Civilizational Populism and Religious Authoritarianism in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives

Please cite as:

Nguijoi, Gabriel Cyrille & Sithole, Neo. (2024). Civilizational Populism and Religious Authoritarianism in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). February 15, 2024. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0051                    

 

This brief report provides a summary of the 9th event in ECPS’s monthly Mapping Global Populism panel series, titled “Civilizational Populism and Religious Authoritarianism in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives,” which was held online on January 25, 2024. Dr. Syaza Shukri moderated the panel, featuring insights from four distinguished scholars specializing in populism from the aforementioned countries.

Report by Dr. Gabriel Cyrille Nguijoi & Neo Sithole 

This report gives a summary of the 9th session of the ECPS’s monthly Mapping Global Populism panel series titled “Civilizational Populism and Religious Authoritarianism in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives,” which took place online on January 25, 2024. Moderated by Dr. Syaza Shukri, Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science, Kulliyyah of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences, International Islamic University Malaysia, the panel featured speakers by Mr. Bobby Hajjaj, Department of Management, North South University, Bangladesh, Dr. Maidul Islam, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, Dr. Rajni Gamage, Postdoctoral Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), National University of Singapore, and Dr. Mosmi Bhim, Assistant Professor at Fiji National University.


In her opening speech, Dr. Syaza Shukri provided an overview of populism and authoritarianism in the three South Asian countries under discussion. She emphasized that civilizational populism and religious authoritarianism have become entrenched as a societal process shaping the contemporary geopolitical landscape of the Indian subcontinent. According to her, this phenomenon represents a convergence of populist parties through languages, civilizational narratives, and religious identity.

Dr. Shukri highlights a significant observation: an examination of these three countries suggests similar populist economic statuses and rationales for the effectiveness of civilizational populism and religious authoritarianism. These phenomena are not only domestic political strategies but also significant instruments for regional stability and international relations. This reality is evident in Bangladesh, where the narratives of conservative Islamic elements have at times dominated constitutional obligations and assumed political control.

Dr. Shukri further specifies that the political landscape in Sri Lanka has been characterized by the cultivation of national sentiments, which have exerted significant influence on the government and often resulted in different policies, violent conflicts, civil wars, and communal clashes. Nationalist groups sometimes redefine national identity and frequently marginalize minority groups such as the Tamils, Veddas, and Muslims. This has led to an increase in conservative religious norms, tensions between economic liberalism and religious conservatism, and conflicts between global connectivity and local religious political dynamics.

Bobby Hajjaj: “Islamic Extremism, Populism and Formation of National Identity in Bangladesh”

Bobby Hajjaj highlights the growing possibility of an Islamist populist movement gaining ground in Bangladesh, albeit slowly. Some see this as the sole alternative to Bangladeshi authoritarianism. Nevertheless, many others remain skeptical due to the lack of comprehensive governance and associated agendas within Islamist populism.

As the first speaker of the panel, Bobby Hajjaj’s discussion emphasizes the reasons and nature of national identity formation in Bangladesh, specifically how and why it has been constructed as we perceive it today. Hajjaj began his introduction with a brief overview of the populist configuration in Bangladesh.

For Hajjaj, two main ideas prevail in the construction of this identity, significantly influencing the development of populist movements over the last sixty years in the country. The first is language-based (Bengali), and the second is religious-based (Bangladeshi). Language serves as the foundational element that gave rise to Bangladesh as a nation. However, over the last fifteen years, there has been the emergence of a new kind of populist movement with a significant opposition base: religious extremism. Meanwhile, religious extremism has been influenced by two important elements, both within and outside the mainstream political agenda. Different perceptions and reasons are discussed to illustrate how things are viewed in a certain way in the literature, structured around institutions, historical context, and international developments.

The nature and creation of institutions play a significant role in the development of populist movements in Bangladesh. Institutions often function as top-down mechanisms, reflecting the country’s status as a patrimonial state, which in turn shapes these institutions.

