Friday, June 17, 2011

Bangladesh Can Be A Secular Beacon For The Muslim World

If nations could be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress, then Bangladesh would surely be a candidate. It remains trapped in the traumatic memories of its founding, struggling to move on. The country was born from the ruins of East Pakistan in 1971 after a war of independence in which India-backed nationalists - unhappy at being ruled from what was then West Pakistan - fought Islamists loyal to Islamabad. Three million people were slaughtered in eight months before the Pakistanis conceded. Those were the days before international criminal tribunals, and the world left Bangladesh largely alone to heal and rebuild. It is now undergoing a kind of collective therapy, as the Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, launches the first set of war crimes trials in the Muslim world, to address the atrocities committed by Islamists during Bangladesh's struggle for independence. The decision has been hailed by international jurists, for good reason. Bangladesh is my birthplace and I visited last week to find a fresh challenge to the nature of Bangladeshi identity, brought on in part by debate over the notion of Pakistan as an Islamic state. Both countries are examples of the tensions between cultural heritage, secularism and Islam, an internal conflict most potent in Muslim nations outside the Arab world. Extremist versions of Islam are really Arabised forms of the religion that refuse to bend or mould to local cultures and norms. Historically, Islam has been most successful in places such as Spain and Turkey when the religion fused well with local cultures. Bangladesh's Foreign Minister, Dipu Moni, told me she hoped the country could become a beacon of secular humanism in a region racked by religious extremism, ethnic conflict and Maoist insurgency. It could then be a model not just for south Asia, but for the Muslim world. Unlike Pakistan, language and not religion is the organising principle of Bangladesh, but Islamists have hijacked much of its history. In 1979 , the same year as the Iranian revolution, they took control of the state, amended the constitution, and created an Islamic republic. The government of the centre-left Awami League Party has spared almost no expense to expunge the traces of hardline Islam since its election in 2008. It has spent millions to rename public buildings that once honoured hardline Islamists, and rewritten laws to protect women from having to wear Islamic head coverings. The government has granted itself the means to dismantle Islamist militant networks. Through the Supreme Court, Hasina nullified the 1979 amendment, making the world's third-largest Muslim nation a secular republic again. A more secular, humanist Bangladesh emboldened by its culture has potential to empower the intelligentsia in Pakistan against religious extremists as well as being an inspiration for other parts of the Muslim world. The Bangladeshi economy has consistently achieved 6 per cent annual growth in the past five years and was rated among Goldman Sachs' ''Next 11 '' in 2009 , as a country that might drive economic growth once India and China have stabilised. It has also achieved one of the key millennium development goals - gender parity in primary and secondary schooling - and is on track to achieve most of the other goals by 2015 , such as reducing infant mortality. Australia and the West have a responsibility to encourage what is a bold direction taken by Bangladeshi leaders. Australian activities there have increased significantly, in line with aid contributions. Australian taxpayers will give almost $100 million to Bangladesh in the coming year, much of it aimed at abetting the effects of climate change. With almost 20 million of its 150 million people living only a metre above sea level, Bangladesh is on the global warming front line. But the clash between culture and religion is more immediate and its results may determine if the country can better withstand the ultimate effects of nature. It is too early to become overly optimistic. The day after I left, an alliance of religious extremists and other opposition parties called a general strike to protest against the secularisation of the country and what it perceived as an authoritarian stance by those in power. It suggests there is a chance this artificial block of territory on the Indian subcontinent could morph again. Such a transformation could destabilise India, add weight to Islamic extremism in Pakistan and give the world another geopolitical and humanitarian headache of monumental proportions. Australia can play a key role in ensuring that it does not.