Bangladesh on path to religious extremism?

South Asia Tribune, August 22, 2005
Synchronized Countrywide Bombings Promise Bangladesh a Bumpy Ride

By Prof. Taj Hashmi
Special to the South Asia Tribune

VANCOUVER, Canada, August 25: It is very disturbing indeed, that two innocent people died, hundreds wounded and millions terrorized by a spate of synchronized bombings in 63 out of the 64 district towns of Bangladesh, including the capital Dhaka, on the morning of 17th August between 10:30 and 11:30 am.

Around 400 “home-made” bombs, with not-so-crude electric timers, came off in government offices, court houses, public parks, universities, airport, and shopping centers and on roadsides. Although the number of dead and injured is relatively smaller, in comparison to the toll of roadside bombs in Iraq, yet the message is very clear, ominously frightening, for those who do not want Bangladesh turn “Islamic” or instable for an indefinite period.

The most alarming part of the story is not the first most synchronized bombing in history, at 400-odd places, but the widely perceived assumption of direct involvement of some clandestine Islamist group having links with Al Qaeda in the bombing. Leaflets in Bengali, and surprisingly in Arabic, were found nearby, which conveyed an ominous message in the name of the Jamaat ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), a party of holy warriors said in part:

“People who are against Allah are now running the country. The process, under which the head of the state and other officials are elected, is not in accordance with the Islamic rule. Neither the Koran nor the Hadis approves democracy or secularism, formulated by Kafirs [non-believers] and Mushriks [pagans].”

It calls upon the Government and all the political parties of the country to abandon democracy and adopt the Sharia or Islamic code. “Otherwise, the organization will resort to Qital [all-out killing] for the establishment of the rules of Allah on His land.”

This is the message in the most unequivocal expression. It also prescribes severe punishment for George W. Bush, “the biggest terrorist in the world”, and Tony Blair and their local supporters in Bangladesh, including those who run NGOs and work for the government.

The shadowy JMB, banned earlier by the Government for terrorizing people in certain pockets of northwestern Bangladesh under the leadership of one “Bangla Bhai”, drew the attention of New York Times correspondent, Eliza Griswold in early this year (“The Next Islamist Revolution?” January 23, 2005). Griswold is not the first Western reporter to draw such an alarmist picture of Bangladesh. In April 2002, Bertil Lintner wrote a similar piece in the Far Eastern Economic Review and the Wall Street Journal, that an “Islamic revolution” was in the offing in this poor, overpopulated and the most corrupt country in the world.

However, the then US ambassador Mary Anne Peters registering her anger at the FEER and WSJ for publishing such biased articles on “a liberal Muslim nation” demanded an investigation to find out the motive behind the story. Philip Bowring, former editor of the FEER, also came forward to criticize the Western “Islam-bashers”, including Dow Jones, who owns the periodical. Many Bangladeshi academics, journalists and politicians condemned both Lintner and Griswold for their stories. The Government continued denying the existence of any “Bangla Bhai” and his terrorist gang for quite some time.

After the arrest of some workers of several clandestine Islamist groups by the Government, including Dr Asadullah Ghalib, a university professor and one of the top leaders of the JMB, there have been sporadic bomb attacks on public rallies, movie theatres and Muslim shrines since early 2005. Attacks on the minority Ahmadiya Muslim mosques and properties and demands to declare the community “non-Muslim” have become endemic as well. Several politicians died of bomb attacks. The present British High Commissioner and Sheikh Hasina, former Prime Minister and leader of the opposition, narrowly survived grenade attacks in public places during the last one year.

From police interrogations of more than a hundred arrested suspects of the latest bomb attacks, mostly connected with the JMB, it appears that more than 1500 JMB activists planted the bombs with a view to pressuring the Government to release their mentor, Dr Ghalib, and to warn both the ruling and the main secular opposition parties of the dire consequences of not establishing a Sharia-based government in the country.

The JMB is just the youth front of the global jihadi network of Al Mujahideen. There are scores of branches and offshoots of the parent organization in Bangladesh. They often take new names and banners to evade arrest and detection. The Harkatul Jihad, Hizbut Tawheed and Shahadat-i-Hikmah have been some of the offshoots since the mid-1990s.

It is widely known that several ruling party law makers and a minister are directly connected with some of the militants in northwestern Bangladesh. It is widely believed that Islamists of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait (and most probably Taliban sympathizers from Pakistan) have been indoctrinating, arming and financing the JMB for quite some time.

