TCS Daily

Fertile Ground for Democracy or Extremism?

By Jane Novak Gavaghen - April 14, 2005 12:00 AM

The Bangladeshis have much to be proud of. They achieved independence and a pluralistic state after a hard fought war. They took to the streets nearly twenty years later dissatisfied with military rule and stood united for democracy. Devastating annual floods covering a third of the country do not deter their commitment to entrenching democracy and promoting modernity. Lately Bangladesh has been noted for the spread of Islamic extremism. But jihadiis don't spring from the ground like mushrooms.


In October 2001, the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) in a four-party alliance was voted into office by a large majority. The alliance included two hard-line Muslim parties, the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Islami Oikyo Jote. Since then, the existence and growth of a radical Islamist movement has been officially denied by the BNP. Finance and Planning Minister M Saifur Rahman called the rise of extremists "a fake issue," and "foul propaganda." The denial went on for years.


Islamic extremists have spread their ideology, primarily among the disadvantaged poor, using over 700 mosques built across the country by the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society. In 2002, US Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill said the Society "had been stealing from widows and orphans to fund al-Qaeda terrorism." The Society's funds were blocked in Afghanistan and Pakistan among other nations. O'Neill said, "These bad actors will now be pariahs in the civilized world." But they were not pariahs in Bangladesh, where they operated with impunity in certain areas.


The January assassination of former Prime Minister Shah AMS Kibria sparked turmoil in Bangladesh. A leader of the center-left opposition, the Awami League (AL), Kibria was murdered in a bomb blast.


In recent years there has been a spate of unchecked political violence. An August bombing of an AL rally killed twenty-one and injured hundreds. Jatras (village theaters) and cinema halls have been targets, as have secularists, moderates and Awami League party members. These crimes remain largely unsolved. Amnesty International noted, "The government has failed to investigate previous attacks with the rigour and determination they deserve."


Apparently the assassination of Mr. Kibria finally got the attention of Bangladesh's western donors, who called an informal meeting to discuss the deteriorating rule of law and rise of terrorist activity in Bangladesh. Bangladeshi officials were pointedly not invited to attend several meetings. Reportedly, EU officials considered cutting Bangladesh's aid portion. Just as this meeting was about to convene, the Bangladeshi government took action against the terrorists, banning two Islamist groups and arresting several people.


Among those arrested was Dr. Muhammad Asadullah Al Galib, head of an Islamist militant group. Dr. Galib is a Rajshahi University Arabic teacher.  His three associates taken into custody were all employed either by madrassas or colleges.


The banned groups, Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB) and Jamaatul Mujaheedin Bangladesh (JMB), are said to be complicit in the series of bomb attacks and murders throughout Bangladesh. In a rather startling turn, the ban was not applied to Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI), which has confirmed ties to al-Qaeda and the International Islamic Front.  Terrorist mastermind Bangla Bhai is still at large.


While demonstrating the impact western pressure may have, many observers see the ruling as late, halfhearted, and toothless. "Had the government been really sincere and not complacent about the rise of fanaticism and extremism, it would have acted long before instead of issuing a press notehours before the Washington meeting," Parliamentary opposition leader Saber Hossain Chowdhury said.


Politics in Bangladesh has nearly ground to a halt, with the AL boycotting parliament, and many BNP members not bothering to show up either. A series of AL sponsored hartals (nationwide strikes) has exhausted the population and damaged the economy.


Bangladesh is light-years ahead of some other Muslim majority nations in achieving a representative government. The issues it faces today may be a telling indication of tomorrow's concerns in the Middle East.


A government controlled media, everywhere it exists, is an anti-democratic institution. Similarly democratic growth is retarded by an executive branch that wields influence in the judiciary or bureaucracy. An educational system that does not teach but proselytizes is a disservice to the nation. Hard-line Muslim parties cannot be permitted to undermine the law and political system in a civil jihad.


The Bangladeshi people need Western assistance in cutting the external sources of terrorist funding, developing their export markets, protecting themselves from natural disasters, and growing their economy. Given this assistance, 140 million Bangladeshis can achieve their goal of growing a modern, pluralistic, self-sufficient state. Without it, militant Islamic groups will continue to find fertile ground in Bangladesh to the irritation of the West and the despair of the Bangladeshis themselves.


Jane Novak is a political analyst and columnist published widely throughout the Middle East, Gulf, and South Asia. She maintains the website



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