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Policy Brief on Bangladesh

ICC Note: This article is the summary of a detailed document explaining the findings of the commission the US government appointed to monitor religious freedom around the world, focusing on Bangladesh. The major concern is that Islamic extremists are infiltrating the country in an attempt to create another Fundamentalist society.

United States Commission on International Religious Freedom
Fall 2006

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

In January 2007, the People’s Republic of Bangladesh will hold a national election, its fourth since the fall of a military dictatorship in 1990. This election will be a critical test for the country. The last national election in October 2001 was marred by violence; many of the victims were Hindus, Bangladesh’s largest religious minority. That election was won by an alliance that included, for the first time in Bangladesh, religiously based parties. The largest of these, Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, openly promotes Bangladesh becoming an Islamic state with a legal system based on sharia, or Islamic law, and the establishment of an “Islamic social order.” Moreover, avowedly Islamist political parties serving in the government coalition have sought to impose a more Islamic cast on government and society, a goal that could have serious implications for religious freedom in Bangladesh. Since the 2001 election, Bangladesh has experienced an upsurge in violence by religious extremists and, as a result, growing concerns expressed by the country’s religious minorities, including Hindus, Christians, and Buddhists. In addition, Islamist activists have mounted a vocal public campaign against the Ahmadi religious community. The 2007 election will help determine whether Bangladesh will be able to sustain its democratic institutions and effective secular legal system, which guarantee the human rights of all Bangladeshis.

Bangladesh is by many standards a moderate and democratic majority-Muslim country. It is a functioning, albeit flawed, democracy with a representative government, periodic elections that have led to changes of power, a judiciary that sometimes rules against executive authority, a lively and critical press, and a functioning civil society with active human rights groups and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Bangladesh’s constitution contains strongly worded protections for religious freedom and other human rights and affirms the equal rights of all citizens regardless of religious faith, ethnicity, or gender.2 These protections have been upheld in the courts and publicly reaffirmed by those in authority. Tolerance for religious diversity has deep roots in Bangladeshi popular culture. Women, although still disadvantaged in Bangladesh, have held leadership positions in government and in society.

In recent years, however, growing extremist militancy in the majority Muslim community has marred Bangladesh’s ability to protect all of its citizens. Violence, both religiously inspired and politically motivated, has targeted Hindus, Ahmadis, and other minorities and has threatened to undermine the democratic institutions that protect religious freedom and to silence the country’s voices of tolerance and moderation. That violence escalated in 2005, reaching its height in August when 459 bombs exploded throughout the country on a single day in a demonstration of the militants’ operational reach and organizational capabilities.3 The country’s courts and secular legal system have been subjected to terrorist attacks by those wishing to impose Islamic law. These attacks have included suicide bombings, a new phenomenon in Bangladesh. Secular NGOs, anti-extremist journalists, and other public figures have also been attacked, sometimes fatally.

The government of Bangladesh initially downplayed the problem of violence by radical Islamists and even tried to discredit those seeking to publicize it. Only belatedly has the government become more assertive in its response, banning some groups and arresting several suspects. Even when arrested, however, some terrorist ringleaders have reportedly received indulgent, even accommodating treatment from the authorities, being kept in an apartment rather than imprisoned, and allowed to receive visitors.4 Meanwhile, law enforcement personnel, including elite units involved in counter-terrorist operations, have been further discredited by their participation in numerous extrajudicial killings, locally termed “cross-fire” killings… [Go To Full Story]