The Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the principal opposition political organization in Bangladesh, and the British National Party, an extreme right-wing, anti-immigrant party in the United Kingdom each use the same acronym – BNP. But that chance similarity in abbreviation is not the only thing that links these two apparently disparate political entities separated by a gulf of some 5,000 miles wide.
First the differences: the BNP of Bangladesh (BNP-Bangla) has a major following in the country and has even ruled periodically under its current leader Begum Khaleda Zia (1991-1996 and 2001-2006) and also 1978-1982. Founded in 1978 by Maj. Gen. Ziaur Rahman (Khaleda Zia’s husband), a former president of the country, BNP-Bangla enjoys broad support among social conservatives, moderate Islamists, military officers and the business community. Since 2008, BNP-Bangla, strongly anti-Communist and anti-Socialist, has been the dominant opposition party to the more “liberal” (by Bangladeshi standards) and secular ruling Awami League party.
In contrast, the British BNP (BNP-UK) is a relatively small party and one of many far-right groups in the country which have sprouted since mass immigration of peoples from the British Commonwealth started pouring into Britain 50 years ago. BNP-UK is led by a man named Nick Griffin, who is frequently assailed and vilified by both the media and mainstream politicians. Although many BNP members have run in local council elections (and a handful have actually won, like Derek Beackon in 1993 in East London), the party has never held any meaningful political power in the United Kingdom.
However, if we dig deeper beyond the many superficial differences between these two apparently unlike “BNPs,” we uncover some startling similarities. For example, BNP-Bangla describes itself as a nationalist party that represents the interests of the Muslim majority of the country (some 90 percent of the total population) and places Islam at the very core of its political identity and cultural mandate. (That is, Bangladeshi nationality is intimately linked to the Islamic faith, automatically rendering minorities like Hindus and Buddhists as suspect).
Similarly, BNP-UK claims it is devoted to the interests of the native-born white Christian population of the United Kingdom, who they say feel threatened by the immigration of non-white, non-Christian peoples from the far-flung corners of the former British Empire and elsewhere. (Coincidentally, white Britons also represent about 90 percent of the UK population).
But the BNP-UK has little hope of ever coming to power in Britain. Still, one must consider that one of BNP-Bangla’s key allies in Bangladesh is an organization called Jamaat-e-Islami, an extremist Muslim fundamentalist party some of whose leaders are currently undergoing trials for crimes and atrocities allegedly committed during the 1971 war of independence against Pakistan that created the new country of Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan).
In a sense, BNP-Bangla, the “mainstream establishment” right-wing party in Bangladesh, provides a respectable “front” of sorts for Jamaat, an organization whose ideology has some direct parallels with BNP-UK. A recent piece in Britain’s Guardian newspaper noted that while Bangladesh's Islamists, i.e, Jamaat, are “electorally marginal,” they can nonetheless “swing the vote in dozens of crucial constituencies.”
In British politics, the BNP-UK plays a slightly different role -- some working-class white Britons, dismayed by the failure of the “new” Labour Party to answer their problems, have cast ”protest votes” in favor of the BNP-UK (an act that sometimes swings local elections to the Conservative opponents). In addition, some left-wing Britons and immigrants believe that the Conservative Party is itself simply a cleaned-up, respectable version of the crude BNP-UK, given their similar stance on immigration and other issues (despite the fact that the Tories and BNP-UK have no formal alliances whatsoever).
Dr. Victoria Honeyman, a lecturer in British politics at University of Leeds, noted that the BNP-UK are pariahs in mainstream British politics and that there are no links between the Conservative Party and the BNP-UK. “The Conservatives would be extremely upset if such a link were suggested,” she said. However, Honeyman also indicated that the BNP-UK are “slightly less hostile, in general,” to the Conservative Party than they are to the Labour Party, but “really the BNP are fairly hostile to both parties, as they both view the BNP as a less than reputable party with possible links to violent fascist groups, such as the English Defence League.” But in both cases, the “marginal extremist” parties, Jamaat (as a proxy for BNP-Bangla) and BNP-UK, have exerted their influence on political elections, even if their leaders do not gain any significant legislative power on their own.
