This summer, the small country of Bangladesh in South Asia captured world attention. The brutal murders of writers and activists by extremists culminated in the slaughter of 20 foreigners at a café in Dhaka.
Though the incidents have catapulted Bangladesh into the world media spotlight, the nation of more than 160 million people nestled between India and the Bay of Bengal has long been on the radar of world leaders. “From Washington, to London, to Brussels, those in power are saying, ‘Yes, we need to understand Bangladesh,’” said University Professor of Political Science Ali Riaz.
Riaz is co-editor of the recently released Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Bangladesh, and author of the new book Bangladesh: A Political History Since Independence. Years in the making, both books reflect the growing world demand for knowledge about Bangladesh, and its strategic position as a gateway to the increasingly important Southeast Asia, and as a neighbor to the rising global power India.
The Bangladesh Paradox
“Often people who are in policy-making circles, the media, and academia need to have a quick and thorough background of what Bangladesh has achieved,” said Riaz, explaining the publisher Routledge approached him about the handbook. “And in a very short span of time, Bangladesh has achieved much.” With 34 scholars dedicated to topics that range from labor migration and trade to human rights and climate change, the book offers a densely packed snapshot of the country uniquely poised on the world stage.
Along with a rapidly expanding economy, Bangladesh has also managed unprecedented growth in social indicators, such as public health and education for women. These changes came despite a weak democracy in a situation Riaz called the “Bangladesh Paradox.”
“It is a paradox. We have been told that a country which fails to develop a strong democracy or good governance cannot have social growth,” said Riaz. “Since Bangladesh embarked on a journey toward democracy in 1991, the best we can say is that it has worked—to a great extent— but also raises questions as to how they achieved it.” Riaz referred to the government as a “dysfunctional democracy,” where power is held by a handful of people despite the participation of an enormous number of Bangladeshi voters. “How a country achieves social growth without good governance is somewhat of an enigma.”
Riaz explores the Bangladesh Paradox in Bangladesh: A Political History Since Independence, along with the larger question of the nation’s identity. Bangladesh has the fourth-largest Muslim population in the world, behind Indonesia, Pakistan, and India. The country declared independence from Pakistan in 1971, and suffered a genocide as they battled to create their own nation.
“We understand that religion is an important part of contemporary politics,” said Riaz, who added that many Bangladeshis won’t identify themselves solely as Muslims or solely by their ethnic identity of Bengali. “Millions were killed in the genocide by Pakistan, which claimed its identity is based on religion. Bengalis, although they were Muslims, were being marginalized because of their ethnic identity.” While many debate whether to focus just on religion or ethnicity for identity, in his book Riaz points out the two identities are not irreconcilable as many would suggest. “People of the country incorporated both Islam and Bengali culture in their daily lives for centuries,” said Riaz. “They neither had to choose between them, nor had they prioritized one over the other.”
Rise of extremism
The rise of extremism in Bangladesh appears to mirror countries around the globe, with transnational terrorist groups extending their reach, and self-radicalized groups or individuals carrying out violent acts. “All around the world, there is the unresolved issue of religion and politics,” said Riaz.
The Bangladeshi government is wrong to dismiss the extremist acts as a “local” issue, said Riaz. “All militancy and extremism is both local and global,” he said, pointing out that events happen somewhere locally, whether Syria, Nice, Orlando, or Paris.” He added that because of our immediate access to the world through 24-hour news and social media, nothing remains “local” long. “News comes to our doorstep in an instant, one can be indoctrinated from a far-away land, no matter where it is. ISIS formed in Syria, but you cannot say it is a local Syrian issue.”
Ground zero for climate change
The world is watching Bangladesh now for more than incidents of violence. Environmentalists note the nation is at ground zero for the impact of climate change. Rising global sea levels are threatening to submerge its estuary islands. If scientific predictions are correct, dramatic coastal and river erosion will destroy land and homes in the years to come. “Bangladesh is at the forefront for the sea-level rise impacting populated areas,” said Riaz, who worries whether the government is equipped to deal with the rapid loss of land to the sea. “Will there be a population flight? Will displaced people start walking in droves to India? Will it create a refugee crisis? Or alternatively will it contribute to further instability within the country as loss of land will create pressure on scarce resources? This is something Bangladesh will need to face in the future.”
For the time being, the headlines are focused on extremism, and wary world leaders look to Bangladesh to understand how a Muslim-majority country deals with rising extremism. “It is a reality here in the United States, in Europe, and around the world, that we have seen the rise of xenophobic and ultra-right, skewed versions of religion,” said Riaz. “The question is, can a country like Bangladesh conquer extremism with a very fractured political system and weak political institutions. The world saw Pakistan fail in that battle, and now they want to know if Bangladesh, with its strong economy, can succeed.”