husband, Begum Khaleda Zia began her political career in resistance to the regime of Ershad, who let her arrest several times. When Ershad in 1991 was forced to resign, the BNP won the following elections, and Khaleda Zia was elected first Lady Prime Minister of the country. Her re-election, which took place by election manipulations in June 1996, was cancelled by the highest court. In the then repeated election Sheikh Hasina Wajid from the oppositional Awami League triumphed, and replaced Khaleda Zia as Prime Minister.


The Intended Election Date Could Not Be Kept

With the next elections in 2001 Khaleda Zia succeeded again in being elected Prime Minister with a coalition government consisting of four parties, in which also the fundamentalist Islamic parties Jamat-e-Islam and Islami Oikya Jote were represented The intensified influence of radical Islamic movements on the government work associated with it was critically observed both at home and abroad.

In the many years in which the governing BNP determined the politics of the country it tried with always new and harder methods to keep the opposition away from a participation in power, and to prevent it from exercising its political role to which it is entitled by the constitution. In recent time the argument between the two political blocks took on harder and harder forms. While there were first demonstrations and temporally and locally limited strikes, in recent time more and more frequently violent clashes took place, in which several people were killed and many wounded.

This politically poisoned atmosphere finally led to the fact that the actually planned election date (22 January 2007) could not be kept. On 28 October 2006 the term of office of the coalition government led by Prime Minister Khaleda Zia officially ended. According to the constitution at the same time an interim government under leadership of the highest judge K. M. Hasan should have taken over the government work for 90 days, up to the swearing-in of the new government after the parliamentary elections. But the opposition raised substantial accusations against him, so that Hasan could not do this. In order to avoid a power vacuum President Iajuddin Ahmed let himself be sworn-in as chairman of the interim government instead of Hasan. This unauthorized procedure, which is not planned by the constitution, led again to violent protests and strikes on the part of the opposition. As precondition for a co-operation with the interim government the opposition demanded the dismissal of M.A. Azziz, the chairman of the electoral committee.

After a whole series of partially bloody clashes President Ahmed gave way to that pressure of the opposition and gave the chairman of the electoral committee three months leave of absence, which de facto was equal to a dismissal. At the same time he appointed two new electoral commissioners, of whom at least one is on close terms with the government party. On 3 January 2007 Sheikh Hasina declared that the Awami League was going to boycott the elections because of the striking irregularities during the election preparations.

In order to maintain public order and national security and to tone down the heated mood, the "still" chairman of the interim government Iajuddin Ahmed on 12 January 2007 declared the state of emergency. With immediate effect thereby any political and trade union activities, like demonstrations and strikes, were forbidden and the reporting of the media was strongly limited. It is considered to be quite certain that this decision was made at the instigation of the military.

This estimation is underlined by the fact that Iajuddin Ahmed declared his resignation the very same day. In his place Fakhruddin Ahmed became chairmen of the interim government. Fakhruddin Ahmed is a proven economic expert, who from 1978-2001 worked with the World Bank in Washington,



where he made it to vice-president, and afterwards until 2005 led the state bank of Bangladesh. Finally he was active in the management of a foundation that grants small loans. It was his first official act as leader of the interim government to postpone indefinitely the elections fixed for 22 January.


Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank

As much as the new interim government was welcomed by the population, the media and the economy, so great are the fears triggered by the "quiet coup d'etat", as the establishment of the new interim government was also called. At the same time the new head of the interim government generally enjoys large reputation and his authority in economic questions as well as his personal integrity is recognized. But there is the critical question how large the influence of the military, under the leadership of the chief of staff, lieutenant general Moin Ahmed, really is.