The sharp polarization of the polity between the so-called secular “pro-Independence” and the not-so-secular “Islam-loving” groups has been a contributing factor in the Islamization of the country. Both the “secular” group under Sheikh Hasina and the “Islam loving” group under prime minister Khaleda Zia have been championing the cause of Islam ever since the overthrow of military dictatorship in 1990. It seems, as if the two major parties, Hasina’s Awami League and Khaleda’s BNP, have been competing with each other to prove their Islamic credentials with a view to securing more votes from the God-fearing Bengali Muslims.

Meanwhile, President Ziaur Rahman had formally scrapped “Secularism” and “Socialism” from the Constitution. His successor, General Ershad further Islamized the polity by making Islam the “state religion” through an amendment of the Constitution in 1988. Three successive governments under Khaleda and Hasina since 1991 could neither restore “Secularism” as enshrined in the original Constitution, nor scrap the “state religion” amendment. Realizing the political importance of Islam in this backward and predominantly Muslim country, no major political party champions the cause of secularism by scrapping the “state religion” clause from the Constitution.

It seems, the biggest stumbling block in the way of secularism is the popular culture of the vast majority of the population. Since the immediate post-independence government of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (1972-75), regarded by many as the founding father of the nation, miserably failed in delivering the promised poverty free, prosperous Bangladesh in a “secular” and “socialist” authoritarian democracy, most Bangladeshis have become suspicious of secularism and socialism.

And while democracy has remained elusive, the average Bangladeshi Muslim has remained loyal to traditional Islamic and authoritarian values. The changed circumstances of the post-Cold War era – the disappearance of the Soviet style socialism and the advent of market economy and Globalization – also brought Islam in the arena of global politics. This time it appeared not as an ally but as an adversary of the hegemonic West, mainly represented by the US and its allies.

Islamism in Bangladesh has similarities with its counterparts in Muslim majority countries like Algeria, Egypt, Pakistan and Indonesia. All of them had gone through secular National Socialism and autocracies under civil/military rulers before turning Islamic during the last decade and a half. Islamism in these countries may be attributed to the failure of the promised welfare state under pseudo-socialism or corrupt and inefficient state capitalism.

Although Bangladesh emerged as a symbol of freedom and equality, unfortunately, it is only symbolic and historical as since its emergence in 1971, the rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer, far faster than anywhere in South Asia. Around 50% of the population is very poor and more than 35% are practically unemployed. The tax evading rich, the absolutely corrupt politicians, bureaucracy and thousands of bank defaulters have accumulated more than $60 billion in “black money” since 1971.

While the rich and powerful get their children educated in English medium schools, at home and abroad, and are the most employable in the country, the fast disappearing middle class send their children to Bengali medium schools and the poor mostly send their children to Islamic seminaries called madrassas. Besides the stream of the under-employed Bengali medium graduates are millions of unemployed/underemployed madrassa graduates.

No wonder, sections of these frustrated, angry young men have swelled the ranks of the Islamist militants, including the ultra-extremist JMB. The situation is very similar to what Algeria and Afghanistan have been experiencing, the class war between the Western (secular) and vernacular (Islamic) elites.

Islamists’ anger and frustration are reflected in their demand for the introduction of the Sharia law, which has several dimensions. Firstly, the demand smacks of their desire to go back to the utopian Islamic past in the 7th century, presumed to be an era of peace, justice, prosperity and tolerance.

Secondly, besides its spiritual aspect, a Sharia-based state would employ mullahs as law makers, judges, teachers and administrators. So, the demand for a Sharia-based administration has pure and simple secular logic. One has reasons to agree with a Western scholar that the ongoing Islamist movements in the world reflect the adherents’ desire for modernity. It is too trite an assumption that all Islamic movements, including the militant ones, are backward looking, anti-modern.

Those who think that there is something inherent in the Islamic scripture conducive to the growth of terror, should ask themselves as to why “Islamic terror” did not disturb the world peace during the 700 years between the crushing defeat of the Ismaili Assassins and the Arab-Israeli War of 1967.

There is likelihood of missing the forest due to trees. Explaining “Islamic terror” only in terms of cultural, political and social factors is inaccurate and subjective. Unfortunately, the most relevant economic factor is missing in most analyses of “Islamic terror” in Bangladesh and beyond.