Historically, the Muslim identity in Bangladesh has undergone various transformations over the last sixty years. Initially, there was a Muslim Bengali identity that was portrayed as a cultural identity in the country. The rise of the Bangladesh Liberation Movement also fostered the development of a cultural identity based on Bengali, creating a void where legislative elements were required. 

However, since 1977, the new leadership under President Ziaur Rahman attempted to introduce a new form of Islamic nationalism. This occurred during the Cold War era when ideological expansionism was favored. Consequently, Salafist Islamism began to emerge as a significant element in the country, coinciding with a large-scale migration from Bangladesh to the Middle East. This migration contributed to the dissemination of conservative Salafist ideas among Bangladeshis abroad, leading to the rise of conservative Islamism, or political Islamism. Many of these ideas were propagated through the leadership of political parties, resulting in the formation of identity narratives such as "us" versus "them."

These developments also played a crucial role in the emergence of Islamic extremism in Bangladesh, particularly originating from the middle-class and upper-middle-class families with non-Aliya Madrassa education. These factors significantly influenced identity formation and facilitated the proliferation of radicalized ideas. The interplay of historical and global developments has influenced perceptions of Islamism and extremism, shaping the idea of national identity.

Hajjaj also underscores the polarization of national identities instigated by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the primary opposition party that championed the idea of nationalism and began distancing itself from Islamist parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami. The rise of Bangladeshi authoritarianism has influenced the level of acceptance of Islamism within society today. However, there is a growing compassion for Islamist parties observed. One significant issue is that Islamic parties lack a comprehensive political agenda; instead, they focus on narrow and specific Islamic agendas. Therefore, the emergence of a significant Islamic political movement in Bangladesh poses a challenge for future governments, particularly regarding how the Bangladesh Awami League is creating an authoritarian space. Over the last three consecutive national elections, held every five years, there has been a desire among the populace for a populist movement to challenge the Awami League’s grip on power. This sentiment intensified in the last six months of 2023, with attempts at populist movements seeking to distance themselves from religious political parties, which the BNP attempted but failed to achieve. This failure could be interpreted as a setback for non-Islamist parties, especially considering the secular agenda being promoted in certain areas, such as education policy, by the Bangladesh Awami League. These dynamics are influenced by the global scenario, particularly with the marginalized status of Muslims in Palestine and incidents such as the demolition of a Babri Masjid to build a new Hindu temple in India.

In conclusion, Bobby Hajjaj noted that these factors collectively contribute to the increasing likelihood of an Islamist populist movement gaining traction in Bangladesh, albeit gradually. Some view this as the only alternative to Bangladeshi authoritarianism. However, many others remain skeptical as Islamist populism lacks comprehensive governance and related agendas.

Dr. Maidul Islam: “Religious Extremism and Islamic Populism in Contemporary Bangladesh”

Dr. Maidul Islam reflected on recent developments of Islamic populism in Bangladesh’s political landscape and pondered the future trajectory of Islamist populism in the country. He noted that it remains largely a historical remnant, sporadically manifesting in mobilizations. Currently, there isn’t substantial resonance or favorable response to such surging Islamic populism in Bangladesh.

The second speaker on the panel, Dr. Maidul Islam, took a transversal approach, examining the historical dynamics of Religious Extremism (RE) and Islamist Populism (IP) in Bangladesh. His presentation began with a definition of the two concepts under discussion: RE and IP.

Religious Extremism, as he defines it, involves the use or manipulation of religious sentiments to incite individuals to commit violent acts. It encompasses a range of behaviors, including targeted attacks on religious minorities, persecution of sexual minorities, and involvement in outright terrorist activities. Islamist Populism, on the other hand, represents a peaceful approach to political mobilization within diverse segments of the Muslim population. It leverages the symbolic language of Islam against secular nationalist governments in Muslim-majority countries. This movement frequently participates in democratic elections, mirroring Religious Extremism within the Muslim world.

