THE BRITISH AIRWAYS flight from London's Heathrow Airport was dotted with faithfully clad Bangladeshis, some in transit from North America, others from Britain and the rest of Europe, all on a spiritual quest to Dhaka, where a massive Islamic pilgrimage, second only to the annual Hajj to Mecca, was slated to take place.
Dhaka itself was living under new rules. Democracy has been halted, political activity is banned, and emergency laws are the order of the day. "Operation Cleanup," a thinly camouflaged military rule, is in force. While an iron grip holds Dhaka, white-capped young men in the multitude, with outfits similar to those of the BA passengers, are still trekking through the swirling traffic of the city, all the way to Tongi.
Outside of the concern of the Western media, folks from all over the subcontinent and beyond gather for three days of the Biswa Ijtema (global meeting). The sight of a growing crowd (of the world's poorest Muslims) proceeding in an orderly way toward the center of the gathering is awe-inspiring, and almost paradoxical in this nation perpetually troubled by political chaos.
It is this chaotic practice of democracy in the period leading to the elections that had been scheduled for last month and that prompted the Bangladeshi military to step in with draconian measures curtailing press and politics, in an effort to save the nation, while punishing it. A few weeks ago, Bangladesh was burning, and its hopeless citizens were begging for relief from the deadlock to which their politicians had driven them.
A grand alliance vehemently opposed holding the elections before reforms are implemented, while the coalition of parties freshly out of power was adamantly insisting that they be held on time. Now that the military has stepped in, elections are postponed until further notice, "rowdy" politicians and other perceived troublemakers are hunted and arrested.
The Bangladesh military, though, as the second largest contributor to U.N. peacekeeping, claims to have developed "expertise" in assisting in the conduct of free and fair elections. It has presumably done so in Sierra Leone and Congo, some of the toughest stops in the world. The question is: Can they do the same at home in Bangladesh?
Today, no one knows what body of law governs the country -- besides the military's own judgment. An appointed group of technocrats, with others presumably with no political ambitions, are making the calls. Their CVs are indeed impressive. They have also made the promise of "Free and Fair Elections" -- someday. However, they are bound by neither deadlines nor milestones.
Many in the country have welcomed this "time out." Some would even like the current order to continue, regardless of the precedents it might be setting. Politicians from both major political alliances are cautiously keeping away from the airport, while the more daring among them are demanding elections as soon as possible.
Interestingly, the Jamaate, the main Islamist political formation that was part of the previous ruling coalition, is keeping a low profile. While others are banned from any public activity, the Islamists vigorously prepared for the Biswa Ijtema, its public platform with plausible deniability. Officially "apolitical," this gathering will undoubtedly be laden with anti-Western, anti-Christian, and anti-Jewish rhetoric.
The Islamist forces' exploitation of its dual political-religious nature underlines the shortsightedness of pausing democracy. While other, secular, political formations are hunted and silenced, the Islamists' move forward in their generation-long program to transform Bangladesh to conform to their ideological dreams. According to one Islamist party's election manifesto, "wine, gambling and all anti-social works, misdeeds, etc., from society shall be stopped with an iron hand." Now that the army has overridden the democratic process, and posited its will as reflective of the interests of the nation, a dangerous precedent has been set. The Islamists' reserving to themselves the prerogative of determining "anti-social" actions is no longer beyond the pale.
A Bangladeshi, Muhammad Yunis, has recently been awarded the first ever Nobel Peace Prize awarded to a citizen, for the pioneering work that he has done in micro-credit. The real importance of this populous Muslim-majority nation is, however, in its success in maintaining a democratic tradition, with a distinct active role for women, despite a tumultuous history. The alternative is dire.
It is undeniable that global jihadist movements have had their eyes on Bangladesh as a springboard to India and beyond. Suitable ingredients for their endeavors are numerous: Burma's Rohingas -- an oppressed minority subject to recruitment and indoctrination, India's western insurgencies -- providing the prerequisite instability across the border, Pakistani intelligence services -- with their complex webs of interests, and even graduates from the jihadist Afghan training camps back home in Bangladesh.
Holding up democracy adds to the mix the explosive ingredient of domestic instability, discontent, and the further confirmation of Islamism as a valid alternative to democracy among Bangladeshis. The price of the ephemeral apparent stability that the new order has imposed in Bangladesh may very well be the further consolidation of Islamism.
Denying political activists the ability to practice secular politics is inviting them to join the brand of "social" action that the Islamists espouse. Islamism unchecked and unbalanced by genuine democratic alternatives paves the way to jihadism.
Hijacking democracy is a risky action that Bangladesh should not tolerate. The current order should unequivocally limit itself to swiftly preparing for the scheduled elections. Timelines and milestones should be specified; all measures that obstruct the peaceful conduct of democracy should be removed. Neither Bangladesh nor the rest of the world can afford the alternative.
This article originally appeared in The Providence Journal on February 12, 2007.