Former National Security Adviser and US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger never supported the liberation of Bangladesh, famously declaring in 1971, the year Bangladesh won its independence from Pakistan, that “the place is and always will be a basket case.”
In the years that followed it seemed as though Bangladesh had succumbed to this dehumanization. Alternating between civilian and military rule for decades, things came to a tense political halt in 2007 when elections were cancelled, making way for the military to step in amidst a backdrop of rising Islamist activity and political violence.
Overnight democracy disappeared in the world’s third largest Muslim nation. It appeared as though Bangladesh would ironically travel down the same road as Pakistan, the country it had fought so hard to liberate itself from.
What a difference three years make. Today Bangladesh has proven itself to be anything but a basket case. In December of 2008, people turned out in droves to bring Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina back to power in one of the largest and most critical elections in Bangladesh’s history, signaling the end of military rule and the return of democracy to this impoverished South Asian nation.
The Wall Street Journal, which has reported on the remarkable progress Bangladesh has been making twice in the past month, states that Hasina’s government has overseen the country’s economy grow by 6% annually for the past three years, and curbed its population growth. At the United Nations Summit in September, Bangladesh was acknowledged for being a “development star” because of its progress on the Millennium Development Goals.
But the world has more to learn from Bangladesh than just how to curb its maternal mortality ratios. Over the past near decade, it seemed certain that Bangladesh become just another Third World Country overrun by Islamic militants and natural disasters. But ever since the Awami League, led by Sheikh Hasina, has returned to power, the party has ensured the country move towards a different direction.
The publications of the largest and most influential Islamist organization in the Sub-Continent, Jamaat-e-Islami’s founder, Abul Ala Maudidi have been banned, fatwas deemed illegal, and in October the High Court officially ruled Bangladesh a secular state by declaring:
Bangladesh is now a secular state as the Appellate Division (of the Supreme Court) verdict scrapped the Fifth Amendment to the constitution…in this secular state, everybody has religious freedom, and therefore no man, woman or child can be forced to wear religious attires like burqa.
How incredible is it that a country, any country let alone one with all the odds stacked against it like Bangladesh, would wind up restoring democracy, achieving key development benchmarks, quashing the extremist elements which threatened its secular roots? How often does that happen? What was the unique advantage in Bangladesh’s case? The Wall Street Journal points to the country’s “secular revolution,” and its women:
Credit women’s empowerment, which provide not only a sign of societal progress, but also remain its most salient cause. The prime minister and the opposition leader are both women. The foreign affairs, home and agricultural ministries are all run by women. Women hold top jobs in government, banks and business, and are especially prominent in legal, medical and social industries. They excel in art, culture and sport. They serve in the armed forces and fly planes for the national airlines. In the lower socio-economic spheres, women work in agriculture, microfinance and the garment industry. Tens of millions of women are economic decision-makers.
Of course the struggle for gender rights and equity still has a long way to go. But the attempt to achieve these worthy goals, led mainly by nongovernmental organizations, has also increased social resiliency against religious fanaticism. In fact, it’s not a stretch to argue that the government’s actions to stem Islamism could never have been imagined without society’s secular backdrop.
Although the country still faces political instability and must fight to secure these recent accomplishments, the fact of the matter is the people have determined the destiny of their country, choosing secularism over extremism, freedom of expression over the burqa.
Bangladesh, as author and writer Sadanan Dhume recently wrote, has decided her identity is politically secular, religiously Muslim and culturally Bengali.
Islamic world, please take note.
*This post of mine was also published on The Huffington Post.