After all Bangladesh has a long experience with military governments. Hence the fears are great that there could be elections only in the distant future again. Since the declaration of the state of emergency the violent demonstrations and clashes between the competing political parties on the roads have come to an end, but instead the measures imposed to maintain the state of emergency are connected with no less violence. But there is some hope, because the Nobel Peace Prize winner of 2006, Muhammad Yunus, the founder of the Grameen Bank, in an open letter addressed his people, in which he declares his readiness to take actively part in the political events by founding a new party, if this is wanted.

The Grameen Bank was created in 1983 by Yunus in Chittagong in the east of Bangladesh. As a professor for economic science at the local university he had busied himself for a long time with the situation of the small farmers and craftsman, who time and again were threatened in their existence by natural catastrophes. By field studies in the surrounding villages it became clear to him that the simple farmers did not need enormous credits, but would already be able to crucially improve their economic situation by small sums, in the order of twenty up to thirty dollars.

This insight stood behind the foundation of the Grameen Bank (village bank), which as cooperative bank gives small loans at favourable conditions to landless small farmers and craftsmen, so that they - without being exploited by credit sharks, are able to obtain new sources of income, as for instance by growing rice, raising cattle and poultry, manual work, handicraft and retail trade. The small loans of the Grameen Bank are in the order of 75 dollars with the maximum limit at 150 dollars.

In 2006 the Grameen Bank had 6.61 million borrowers, of whom 97 per cent were women. With 2226 branches the bank is represented in more than 70 per cent of the 71.371 villages fairly all over Bangladesh. The repayment rate of the granted loans is with 98.85 per cent surprisingly high. Since 1995 the bank had to take advantage of no financial assistance from outside, the takings completely come from the members' repayments of loans, so that 90 per cent of the bank are in possession of the customers, while the state holds only 10 per cent of the shares.

In Bangladesh there is not only the Grameen Bank, but the oldest non-profit credit bank of the country is a Catholic establishment: the "Christian Cooperative for Collective Credits of Dhaka", created by the Congregation of the Holy Cross a good fifty years ago. At its foundation on 3 July 1955 it was the first cooperative bank in Bangladesh and at present it is an important instrument of co-operation for Catholics and Protestants over the denominational borders.

The example of the cooperative bank in Dhaka set a precedent in the country and inspired the foundation of numerous further smaller Christian cooperative banks. The in 1979 under the leadership of Dhaka's cooperative bank founded League of Christian Cooperative banks at present has 415 member banks, which give credits to Christians and non-Christians in more than half of the country and significantly contribute to the rural development. Apart from the central business of granting credits some of these establishments are also active in the area of education and pass on training scholarships.


Since 1977 Bangladesh Is Officially an Islamic State

When in 1971 the state was founded the constitution contained the principle of secularism, hence the obligation of the state to neutrality towards the religions and the guarantee of the primacy of politics in relation to individual religious interests, as well as the guarantee of freedom of religion for all religious communities. According to the words of the founder of the state Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh should be a "homestead for Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Christians".

In 1977 the principle of secularism was given up and Bangladesh was declared an Islamic state. Islam is with 88.3 per cent or 128 million members the strongest religion. Thus Bangladesh belongs after Indonesia, and of about the same size as Pakistan and India, to the largest Muslim countries in the world. The share of Hindus is about 13 per cent, which means they are the largest minority in the country. Buddhists have a part of 0,5 per cent, while to the Christian churches 0.3 per cent are allotted. Thus they likewise represent only a small minority, which however by its schools, hospitals and other social institutions has an influence that goes far beyond its numerical greatness.



In October 2001 the Catholic Church in Bangladesh celebrated its 400th anniversary in Chittagong, in the south of the country, where in 1598 the Jesuit Francisco Fernandez landed and began to preach the gospel. He founded the first two churches, and after he had got mixed up in the ravages of war died in prison in1602 Since then he has been venerated as the first martyr of Bengal. The number of Catholic Christians at present is about 270.000. Approximately equally large is also the number of Protestants, who spread over thirty two churches or church communities. The ecumenical climate between the Christian churches is good.

