Mapping Global Populism – Panel #9: Civilizational Populism and Religious Authoritarianism in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives

Activists of Bangladesh Nationalist Party form a human chain to mark International Human Rights Day as they protested human rights violations against leaders and activist in Dhaka, December 10, 2023. Photo: Mamunur Rashid.

Date/Time: Thursday, January 25, 2024 — 10:00-12:00 (CET)

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Moderator

(Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science, Kulliyyah of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences, International Islamic University Malaysia).

Speakers

“Islamic Extremism, Populism and Formation of National Identity in Bangladesh,” by Mr. Bobby Hajjaj (Department of Management, North South University, Bangladesh).

“Masks of Authoritarianism: Hegemony, Power and People in Bangladesh,” by Dr. Mubashar Hasan (Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages at the University of Oslo, Norway). 

“Religious Extremism and Islamist Populism in Contemporary Bangladesh,” by Dr. Maidul Islam (Assistant Professor of Political Science, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta).

“Civilisational Populism and Buddhist Nationalisms in Sri Lanka,” by Dr. Rajni Gamage (Postdoctoral Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), National University of Singapore). 

“Will Rise of Religious Nationalism and Populism in the Maldives Lead to Another Authoritarian Reversal?” by Dr. Mosmi Bhim (Assistant Professor, Fiji National University).

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Brief Biographies and Abstracts

Dr. Syaza Shukri is an Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science, Kulliyyah of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences, International Islamic University Malaysia. Her area of specialization is in comparative politics, specifically in democratization and politics in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Her current research interests include populism, identity politics, inter-ethnic relations, political Islam, geopolitics, and gender studies, specifically in Muslim-majority contexts. Among Dr. Shukri’s recent works is “Populism and Muslim Democracies,” published in Asian Politics & Policy. She is also currently working on a book chapter on Islamist populism in Malaysia since 2018. Dr. Shukri has degrees from the University of Pittsburgh (where she graduated summa cum laude), the London School of Economics and Political Science, and International Islamic University Malaysia. She can be reached at syazashukri@iium.edu.my.

 

Islamic Extremism, Populism and Formation of National Identity in Bangladesh

Mr. Bobby Hajjaj is an academic and a noted political activist in Bangladesh. He teaches at the North South University and his research focuses on nationalism, political leadership, and political parties. He has always been a loud and vocal advocate for democracy through free and fair elections.
 
Abstract: The foundations of any nationalism are based on a set of core myths and traditions, which are malleable over time. Bangladesh’s history provides a rich tapestry of identity markers that have contributed to two diverging sets of nationalist identities that divide large parts of its polity today. One of these, the language-based identity called ‘Bengali nationalism’, was born through populist politics, while the other, based on an Islamic religion-based identity called ‘Bangladeshi nationalism’, was empowered through a geopolitical shift in Cold War politics towards the Middle East and beyond, especially stretching from Iraq to Pakistan, between the 1970s to the 1990s. Since the end of the Cold War, however, these also gave rise to high tides of what has been called Islamist extremism. This talk will shed light on the more significant ways populism and Islamic extremism has affected nationalism in Bangladesh the first two decades of the twenty-first century, and what can be expected in the near future.

 

Religious Extremism and Islamist Populism in Contemporary Bangladesh

Dr. Maidul Islam is a Political Scientist at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. Previously, he has taught Political Science at Presidency University, Kolkata and at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. He was also a Fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. As a Clarendon-Hector Pilling-Senior Hulme scholar at Brasenose College, he studied political theory for his doctoral studies in the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford. His doctoral thesis at Oxford University was published as Limits of Islamism: Jamaat-e-Islami in Contemporary India and Bangladesh (Cambridge University Press, 2015). His second book, Indian Muslim(s) after Liberalization (Oxford University Press, 2019; Ebook, 2018), is a companion volume to Limits of Islamism by looking at the socioeconomic conditions and political expressions of the largest religious minorities in the world’s largest electoral democracy. His third book, Political Theory and South Asian Counter-Narratives (Routledge, 2022; Ebook, 2021), evaluates the promise of human progress and secularism in grand political narratives of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, comparing counter-narratives of South Asia within the context of a fast-changing twenty-first century. Besides being an accomplished scholar in the discipline of Political Science with contributions in the field of political theory and South Asian politics, he has also written on the overlap between socio-political issues and popular cinema. As a public intellectual, he occasionally writes for newspapers and digital platforms in both English and Bengali. As a political analyst, he occasionally appears for Bengali news channels and gives expert opinions on Indian and West Bengal politics to various national and international media houses.

