Sunday, January 30, 2005

BANGLADESH: The Next Taliban State?

What is surprising that Sheikh Hasina, the leader of the opposition
in the parliament belonging to the Awami League, not only favours
such alarmist stories but she has been persistently portraying the present
coalition government of Prime Minister Khaleda Zia as 'pro-Taliban',
'Pro-Pakistan' and 'anti-Bangladesh'. The ruling coalition also
vilifies Hasina and her party as 'Pro-Indian' and 'enemies of Islam'.

Bangladesh: The Next Taliban State?
Taj Hashmi

One who knows Bangladesh and Islam has every reason to be surprised
and worried about the recent posting by Eliza Griswold in the New
York Times magazine (January 23, 2005) entitled, "The Next Islamist
Revolution", I have nothing to be worried about Griswold's abysmal
ignorance about Islam and Bangladesh. What is worrisome is the way
the writer has demonised both Islam and Bangladesh, totally ignoring
the positive aspects of the third largest Muslim country, which is a
functional democracy, no longer considered a 'basket case', the way
Henry Kissinger portrayed the country in 1972. This cry wolf in the
long run is going to benefit the evil 'Islamists' to the detriment of
freedom and democracy. Hence this rejoinder.

This, however, does not mean that all is well in Bangladesh. There
elements of truth in a Time magazine story ('State of Disgrace',
April 12, 2004), which has classified the country as Asia's 'most
dysfunctional country' for the level of violence, corruption and
political disharmony. Endemic violence, killing of political
opponents through bombs and assassins, persecution of opposition
leaders and supporters by using state machinery by the ruling power,
systematic plunder of national wealth by bank defaulters, tax evaders
and rampant corruption at every level are growing. The Transparency
International has singled out this over-populated poor country,
consecutively in the last four years, as the most corrupt.

Since mid-2004, members of the newly created Rapid Action Battalions
have summarily executed around 300 known killer-extortionists,
euphemistically in 'cross-firing'. Not only senior cabinet ministers
are justifying these extra-judicial killings of criminals and
suspects, but also the public in general (with the exceptions of
handful of politicians, intellectuals and human rights activists) are
happy about the 'cleansing process'. This is ominous. People are
celebrating killing as the prevailing chaos, possibly heading towards
anarchy, has desensitised the polity. Although nothing positive is
forthcoming from this state of terror and lawlessness, but it is
too trite a platitude to assume that only 'Islamist terror' is
responsible for the chaos. One should not blame an undefined
'Islamist terror' for the prevalent violence in Bangladesh, as some
Western 'experts' blamed Muslims for the crime of Timothy McVeigh,
the Oklahoma City bomber in 1995.

Griswold is not the first Western writer to draw such an alarmist
picture of Bangladesh. In April 2002, Bertil Lintner wrote a similar
sensational piece in the Far Eastern Economic Review and the Wall
Street Journal, that an Islamist revolution was taking place in the
hills of this over-populated country. Fortunately for Bangladesh, 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 criticise the Western 'Islam-bashers', including Dow Jones, who
owns the periodical. Bangladeshis in general condemned Lintner, as
are now condemning Griswold for good reasons.

However, what is surprising that Sheikh Hasina, the leader of the
opposition in the parliament belonging to the Awami League, not only
favours such alarmist stories but she has been persistently
portraying the present coalition government of Prime Minister Khaleda
Zia as 'pro-Taliban', 'Pro-Pakistan' and 'anti-Bangladesh'. The
ruling coalition also vilifies Hasina and her party as 'Pro-Indian'
and 'enemies of Islam'. It is noteworthy that while Hasina was the
Prime Minister during President Clinton's visit to Bangladesh in
March 2000, her government warned Clinton about the 'impending
threat' of terrorist attacks on Clinton by Islamic militants. It is
interesting that on the eve of the parliamentary elections in
Bangladesh in October 2001, not long after the Nine-Eleven, posters
on city walls in Dhaka emerged with images of Bin Laden and Khaleda
Zia, portraying them as 'friends'. Since losing the elections of
2001, Hasina has
been projecting the government as illegitimate and the two
Jamaat-i-Islami cabinet ministers as Taliban agents. One wonders if
Griswold met only avid Awami supporters while preparing the factually
wrong and analytically bizarre article on Bangladesh.

An appraisal of political Islam in Bangladesh requires an
understanding of the socio-economic and cultural aspects of the
polity. The separation of East Pakistan in 1971 from Islam-oriented
Pakistan in the name of Bengali nationalism apparently signalled the
departure of 'political Islam' in Bangladesh. Soon after its
emergence, Bangladesh adopted the four-pronged state ideology of
nationalism, democracy, socialism and secularism. However, soon Islam
re-emerged as an important factor in the country, both socially
and politically. Since the overthrow of the first civilian government
by a military coup d'etat in August 1975, Islam-oriented state
ideology replaced 'secularism' and 'socialism'. Not long after his
ascendancy as the new ruler in November 1975, General Ziaur Rahman
(Zia) replaced the outwardly secular 'Bengali nationalism' propounded
by its founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (Mujib), with
'Bangladeshi nationalism'. One may argue that 'Bangladeshi' is
inclusive of the different non-Bengali minorities' nevertheless the
term highlights the Muslim identity of the country,
differentiating its Muslim majority Bengalis from the Hindu Bengalis
in India.

It seems, after the failure of the
socialist-secular-Bengali-nationalist' Mujib government, his military
successors, Zia (1975-1981) and Ershad (1982-1990), realized the
importance of 'political Islam' to legitimize their rule. Hence the
rapid Islamization of the polity. This is not typical to Bangladesh.
Egypt, Algeria and Pakistan under Bhutto, for example, which also
went through 'socialist' and 'secular' phases of their history turned

to 'political Islam' under their successors. The post-Mujib
oligarchs, very similar to their post-Nasser-Boumediene-Bhutto
counterparts, hardly realized that by espousing 'political Islam'
they created their Frankenstein's monsters.