Dr. Islam highlighted a resurgence of extremist groups such as the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) in contemporary Bangladesh. These organizations operate as religious extremist entities. The presentation underscored the roots of the Islamic Extremism crisis in Bangladesh, which began with the 1960s elections and evolved into a new form of terrorism by 1985, during General Hussain Muhammad Ershad’s dictatorship. Dr. Islam provided statistical insights into the dynamics of Religious Extremism in the country. Notably, the peak periods of RE occurred in the 1990s and between 2013 and 2016. The presentation revealed that Bangladesh witnessed a total of 743 terror-related incidents between 1971 and 2020, attributed to both religious extremist and non-religious extremist entities.

In 1996, the reported number of terrorist incidents was 150, marking a significant increase from 22 incidents in 1990 and 161 in 1996. The trend showed a gradual rise from 42 incidents in 1991 to 71 in 1992, 68 in 1994, and 74 in 1995. The escalation of terrorist activities coincided with the emergence of Islamist populist groups like the Army league, which came into power the same year.

From 1997 to 2012, Religious Extremism activities in Bangladesh remained below 50 per year. However, starting from 2013, these activities began to rise again, reaching 138 incidents in 2013 and 130 in 2014. The peak was observed in 2015, with 479 recorded incidents, the highest in the country’s history. This period coincided with the trial of several Islamic leaders by the International Crimes Tribunal. Subsequently, from 2016 onwards, the incidence of RE started to decline, with 89 incidents in 2016. Since 2017, the number has consistently been below 50 per year, with 41 incidents in 2017, 26 in 2018, 32 in 2019, and 30 in 2020.

Furthermore, Dr. Islam highlighted that the dominance of the Awami League party’s populist policies has posed challenges for political Islamist populist parties like the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami. He clarified that this circular approach of the Awami League should not be equated with the Western model of secularism, which advocates for a clear separation of religion and politics. In Bangladesh, negotiations between political and religious leaders are common, with religious leaders often resorting to religious symbols and accommodation while attempting to promote the principles of Islamic populism. However, such political struggles between Islamist and national populist forces are not unique to Bangladesh but are prevalent throughout the Muslim world. This historical struggle can be traced back to the 1975 elections, which led to the banning of Sheikh Mujib’s Single Party, considered the largest Islamic populist party in the country at that time. Subsequently, in the 1979 elections, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party emerged as a significant political player in the country.

In his conclusion, Dr. Islam reflected on recent developments of Islamic populism in Bangladesh’s political landscape and pondered the future trajectory of Islamist populism in the country. He noted that it remains largely a historical remnant, sporadically manifesting in mobilizations. Currently, there isn’t substantial resonance or favorable response to such surging Islamic populism in Bangladesh.

Dr. Rajni Gamage: “Civilizational Populism and Buddhist Nationalism in Sri Lankan”

Dr. Rajni Gamage, delved immediately into characterizing the concepts of populism and civilizational populism while seeking to contextualize the historical background and contemporary manifestations of Buddhist nationalism in Sri Lanka. She explored the intricacies of the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist discourse, which she identified as the primary vehicle for civilizational populism in the country. Within the Sri Lankan context, this discourse echoes the anti-colonial rhetoric commonly found in the Global South.

The discussion by the panel’s third speaker, Dr. Rajni Gamage, delved immediately into characterizing the concepts of populism and civilizational populism while seeking to contextualize the historical background and contemporary manifestations of Buddhist nationalism in Sri Lanka. Dr. Gamage noted that while populism is not a recent phenomenon, it has garnered increased attention due to its resurgence, particularly in Western democracies. This renewed focus is often attributed to economic disparities and perceived declines in national status, with leaders emerging from outside the political establishment and challenging democratic institutions.

First, Dr. Gamage’s presentation provided a recap of populism and civilizational populism, highlighting how populism mobilizes people around narratives of threat, often framing issues in an "us versus them" paradigm. Dr. Gamage also emphasized the trend of populist leaders coming to power by positioning themselves as ‘outsiders‘ to the existing political order but then undermining democratic institutions once in power, leading to a weakening of democracy. Recent populist movements exhibit distinct features in how they frame themselves, typically focusing on economic inequalities and the erosion of democratic norms. These movements capitalize on anti-establishment sentiments and often target minority communities.

