Where Bangladesh Outperforms America

What can the 200 year old United States learn from 30 year old Bangladesh?

October 1, 2001

What can the 200 year old United States learn from 30 year old Bangladesh?

Many social scientists tend to equate democracy with development — and capitalism with political freedom. Bangladesh belies both these assumptions.

It is a reasonably free society, while also being one of the world’s poorest economies. Even the Freedom House ratings, which are quite biased against non-western societies in their measurements, rate Bangladesh as a reasonably free state.

On July 15, 2001, the present government — headed by Sheikh Hasina Wajid as Prime Minister and her Awami League party — completed one full electoral cycle.

For a nation that has existed for only 30 years, this is quite an achievement. In 200 years, the United States has yet to allow a woman to run the state. By contrast, Bangladesh has already had two women heads of state.

In fact, if one were to compare the Bangladeshi democracy with the American democracy at the age of 30, the nation of Bengalis will come out quite favorably.

In 200 years, the United States has yet to allow a woman to run the state. By contrast, Bangladesh has already had two female heads of state. In addition, both the present head of the government, Sheikh Hasina, and the leader of the opposition party, Begum Zia, are both women.

It is amazing that this country of 100 million Muslims pretty much looks like a matriarchal society, belying the myth that typically associates patriarchy with Muslim culture.

Exploding the myth of Islamic unity Bangladesh apparently is also destined to destroy other widely held myths. First, by its very origins, it has exploded the myth of Islamic unity.

By breaking away from Pakistan in 1971, Bangladesh has shown that notions of Islamic unity can at times be overwhelmed by the strife for ethnic solidarity or nationalism any.

In fact, the very existence of Bangladesh is a blow to the rhetoric of “Islamic brotherhood” that most Muslims like to crow about. In particular, the present-day Muslims of Bangladesh manage to live in greater harmony with its 11% Hindu minority than they did previously with Muslims of non-Bengali origins who now constitute Pakistan’s population.

This, of course, has its roots in the war waged for independence — and the Muslim versus Muslim fighting that occurred as East Pakistan (read: Bangladesh) seceded 30 years ago.

Many social scientists have often equated democracy with development — and capitalism with political freedom. Bangladesh belies both these assumptions.

Interestingly, Bangladesh is not the only country where forces other than Islam have proven more powerful than unification sentiments. Just consider the quick disintegration of the United Arab Republic.

This union of Syria and Egypt, formed in 1958 and dissolved in 1961, sought to consolidate Islam and asabiyyah, which is Arab nationalism, to protect against the external threat from Israel. But it did not last.

The second myth that Bangladesh has shattered is the claim by some Muslims and many westerners that Islam and democracy are incompatible. Of course, with its officially condoned levels of corruption, bribery and violent political reprisals, Bangladesh is far from being an exemplary democracy — nor an advertisement for Islamic governance.

Nevertheless, it has succeeded in demonstrating that a community dominated by Muslims can have Islam as the state religion — and still provide democratic rights to its citizens and freedom of religion to its minorities.

At the same time, there are cases of religious discrimination and harassment of minorities in Bangladesh. For example, in 1992, the Babri Masjid was destroyed in India by Hindu nationalists. This is the mosque where some Hindus believe the god Ram was born.

As an act of revenge, nearly 80 Hindu temples were desecrated in Bangladesh. Also, in April 2001, unknown miscreants blew up a Roman Catholic Church. But these infrequent tragedies apart, Bangladesh is striving to be a good state that treats all its citizens justly.

It is amazing that this country of 100 million Muslims pretty much looks like a matriarchal society. The country’s constitution is at least determined to provide justice to all. It recognizes the primacy of Islam, but guarantees the freedom of religion of all communities.

Other constitutional provisions ensures that the Republic will be a democracy that respects all the human rights and freedoms of all its citizens. It also specifically protects the freedom of speech and expression of every citizen and guarantees the freedom of the press.

Cynics, especially those who neither understand nor respect democratic principles, may be tempted to snicker and say, so what if the constitution says this or that.

The key, of course, is implementation. In the era of globalization and global interdependence, having these rights enshrined in the constitution is an important first step. It is a vital self-commitment.

International pressure, especially from NGOs and human rights activists, has a greater impact on states that already claim to respect these rights. Going to court in cases of human rights violations is no guarantee for the provision of effective remedy.

But in contrast consider states whose constitutions do not enshrine human rights. They can continue to violate their own citizens with impunity — leaving no prospect whatsoever for recourse for domestic as well as international human rights activists.

A community dominated by Muslims can have Islam as the state religion — and still provide democratic rights to its citizens and freedom of religion to its minorities.

Turning to the economy. Home-grown institutions such as the Grameen Bank — the micro-enterprise project started by Dr. Muhammad Yunus — have allowed women to play an active role not just in the political sphere, but in the Bangladeshi economy as well.

Since 1976, more than 90% of the Grameen Bank’s 2.3 million borrowers have been women.

All of that goes to show why, in certain respects, Bangladesh may be considered a highly developed political state. However, it conflicts with the Western myth that prosperity follows freedom.

Bangladesh, for sure, is a “poor democracy.” Its per-capita income is less than $500 a year. An astounding 36% of the population lives below the poverty level — and nearly 35% of the population is unemployed.

As if these problems were not enough, large sections of the country are ravaged by annual floods. Bangladesh as a whole is so prone to flooding, that, according to a United Nations study, a three-foot rise in sea level would leave nearly 20% of Bangladesh’s land mass underwater and displace millions of people.

Thus, the potential effects of global warming — regardless of its scientific merits — is something that Bangladesh will have to take seriously. In an era of globalization, having human rights enshrined in the constitution is an important first step.

Lack of industrialization, poor infrastructure and untapped human resources will continue to challenge Bangladesh in its quest for economic well-being. Poverty and disasters will continue to test the moral and political fiber of the nation.

The presence of corruption, the often self-serving policies of the ruling elite, and the oft occurring political violence will also retard Bangladesh’s progress.

There are no short cuts around Bangladesh’s environmental and economic troubles. Despite poverty and periods of economic turmoil, it is shortsighted to judge Bangladesh solely on the basis of economics.

In spite of its poverty, Bangladeshis have already found a basic way to live in freedom — and to respect each other’s dignity and religious preference.