Bangladesh’s ruling party, whose roots lie in secularism, has garnered support from dozens of faith-based groups ahead of the Dec. 30 general election to counter a main rival’s claim that its policies are anti-Islam, according to analysts and party officials.
The Awami League, which heads a governing coalition that has ruled the Islamic majority country for the past decade, is following the lead of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in attracting millions of Muslims who will vote in the polls, according to one political analyst.
“There was a misconception among the people that the Awami League had been a party against Islam. So, the Awami League associated the faith-based parties in the political activities as a deterrent of such an opposition campaign,” Ataur Rahman, a former political science professor at Dhaka University, told BenarNews.
“As 80 percent of the voters are Muslims, Awami League cannot ignore the popular sentiment, so they must portray themselves as pro-Islamic and secular at the same time,” he said.
Awami is led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the assassinated first leader of Bangladesh who is considered the nation’s founding father and who spearheaded a pro-secular movement during the war of independence against Pakistan in 1971.
Hasina is looking to win a fourth term overall and third consecutive one as prime minister.
This time around, her party and its political allies are backed by six registered faith-based parties and another 55 non-registered parties including Hefazat-e-Islami, a conservative Muslim group that has supporters throughout Bangladesh.
The election will be the first contested one in 10 years. While the parties can field candidates for the 299 parliamentary seats being contested, Awami has allocated two seats for Islamic parties if their candidates win at the polls.
“We have relations with the Islamic parties that oppose militancy and terrorism and support the war of independence. They may not have votes, but they matter,” Hasan Mahmud, an MP and Awami League publicity secretary, told Benar.
‘I do not mix politics with religion’
Lately, Hasina has led efforts to show that her party is more open to Muslim influence in developing policies that affect the entire nation. She caused consternation among Bangladeshis last year when she made concessions to Hefazat amid fears that growing Islamization was eclipsing the secular traditions of Bengali culture.
Meeting with Hefazat leaders at her residence in April 2017, for instance, Hasina announced that her government would recognize degrees from thousands of unregulated Qwami madrassas – Islamic boarding schools. She also agreed to changes in public school textbooks to make them more “Muslim-friendly,” as demanded by Hefazat.
“I follow religious guidelines, but I do not mix politics with religion,” Hasina said in response to criticisms of her actions. “Recognition of the Qwami madrassa certificate will bring jobs to lakhs [hundreds of thousands] of students. There is no politics in it.”
In recent years, Bangladesh has also seen a series of fatal attacks on secular writers and publishers by Muslim extremists. Following the first of these killings in 2013, Hasina visited the victim’s family and referred to him as a martyr during a speech to parliament.
However, after a more recent attack, the prime minister placed some of the blame on the secular writers themselves.
“No one in this country has the right to speak in a way that hurts religious sentiment. You won’t practice religion – no problem. But you can’t attack someone else’s religion,” Hasina said after the August 2015 slaying of secular blogger Niladri Chottopaddhya (also known as Niloy Neel.)
‘They are like food coloring’
The opposition BNP, meanwhile, has aligned with Bangladesh’s largest faith-based party, Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), even though the Election Commission deregistered it as a political party, meaning candidates cannot contest any election using its party name or symbol.
JI has been controversial since the country’s independence because it opposed what was then known as East Pakistan breaking from West Pakistan. Many of the party’s top leaders have since been executed for crimes against humanity allegedly committed during the 1971 war.
Despite the ruling by the commission, JI leader Mia Ghulam Parwar told BenarNews that his group had taken steps to participate with a coalition of 20 parties headed by BNP. Separately, the BNP is a main party in a newly formed opposition alliance, the National Unity Front, which aims to unseat Awami at the polls.
Parwar said JI had submitted a list of 50 potential candidates, who include sons of convicted war criminals.
Among them are the son of Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojaheed, the JI secretary general who was sentenced to death on Nov. 22, 2015; two sons of JI leader Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, who was sentenced to life in prison in 2014; a son of Abdul Quader Molla, who was sentenced to death on Dec. 12, 2013; and a son of Mir Quasem Ali, who was sentenced to death on Sept. 3, 2016.
BNP has allocated 28 parliamentary seats to faith-based parties – compared to the two by the Awami League. Of those, 23 have been allocated for JI leaders.
BNP leader Moazzem Hossain Alal said the major parties were aware of the religious sentiment of voters.
“All political parties have been exploiting the Islamic parties, no matter whether they are registered or unregistered. This is because we have to show the voters that we are pro Islam; the Islamic leaders have been with us. And the religious leaders have also been exploiting the political parties,” he told BenarNews.
“For instance, they are like food coloring; you cannot make food with just food coloring but it can make food attractive,” Alal said.