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Bangladesh leader's Islamization push faces hurdles. Political suspicions and a `laissez-faire' culture undermine Ershad's effort

Several months after Bangladesh's parliament declared the country an ``Islamic republic,'' the effects of the policy remain amorphous. The main steps so far include vague calls for compulsory religious education and setting up a commission to ``Islamize'' the nation's culture. But the political debate over President Hussein Muhammad Ershad's designation of Islam as the state religion has not died down.

In pushing the Islamization bill, Mr. Ershad angered both the political left and right, and appeared to be borrowing a page from the book of another South Asian strong man - the late President of Pakistan, Mohammed Zia ul-Haq. Under the mantle of forging an Islamic society, Mr. Zia had focused on refashioning the economy and the inherited Western legal code according to Koranic law (sharia).

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Ershad's critics draw a parallel with Zia's efforts to undercut his main rival, Benazir Bhutto. Like his counterpart, they say, Ershad is using religion as a political initiative to quiet his fractious political opposition, which is dominated by two women leaders.

Women's rights activists charge that Ershad's program is aimed at blocking democratic reforms and barring from office Sheikh Hasina Wajed, daughter of the country's assassinated first president, and Begum Khaleda Zia, widow of a slain military ruler.

Yet, the parallels with Pakistan likely will stop there. For one thing, Ershad, who took power in a coup six years ago, appears to lack the religious zeal and credibility which Zia used to appeal to Pakistan's conservative Muslims.

Even among those who favor sharia, Ershad's program has its detractors. ``General Ershad is not committed to the Islamic state the way Zia was,'' says Muhammad Kamaruzzaman, an official with the fundamentalist party, Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh. ``Ershad is using Islam for his own power. The Koran does not approve of this,'' he says.

Another key factor, observers say, is that Bangladeshis are strongly influenced by neighboring India's Hindu culture, and practice a more laid-back Islam in which extremes are not likely to gain favor.

``Ershad scored a political win by isolating his opposition,'' says an Asian diplomat in Dacca. ``But the people here are laissez-faire Muslims. Islamization won't be as effective as in Pakistan.''

Hindus, Christians, and other minority groups who banned together to oppose the bill, however, say they fear persecution by the Muslim majority. Mullahs, Muslim religious leaders, are powerful in the villages and could impose a more strident brand of Islam in the countryside. ``There are fears that Islamization will bring new persecution,'' says a Western Christian missionary working here.

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Like much of the Muslim world, Bangladesh has been influenced by Islamic fundamentalism that grew out of Iran's 1979 revolution. Also, thousands of Bangladeshis lured to the Middle East by the oil boom of the late 1970s have returned home with new ideas about the role of Islam in society.

Ershad's Islamization plan also has drawn stiff opposition from women's groups who oppose Koranic measures, such as allowing men to take more than one wife, that they say would demote women to a second-class status.

But the fears of widespread persecution of minorities have not been borne out. About 20 percent of Bangladesh's 110 million people are Hindus, compared to less than 5 percent in Pakistan. Pakistan, which once included what is now Bangladesh, was founded as an Islamic homeland for the subcontinent's Muslims when British-ruled India was partitioned in 1947. After the 1971 war of independence, Bangladesh became a secular state. The government later incorporated Islamic measures into the Constitution, but stopped short of declaring Islam the state religion.

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