Bangladesh: headed into a black hole

Updated: Aug 3 2005, 05:30am hrs
Is Bangladesh headed into the black hole that consumed Afghanistan under the Taliban Fears are mounting, as official and fundamentalist religious forces seem to operate with impunityand the apparent support of local police, the ruling Bangladesh National Party, and local authorities. For years, Bangladesh was an exception in the Islamic world, pursuing an independent course in a peaceful, secular, and democratic fashion. The majority Muslim population lived peacefully with other religions. Until recently, Muslim fundamentalists were discredited, because militias such as al-Badr and Razakars had supported atrocities against civilians during the 1971civil war.

That began to change in 2001, when Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, widow of the assassinated military strongman General Zia, replaced secularism in the Constitution with the Sovereignty of Allah. Thus encouraged, the BNPs junior coalition partner, the Jamaat-e-Islami, which has links with the militias and is close to Pakistan, has been calling for Sharia imposition. BNP appears to view religious extremism as a tool to break the power of the opposition Awami League, which is largely supported by the secular and urban middle-classes.The rise in the number of madarsas financed by Saudi and Gulf moneytotalling some 64,000 and operating under the fundamentalist Deobandi Islam that inspired the Talibanis part of an effort to change Bangladeshs culture of religious tolerance.

Indian intelligence officials allege that the leader of a BNP coalition partner, Mufti Fazlul Haque Amini, maintains ties with the banned armed Islamist group Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, or Huji, which is allegedly linked to Al Qaeda. Bangladeshi migrant workers in the Gulf return home imbued with radical teachings and fan the fires. In north-western Bangladesh is Bangla Bhai, who attempted an Islamist revolution in 2004 in several provinces bordering India. The rebellion ended only after a government crackdown.

We cant afford a second Afghanistan in Bangladesh, by seeing it Talibanised
Over 500 documented cases of torture, intimidation by radical Islamists
The NGO, Taskforce against Torture, has documented over 500 cases of torture and intimidation by radical Islamists, who have also murdered supporters of the Communist party. Hindus, Christians, and Buddhists have been targeted and religious extremists recently attacked Sufi shrines deemed to be idolatrous and Bengali cultural events.

During Ramzan prayers last October, a mob of 1,000 razed a mosque of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community. The 100,000 members of this sect, which believes that Muhammad was not the last Prophet, have been declared infidels. Hindus, Ahmadiyyas and tribal people fearful for their safety, have been leaving the country in droves. The atmosphere of violence is palpable in other ways. Sheikh Hasina, the Awami League leader, survived a grenade attack last summer. Britains high commissioner in Bangladesh was wounded in a similar bomb attack this May.

To its creditalbeit under pressure from donor countriesthe authorities seem to sense that their country is drifting toward becoming a failed state and are making greater efforts to arrest Islamist killers, despite some of them being part of the ruling coalition. Two radical Islamist groups have also been banned. But piecemeal arrests will not be enough if a culture of intolerance is allowed to fester.

One encouraging note is the steady annual economic growth of 5% for the past few years. But now many Bangladeshis fear for their livelihood, owing to unlimited Chinese textile imports following the end of quotas. Economic deterioration would only worsen inter-communal tensions and provide a breeding ground for jihadis. But the reforms needed are often blocked by political infighting and opposition boycotts.

The world cannot afford a second Afghanistan in Bangladesh, where Huji members are believed to have given sanctuary to many Taliban fighters after the fall of their regime. Pressure from India will not be enough to force the government to adhere to the tolerant form of Islam the country pursued during its first three decades of independence. All of Asias powers, including China and Japan, will have to play a part in stopping Bangladeshs drift into fanaticism and chaos. The rest of the world should support them before it is too late.

The writer is vice-president, human rights subcommittee of the European Parliament.

Copyright: Project Syndicate