In 1988 Islam was officially declared state religion what for the religious minorities of Hindus, Buddhists and Christians meant difficulties in maintaining their own identity. In the last years the up to then to a large extent harmonious living together of people of different religions was severely disturbed by increasing radical Islamic tendencies. The numerically strongest religious minority of the Hindus is thereby the priority target of discrimination and persecution by radical Muslim groups. Every time that in the neighbouring India radical Hindus use violence against Muslims it comes to acts of retaliation in Bangladesh on the part of Islamic groups against the Hindu minority.

This is to bring home to the Hindus that their "actual homeland" is not in the Muslim Bangladesh, but in the Indian union. The objective of such actions is usually to take possession of the then "abandoned" property after the forced departure of the Hindus. Officially the previous government always tried to negate the existence and the activities of Islamic extremists, but the many attacks that happened in the last years contradict the official version.

The largest violent action of the radical Islamist forces was a series of 434 bomb attacks, which on 17 August 2005 at the same time were carried out throughout the whole country, and which - in view of the dimension attacks - claimed "only" three lives and hundreds of wounded. As reaction to these and a series of other assaults and bomb attacks the government admittedly carried out raids in the whole country and arrested suspects. Thus alone more than 200 mosque schools were searched by national security agents, despite the sharp protest of the Islamic authorities.

In the official instruction as to the wording to be used the previous government continued however to insist that the persons under arrest were individual "terrorist culprits", but by no means "Islamist militant criminals". This version, understood only by few people, is obviously to help not to unnecessarily provoke the Muslim majority in the country, and above all to keep the Islamic parties, important coalition partners of the government,



favourably inclined. But there are hardly any doubts that the radical Islamist organization Jama´atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) is responsible for the assaults. After longer hesitation the government meanwhile - as reaction to further acts of violence took action against this violent group.

The goal of the JMB, which has been forbidden by the government, is the establishment of an Islamic theocracy, in which the Scharia should be the basis of all legislation. The JMB was also responsible for further attacks with suicide assassins in the following months in Gazipur and Chittagong. First the attacks of this organization were exclusively directed against state institutions, but in the meantime they were extended also against non-governmental educational institutions, cultural organizations and relief organizations (NGOs).

It is of great importance that the radical Muslim groups increasingly succeed in infiltrating their ideas into the syllabus of the numerous Koran schools (madrasas). In the Koran schools of the country the superiority of Islam is generally taught, and the view on other religions and world views imparted there is hardly moulded by tolerance or the readiness to dialogue. In the meantime the Koran schools got a revaluation by the government, because their degrees under certain conditions are also nationally recognized.

Compared to the Catholic Church's small figure of members the work of its social institution, the "Caritas Bangladesh", is to be estimated very highly. The work of Caritas Bangladesh concentrates on two large areas. There is first of all the department for the help with natural disasters and accidents. In the area of disaster precaution against the cyclones time and again striking the country Caritas Bangladesh has a program for the erection of protective buildings, a kind of dugout on stilts, which can offer protection to the people concerned against the strong storms and the inundations accompanying them.


Important Church Social Work

But in the centre of the work is the second area, the contributions for the development of new social structures in the villages by establishing cooperatives with banks for small loans, the fight against diseases, in the first place against the wide-spread HIV AIDS epidemic, connected with a program for the rehabilitation of drug-addicts, whose number in Bangladesh is about 2.5 million. Other projects are concerned with securing the drinking-water supply with pure, acidless drinking-water. A large-scale project in the area of aquaculture for the target group of women serves to help people to help themselves, in which by laying out fish-ponds the women taking part are to get their own income from the fish farming.

The importance of the social work and of the Christian social teachings has in the meantime also been recognized as important part of the theological training. For some time in the priest training in the seminary in Dhaka larger attention has been given to the practical training of the future priests in questions of the socio-economic life. The training programme is now enriched by a program that is carried out by the "Caritas Development Institute" of the Congregation of the Holy Cross. By courses and direct commitment on the spot the seminarists get a view of the social situation in the country, by which they are to be made sensitive to understand in their later pastoral activity in the parishes these problems as integral component of their priestly task.