Since Bangladesh is the third largest Muslim country in the world
(after Indonesia and Pakistan), it is only natural to assume that
Islam will play an important role in moulding its politics and
culture while around 90 per cent of the population are Muslims most
importantly, representing one of the poorest, least literate and most
backward sections of the world population.

If mass poverty, and illiteracy have any positive correlation with
Islamic resurgence, then Bangladesh has to be a fertile breeding
ground of what is wrongly defined as 'Islamic fundamentalism'.
However, despite its poverty, backwardness and the preponderance of
Islamic ethos in the main streams of its politics and culture,
Bangladesh is not just another Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia or
even Pakistan. Despite having several Islamic groups ' some militant
but most pacifist/devotional 'the vast majority of Bangladeshi
Muslims are least likely to become militant Islamists in the
foreseeable future.

However, the spate of violence in the country against religious and
ethnic minorities and political rivals 'and of late, against the
Ahmadiyya Muslim minority sect' is very disturbing. Bomb attacks on
political rallies, movie theatres, cultural shows besides the public
and secret killing of political rivals in the last five years have
taken hundreds of lives and maimed many. Although the attacks on the
tiny Ahmadiyya community solely by the Islami zealots (singling out
the victims as 'non-Muslim' heretics) are proto-fascist by nature, we
are not sure if certain Islamic fanatics are also behind the other
acts of terror, rape and arson.

Unfortunately, what Eliza Griswold has written about the 'Islamist
terror' in Bangladesh is grossly exaggerated, inaccurate, confusing
and misleading. She has no idea about the similarities and
differences between various Islamic groups and their leaders, the
'great' and 'little' traditions of Islam in the region and the
difference between the mass/popular perceptions and the reality. She
is too naive to believe that rural Muslim women wear 'makeshift
burka' or shroud to cover their body, because of an Islamist
militant, called Bangla Bhai, in parts of north-western Bangladesh.

She again tells us about the strength and influence of Bangla Bhai,
the main leader of a vigilante group of 'Awakened Muslim Masses of
Bangladesh'. According to her finding, Bangla Bhai with 'probably
10,000 followers' wanted to 'try an Islamist revolution in several
provinces of Bangladesh' last spring. She also thinks that this
fanatic vigilante group 'seemed to have enough lightly armed
adherents to make its rule stick.' Ironically for Griswold, the day
before her article came out in the New York Times magazine, three
Bangla Bhai cadres were brutally killed by local villagers in
retaliation of killing of an Awami League leader on January 22nd.
Bangla Bhai men were simply chased out by villagers and most of them
are still
absconding while the police arrested 65. It is beyond any stretch of
the imagination that Bangla Bhai is 'filling the power vacuum' while
the government is 'far away in Dhaka [less than 150 miles] and is
divided on precisely this question of how much Islam and politics
should mix'.

Griswold is simply unaware of the fact that Bangla Bhai, who possibly
went to Afghanistan during the heydays of the Taliban, is being used
by some local godfathers belonging to the ruling party to decimate
the rising menace of some clandestine 'Maoist' communist groups. One
of the godfathers, an erstwhile 'Maoist' and now a ruling party
leader, has been using the armed cadres of Bangla Bhai, who have
killed more than 15 'Maoists' and maimed many since last spring. In
short, what is going on in some parts of northwestern Bangladesh does
not bear any semblance of an Islamic revolution but looks like gang
warfare for dominance and extortion, common in many unruly pockets in
the Third World.

Depending on laymen and unreliable sources, she tells us that
Bangladesh 'has become a haven' for jihadis in the wake of the
Nine-Eleven and that there are Taliban training camps in the
Chittagong hills run by madrassa (Islamic school) teachers and Afghan
trained mujahedeen, surprisingly unnoticed by anyone in this
over-populated country. She is even unaware of the fundamental
differences and animosity between the Jamaat-i-Islami and the
Deobandi 'Wahhabi' mentors of the Taliban. She also narrates the
story about the 'attempted murder' of poet Shamsur Rahman by two
Harkat-ul-Jihad-ul-Islami (a pro-Taliban group) members in 1999. An
attempted burglary by two men, over-powered by the unarmed wife and
daughter-in-law of the elderly poet, somehow got wide publicity as a
Taliban attack on the poet. This, however, does not mean that the
so-called 'Islamists' are not responsible for the recent killing of
Bengali intellectuals and politicians.

Having said this, I am thankful to Griswold, at least for projecting
Bangladesh to draw global attention to the anarchic situation in the
country. With a little bit of restrain and no cry wolf
sensationalizing one should hit at the crux of the problem, the
growing Islamic militancy everywhere, including Bangladesh. In this
age of Globalization, everything is globalized, including terror.
Unless the donors and others having influence on Bangladesh exert
pressure on the government and opposition parties to establish the
rule of law, and most importantly, equitable distribution of wealth
and opportunities, including modern education, the country would head
towards anarchy from the state of chaos. It is frightening that even
the Prime Minister has no control over local godfathers and warlords
who protect and promote 'Islamist' thugs like the Bangla Bhai.
Although the vast majority of Bengali Muslims do not believe in
theocracy and terror, unless the lower middle classes and the poor
get a sense of belonging to the state, which so far is only looking
after the interests of the rich and powerful, the most corrupt
elements in Bangladesh, extremism with a tinge of fascism (both
secular and religious) would continue to dog the polity. We have
lessons to learn from the rise of fascism in Europe in this regard.

Email to from Dr. Taj Hashmi, an academic
at the York Centre for Asian Research, York University, Toronto, Canada