Abstract: Religious extremism and Islamist populism are two different conceptual categories used in this presentation. Religious extremism is some form of violent act that uses religious sentiments in mobilising those who perform such violent activities. Religious extremists could be found among some sections of believers in most organised religions and range from violent attacks on free speech, religious minorities, atheists, and sexual minorities to full-fledged terrorist activities. In contrast, Islamist populism is a peaceful strategy of political mobilisation across various sectors of the Muslim population by using the symbolic language of Islamic religion against secular nationalist governments in the Muslim world. Islamist populists often take part in democratic elections, unlike the former set of religious extremists in the Muslim world. In the case of contemporary Bangladesh, while Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami Bangladesh (HUJI-B) and Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) are examples of religious extremist organisations, the Jamaat-e-Islami in Bangladesh is a moderate Islamist populist party. However, a clear assessment of the strength of the religious extremists and Islamist populists needs to be made instead of a panic-ridden section of experts who cried the clarion call of Bangladesh becoming the next Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in the context of several terror activities in Bangladesh in the 1990s and early 2000s. However, a detailed analysis of terror activities done by both quantitative and qualitative approaches shows us that the peak period of terrorism in Bangladesh was in the 1990s. Moreover, the dominance of the secular policies of the national populism of the Awami League has hindered the political growth of Islamist populist parties like the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami. Although, a few years back, there were some incidents of violent attacks on atheist bloggers in Bangladesh by Islamist fanatics, particularly between 2013 and 2016 and a massive terror attack in Holey Artisan Bakery on 1st July 2016, the number of violent attacks by religious extremism have steadily gone down when compared to the 1990s. By all counts, both religious extremism and Islamist populism face a crisis at multiple levels: leadership, financial and political.

 

Civilizational populisms and Buddhist nationalisms in Sri Lanka

Dr. Rajni Gamage is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), National University of Singapore (NUS). She holds a PhD in Political Science and International Relations from the University of Queensland, Australia. Her PhD was titled ‘Nation as Village: Historicising the Authoritarian Populist Regime of Mahinda Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka’ and is political economy analysis of the authoritarian populist Mahinda Rajapaksa regime in Sri Lanka. Her current research focus is on the politics of state transformation, elite politics, and development and inequality in Sri Lanka, grounded against related developments in South Asia and globally.

Abstract: The rise of populism in Western ‘advanced democracies’ over the past 10-15 years is interpreted in different ways, one of which is that it is a popular backlash to the economic inequalities and decline in global status of these countries, which are at odds with the growing aspirations of their majority electorate. Civilizational populism as a concept gained usage in the context of social groups (mainly from a Judeo-Christian background) in these countries responding to the influx of Muslim (and ‘Other’) immigrants from the Global South. In the Global South, however, civilizational populism has other connotations – ground in historical experiences of colonialism and their material position in the global political economy.

In Sri Lanka, the dominant paradigm Sinhala Buddhist nationalism continues to borrow from the civilizational-centric discourse of a key Sinhala nationalist during anti-colonial movements in British Ceylon. The rise of Sinhala and Buddhist nationalist political parties and movements since the 2000s have shaped the political space significantly since. There are three key features to Buddhist nationalism and civilizational populism in the present context: First, the close link between the state and Buddhism has continued, despite the recent crises, and the institutional features of a civilizational state are seen in the Constitution and state institutions such as the Executive Presidency. Second, Political Buddhism has proved to be resilient, adapting itself to the times to remain socially and politically relevant. Third, more inclusive Buddhist nationalisms are unlikely to gain any real popular support and will remain at the fringes.

 

Will Rise of Religious Nationalism and Populism in the Maldives Lead to Another Authoritarian Reversal?

Dr. Mosmi Bhim is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Ethics & Governance, Fiji National University (FNU). Dr. Bhim teaches politics, ethics, values, and social sciences."

Abstract: The Maldives embarked on a rocky path to democratisation with the atoll nation’s inaugural multi-party elections in 2008, and its fourth multiparty elections in 2023. The first democratic President Nasheed’s tenure in office was truncated in 2012 due to the legacy of authoritarianism, as well as the impacts of Islamic fundamentalism and extremism. The post-independence leaders and political parties in the Maldives have engaged in strategies of populism to harness support and justify their rule. This paper will discuss the different populist strategies of post-independence political leaders in the Maldives and its impact on the outcome of the 2023 Presidential elections. Strategies of populism utilised in the Maldives include nationalism, Islamic nationalism, religious populism and political Islam. The utilisation of religious populism and political Islam have had drastic impacts on religious freedom and civil liberties in the Maldives. The return to transition to democracy in 2018 was perilous as leaders towed the dangerous line of pandering to religious fundamentalism to retain political power. This meant that civil liberties continued to be under threat under the democratic government of President Solih. The current President Muizzu’s political party is aligned to religious fundamentalism. Muizzu’s populist style will be examined to deduce its impact on the party’s 2023 electoral victory and whether it creates greater prospects for democratisation or authoritarian reversal in the Maldives.     

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