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Bangladesh

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Bangladesh

    Bangladesh, “the land of Bengal,” is a country in South Asia that is bounded by India to the west, north, and northeast. Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated nations in the world, with an average of almost 2,000 people per square mile. It is also one of the poorest.

    Bangladesh sits on a flood plain crisscrossed by numerous rivers and streams. These waterways make the land fertile for farming, the nation's most important industry. But the region is vulnerable to floods, cyclones, and other natural disasters, which take a toll on crops and citizens alike. In 1998 , for example, extensive flooding left almost two-thirds of the country underwater for two months. More than 1,000 people died and over 30 million people lost their homes. Such natural disasters drain the nation's resources and destabilize the economy. As a result, the leaders of Bangladesh face endless challenges, and opposition to the government runs high. Bangladesh has been plagued by intense political unrest since its formation in 1971 .

    Today about 83 percent of the Bangladeshi population is Muslim. Most of the remaining people are Hindu. Although Bangladesh is not officially an Islamic state, much of its history is closely linked to its religious identity.

    Early Bangladesh.

    Prior to the 1200s, Bengal—a large portion of which is now called Bangladesh—was ruled by a series of Buddhist and Hindu dynasties. In 1200 Turkish Muslims conquered what is now northern India, bringing Islam to the region. Bengal remained under independent Muslim rule until 1576 when it became a province of the Mughal Empire, which had gained control of most of Afghanistan, India, and the land that would become Pakistan. Muslim culture flourished under Mughal rule, and many Hindu Bengalis converted to Islam during this time. The Mughal Empire began to disintegrate in the early 1700s, and for about 50 years Bengal was an independent state. As such, it drew large numbers of Muslims from both western India (which was dominated by Hindus) and the Middle East. However, when the British brought a formal end to the Mughal Empire in 1857 , Bengal became a province of British-controlled India.

    During the late 1700s and 1800s, the people of western Bengal, many of whom were still Hindu, profited from industrial and educational reforms implemented by the British. The Muslims of eastern Bengal, however, did not. They continued to farm and remained poor and largely uneducated. Tensions between the two regions ran high until the end of British rule in 1947 .

    Bangladesh From 1947 to 1971.

    When Britain granted India its independence in 1947 , it also established the new nation of Pakistan. Pakistan had two parts: West Pakistan, to the northwest of India, and East Pakistan, which had previously been eastern Bengal. Western Bengal, which was primarily Hindu, was absorbed into India as a state.

    Although East Pakistanis and West Pakistanis shared a common religion—Islam—they spoke different languages and had very different cultures. East Pakistan had the larger population, but West Pakistan controlled the government and the economy. Over time, East Pakistanis became increasingly dissatisfied with the lopsided distribution of wealth between the two parts of the nation. In 1971 East Pakistan declared itself independent and adopted a new name—Bangladesh. A bloody civil war followed, and East Pakistan, with help from India, ultimately prevailed.

    Bangladesh After 1971.

    Reacting against the oppression they had experienced under the Muslim rule of West Pakistan, the leaders of the new nation set up a secular government. The new government, controlled by a group known as the Awami League, banned religious-based political parties. In addition, ordinary Muslims who observed traditional rituals were often shunned or mocked by supporters of the Awami League.

    As a result, many Bangladeshi Muslims grew highly uncomfortable with the nation's secularism. Taking advantage of this discontent, an Islamic group based in India became active in Bangladesh. Known as Tablighi Jama'at, this group aimed to strengthen Islamic faith and practice among believers. It attracted large numbers of followers in Bangladesh and moved toward an Islamic revival.

    In 1975 the Awami League government, which had grown increasingly dictatorial, was overthrown by the Bangladesh military. The new government under President Zia ( Ziaur Rahman ) began to strengthen ties with the broader Islamic world. Although Zia was assassinated in 1981 , the government that followed continued to develop the nation's Muslim identity, and in 1988 Islam was declared the state religion of the country. Nevertheless, the shari'ah, or Muslim sacred law, was not instituted as state law. Strictly speaking, therefore, Bangladesh remained a non-Islamic state.

    In 1991 the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) regained control of the government in the nation's first free elections, and Zia's wife, Khaleda Zia , became the nation's first female prime minister. Although the BNP lost the 1996 elections to its rival, the Awami League, it prevailed once again in the 2001 elections and restored Khaleda Zia to the office of prime minister. Opposition to the BNP remains high, however, and the political climate continues to be volatile and unstable. See also India; Mughal Empire; Pakistan; Sufism.

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