There is no denying that thousands of ultra-extremist Islamists do exist in Bangladesh along with millions of frustrated youths, some resigned to their miserable fate while others engaged in criminal activities. However, the mere existence of Islamist terrorists in a country does not necessarily lead to an Islamic Revolution. One may apply Lenin’s classic theory of revolution in rejecting the over-simplified, alarmist views of Lintner, Griswold and others, with regard to their “impending Islamic Revolution” theses.

According to Lenin, there are three prerequisites for a revolution: a) mass discontent; b) gradual infiltration of ideas and c) a weak government. A well-organized party to lead the people is also a requirement. The partial existence of only the first and second prerequisites does not make Bangladesh a good candidate for an Islamic Revolution at all.

Without going into details of Iran, the Sudan and Afghanistan with regard to their respective Islamic Revolutions, the existence of a free press, the semblance of democracy, the existence of scores of Islamic organizations having diverse views, and above all, almost the total disregard for the mullah as their potential rulers by more than 90 per cent of the voters (as reflected in all the parliamentary elections during the last 35 years), Islamists have absolutely no hope of staging a revolution or a sustainable military coup d’etat.

However, what is possible and most likely is the recurrence of more attacks in the future. Since one single factor did not lead to these attacks overnight, there is no single solution to the problem either. Nothing would be more futile than trying to find out a cultural solution of terrorism, bypassing the growing economic disparity between the rich and powerful (corrupt and insensitive) and the weak and poor of Bangladesh.

Economically marginalized and politically disenfranchised poor and lower-middle classes must be given better sustenance, including education and healthcare, dignity and respect before someone tries to find out a solution of terrorism. The inverted pyramid of solution, built by liberal-democrat politicians and intellectuals, both within and outside Bangladesh, must be reversed in the following order: economic-social-political-cultural or religious, not the other way round.

Those who expect normal behavior from sections of the indoctrinated terrorists, must isolate them from the vast majority of the not yet infested hoi polloi, not by resorting to counter-terrorist measures, which are effective in the short-run, but by establishing real democracy ensuring real participation by the vast majority. This, however, does not mean that democracy would only guarantee people’s right to elect their representatives, but they must have the sense of belonging to the state by active participation in the governance. This would eventually narrow the gap between the rich and poor.

There is nothing utopian about this. By curtailing and eventually crushing corruption at every level and making everyone accountable to the law, this can be achieved under a group of dedicated leaders. Bangladesh having better land-man ratio than Japan and South Korea has no reason to remain poor. The dedicated young leadership, if and when emerges from the corner, can easily reverse the process of going downhill since 1947. It is really a big wonder and the biggest tragedy for Bangladesh that the region, which in 1949 was richer than all the countries in Southeast and East Asia but Japan and Singapore, now is on par with the poor to very poor countries in per capita income.

In the short-run, unless the “liberal democratic” parties and most importantly, the civil society come forward in unison to fight extremism instead of calling names and vilifying each other as “terrorists and murderers”, there is no remedy against terrorism. Only lip service to secularism and the “holier than thou” attitude of almost all the political leaders of the country will not de-terrorize the already terrorized polity. Since terrorism is a global factor, its symptoms cannot be eliminated in Bangladesh unless there is a global attempt to contain it.

In sum, we should always keep in mind that terrorism is all about money-power-respect. When individuals or groups, who do not believe in resigning to their miserable fate by turning fatalist either by joining devotional religious groups – Sufi, mystic orders – or, by taking drugs and other intoxicants as modes of escaping, resort to violence.

Small scale violence at local level, not in the name of any ideology – religion or liberation of motherland, Palestine, Kashmir or Chechnya– is called robbery or extortion. When there is an ideology behind such violence we call it “terrorism”. In short, terrorism is a reaction to exploitation, oppression, expropriation and humiliation of people not strong enough to retaliate openly.

Fortunately for Bangladesh, the bulk of the exploited/expropriated/disempowered people have still remained fatalist either by becoming religious – by joining one of the scores of Sufi orders or the pacifist Tableeghi Jamaat – or, by just remaining passive/drug addict to escape the suffering and pain, waiting for death or the paradise to get their respective nirvana. If nothing positive is done to reverse the table, more “fire works” are in the offing. Brace yourself Bangladesh for a long bumpy ride, if not a disastrous crash landing.

The writer is a Professor in the History Department, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, Canada. He is a PhD in modern South Asian History and has taught at universities in Australia, Bangladesh and Singapore and is presently teaching modern history at Simon Fraser University. He is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and on the Board of Editors of the Contemporary South Asia.


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