As also elsewhere on the Indian continent Islam in Bangladesh has a special colouration, since it was influenced by the traditions of popular piety, Hinduism and Buddhism. The Islam in Bangladesh is not a community closed in itself, since there is apart from the syncretistic popular Islam a strong group of Muslims keeping as strict as possible to the Scharia (Sharioti Islam). It is remarkable how strong the influence of Sufi, the mystical tradition in Islam, is in Bangladesh today. The teachers of Sufi are sought-after counsellors and respected as religious leaders. Brotherhoods that are influenced by Sufi thought (tariqa) enjoy a large clientele and their prayer-meetings are heavily frequented. The graves of Sufi Saints have for centuries been kept in good condition and visited by the faithful, who there are looking for mental comfort, a hearing of their prayers and spiritual inspiration.

The relations between Muslims and the small Christian minority in Bangladesh were in the past usually rather unmarred. But quite contrary to the traditional Islam in Bangladesh the radical Islamist groups spread hatred and confrontation in the country. The groups influenced by the Saudi Arabian Wahhabism condemn Sufi and bank completely on the confrontation with other religions. With the increasing of radical Islamist groups, which are directed against all non-Muslim groups, also the pressure on the Christian minority has increased.

This development opposes the dialogue efforts, which the Catholic Church has begun since the Second Vatican Council particularly with regard to the Muslims. In 1974 within Bangladesh's Bishops' Conference a commission for the inter-religious dialogue was established. Also in the national pastoral plan of 1985 the inter-religious dialogue is called the church's central task, and in 2002 this was again confirmed on a national pastoral conference.



The commission so far put the main focus of its activity on establishing relations to other religious communities, primarily of course to Muslim institutions, and on training programs for seminarians, members of religious communities and laymen. There are in different places small dialogue groups, which regularly meet and - apart from the questions of the dialogue - sometimes also deal with ways of practical co-operation. With the increase of the Islamist movements the work in the area of dialogue has become more difficult.

In view of the at present often stated fundamental enquiries about sense and purpose of the interreligious dialogue the apostolate of Bob McCahill is of particular importance. For years the special apostolate of Bob McCahill, member of the American missionary society of Maryknoll, has consisted in living for some time, usually for two to three years, in Bangladesh in a city or village in a simple hut among people, and in "being around" for the poor, sick and needy, to talk with them, to offer small help to them, to assist them during diseases and to give other signs of human solidarity, but without working as a missionary.

At all places where he comes, the Muslims he meets first expect or fear that this foreign priest will work as a missionary. Already the fact that he does not do this arouses after some time their curiosity and the wish to find out why he is living among them. In answer to their questions he shows them the letter given to him by Bishop Francis, when he officially recognized the special apostolic vocation of "Brother Bob", as he usually calls himself. At that time the bishop wrote to him, "Live among the poor as their brother. Serve the sick, so that they can live. Show them the respect which our religion has for Islam and Hinduism. Explain to those who ask for it, the reason why you're living among them in such a way. Try to get in contact with the few Christians in the area."

Bob McCahill is convinced that his example of disinterested love is under the circumstances in Bangladesh perhaps the most effective form of Christian testimony and mission. This experience is the contribution Bob gives to the training of priests, when he invites seminarians to share with him for some time the simple life of disinterested testimony.

    {*} George Evers (born in 1936), attained a doctorate with Karl Rahner on theology of religions. From 1979-2001 he was an Asia assistant in the Institute of Missiology Missio (Aachen). In this capacity he made numerous journeys to Asian countries and took part in important theological conferences in the framework of the Union of Asian Bishops' Conferences (FABC). Numerous publications on interreligious dialogue and mission theology.


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