Similarly, civilizational populism extends the narrative to encompass perceived threats at a civilizational level, transcending national boundaries. This concept draws on historical discourses of imperialism and domination, particularly evident in post-colonial contexts. In countries like Sri Lanka, civilizational populism intertwines with anti-colonial sentiments, targeting Western values and minority groups. Dr. Gamage highlighted how the historical divide between the Global West and the Global South has contributed to a unique form of civilizational populism. In the Global South, the shared history of colonialism fuels a civilizational populist discourse infused with anti-colonial sentiments.

When discussing how civilizational populism is expressed in Sri Lanka, Dr. Gamage explored the intricacies of the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist discourse, which she identified as the primary vehicle for civilizational populism in the country. Within the Sri Lankan context, this discourse echoes the anti-colonial rhetoric commonly found in the Global South. Dr. Gamage provided an analysis of figures like Anagarika Dharmapala, illustrating how civilizational concepts are employed within Sri Lankan populist discourses. Dharmapala’s rhetoric challenged colonial narratives by portraying Western colonizers as "barbarians" and emphasizing the cyclical nature of history. His ideas laid the groundwork for Sinhala Buddhist nationalism in Sri Lanka, significantly shaping the country’s political landscape.

Dr. Mosmi Bhim: Will Rise of Religious Nationalism and Populism in the Maldives Lead to Another Authoritarian Reversal?”

Dr. Mosmi Bhim highlighted the characteristics of populism under President Abdulla Yameen, including anti-pluralism and illiberalism, which eroded democratic norms and institutions. Despite losing the 2018 elections to President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, Yameen’s legacy of religious nationalism and authoritarianism continues to influence the political landscape in the Maldives.

In this final presentation, the audience were introduced to the presence of religious nationalism and populism in the Maldives. Dr. Mosmi Bhim began by providing a contextual overview, sharing a personal experience of visiting the Maldives in 2017. He highlighted the densely populated nature of the capital city, Male, and emphasized how urban density can contribute to political instability during contentious issues or elections. Dr. Bhim also discussed the Maldives’ transition from a Buddhist nation to an Islamic state, its historical reliance on fishing and tourism, and its colonial past under British protection.

During her field trip, Dr. Bhim navigated a delicate situation due to the authoritarian rule of President Abdulla Yameen at the time, emphasizing the risks associated with researching democracy in such an environment. These risks persist despite the Maldives gaining independence in 1965. According to her presentation, the Maldives did not experience democracy following the independence, with power concentrated in the hands of autocratic rulers until the introduction of multi-party elections in 2008.

Dr. Bhim’s presentation focused on the leadership of Presidents, beginning with Ibrahim Nasir, who invoked nationalism to gain independence from Britain, and President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who introduced political Islam and laid the groundwork for Islamic nationalism in the Maldives. Under Gayoom’s rule, there was a regression in women’s rights, a focus on re-Islamization, and the stifling of political dissent. Following was a section looking at President Abdulla Yameen, who continued the trend of religious populism and authoritarian rule, aligning himself with Islamic nationalism and forging closer ties with authoritarian regimes. Yameen’s government promoted religious intolerance and undermined democratic institutions, leading to widespread repression and human rights abuses.

Throughout, Dr. Bhim highlighted the characteristics of populism under President Yameen, including anti-pluralism and illiberalism, which eroded democratic norms and institutions. Despite losing the 2018 elections to President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, Yameen’s legacy of religious nationalism and authoritarianism continues to influence the political landscape in the Maldives. President Solih, while initially signaling a commitment to democracy, has faced challenges from Islamic extremists and political opponents, leading to questions about the future of democracy in the Maldives. In wrapping up, Dr. Bhim discussed recent developments, including Solih’s India-out campaign and the ongoing tensions between religious nationalism and democratic governance.

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