Indeed, in Bangladesh, especially among the educated, urban youth, BNP-Bangla's links to Jamaat “tarnishes” the party's image, while in Britain, some Labour supporters and left-wingers believe the Conservatives have been “contaminated” by ideological similarities with the BNP-UK. Consider that BNP-UK is not only anti-immigrant, but also anti-Semitic, anti-Islamic and anti-homosexual. (Aside from the aversion to Islam, BNP-Bangla espouses virtually an identical, reactionary philosophy). BNP-UK, like many extreme right-wing groups in Europe, believes their government is under control of “Zionists” and “Socialists.” In a somewhat parallel vein, BNP-Bangla accuses their opponent, Awami, of favoring India, as well as the Soviet Union, in its policies.
BNP-Bangla is now believed to be encouraging Islamic radicalism and fundamentalism in the country to counter and undermine what it fears amounts to Awami’s “secular” (i.e., anti-Islamic) attitudes. Indeed, echoing the BNP-UK’s warnings that the white race in Britain is “endangered” and “doomed” by immigration, groups in Bangladesh like Jamaat express alarm that their Islamic faith is under grave threat from secular and Western forces.
Swadesh Roy, a Bangladeshi journalist, expressed alarm over the rise of fundamentalist groups like Jamaat and Hefazat-e-Islam. “The two Islamic fundamentalist groups have remained afloat mainly due to the support of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party,” he wrote in the Dhaka Tribune. “They started off riding on [BNP-Bangla’s] bandwagon but over time have come into the driving seat, making it clear that [BNP-Bangla’s] political strategy for national politics is using the ‘religion card’ in any and every way they can. All they want is to win the elections, and hold the seat of power, making it so that no development takes place, and change present-day democratic politics into something that works in their favor.” Noting that Islamic fundamentalists “abuse religion” in order to establish a political foothold, Roy suggests that if the BNP-Bangla continue to cater to the radicals, they will eventually have to “surrender” to them.
Thus, a BNP-Bangla that is dominated by Islamic radicals would spell danger for Bangladesh’s women and minorities, and for education and economic development. In the event such a party came to power, Roy warns, “it will be disastrous for the country. Bangladesh will stop continuously developing; its society will be in a state of chaos.”
Anirban Ganguly wrote in Niti Central that Hefazat’s agenda for Bangladesh is rather “medieval.” “It wants stricter blasphemy laws, segregation of sexes in public spaces and wants to ban women from working in public,” he said. Similarly, if the BNP-UK ever entered any kind of coalition government in Britain (an unlikely event) it would trigger widespread fear among minorities and probably lead to comprehensive changes in British society.
Also, consider that Bangladesh Islamic extremists like Hefazat and Jamaat reportedly have ties with Islamic radicals in neighboring West Bengal (India), as well as links to Muslim fundamentalists in Pakistan and Afghanistan (i.e, Taliban and others). These relationships can be compared to the BNP-UK’s network of links with white nationalist groups across Western Europe, including the National Front party of France. Calls to permanently ban Jamaat and other Islamic radical parties in Bangladesh are echoed two continents away to outlaw the BNP-UK, all to no avail.
Now, in 2013, with elections scheduled in Bangladesh next year, and with Jamaat severely weakened by the incarceration of some of its top leaders and the negative publicity of ongoing war crimes trials, BNP-Bangla may seek to partially shed its association with fundamentalists if it is serious about retaking the reins of power.
And Britain’s own BNP? Having failed to capitalize on a number of incidents, including the 2005 London bombing and the recent beheading of a British soldier in Woolwich, the BNP-UK remains far outside the mainstream and desperate to remain relevant. But they should not be counted out entirely – as long as immigration and asylum-seekers remain at the forefront of British political concerns, many Britons who would normally shun the BNP-UK, still embrace their views in this realm.
Consider also that in 1979, the Conservative candidate for the prime ministry, one Margaret Thatcher, won partly because she co-opted the anti-immigration stance of the National Front, a far right-wing party that could be considered a precursor to the BNP-UK.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.