Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Bangladeshis divided on extent of extremists' influence

+ Many Bangladeshi commentators reject outright the possibility of an Islamic revolution but are divided on the significance of Bangla Bhai. "I don't think the majority of Bangladeshis are in any way religious extremists," said commentator Aasha Mehreen Amin who has reported on Bangla Bhai and his followers. "The idea that Bangladesh might have some Taliban-style revolution is very premature," she told AFP."But there are some religious bigots and it is important not to underestimate the potential threat. +


Bangladeshis divided on extent of extremists' influence


DHAKA (AFP) - A string of unexplained attacks and bomb blasts has sparked a row over the influence of religious extremists in Bangladesh and a dire warning of a possible Islamist revolution.

Five people including a former finance minister died in the latest violence when a grenade was thrown at an opposition Awami League party rally in northeast Bangladesh.

The January 27 killings prompted US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (news - web sites) to telephone Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, whose Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) leads the Islamist-allied coalition government.

The US embassy in Dhaka said Rice last week expressed serious concerns about the grenade attack and urged Bangladesh to vigorously investigate "all acts of political terrorism".

US State Department official David A. Gross told students in Dhaka, meanwhile, that Bangladesh's future hinged on its ability to tackle corruption and maintain democratic traditions.

And in the same week, India refused to attend a South Asian summit in Bangladesh partly because the "security situation in Dhaka has deteriorated following the fatal attack".

The developments came on the heels of a New York Times magazine report asking whether Bangladesh could be the next country to experience an "Islamist revolution".

The article, dismissed as groundless by an angry Bangladesh government, focused on the leader of a recently-formed group in northwestern Bangladesh who, the Times said, boasted he would "bring about the Talibanization of his part of the country".

The leader, known as Bangla Bhai -- Bangladeshi brother -- emerged early last year when villagers told journalists that his Jagrata (or inspired) Muslim Janata Bangladesh group had pressured women to wear all-covering burqas and men to grow beards.

Police described the group as over-enthusiastic in trying to enforce strict Islamic codes but said it was helping an overstretched force track down criminals.

Many Bangladeshi commentators reject outright the possibility of an Islamic revolution but are divided on the significance of Bangla Bhai.

"I don't think the majority of Bangladeshis are in any way religious extremists," said commentator Aasha Mehreen Amin who has reported on Bangla Bhai and his followers.

"The idea that Bangladesh might have some Taliban-style revolution is very premature," she told AFP.

"But there are some religious bigots and it is important not to underestimate the potential threat.

"You have these incidents of seemingly fundamentalist activity ... and the feeling is that some of these attacks have been carried out by extremist groups in the name of religion but ultimately for political gain," Amin said.

"We need to be careful that the influence of these bigots does not spread and become out of control."

Others said Bangla Bhai was nothing more than a gangster.

Defence analyst Shahedul Anam Khan nonetheless urged the autorities to act.

"It appears to me that many in the administration are rather reluctant to acknowledge that there may be some elements up to tricks," he said.

"They may be very fringe elements, they may have no political agenda except to carry forward what they believe for the cause of Islam, it might not have many takers in the country, but the government must get to the bottom of it."

The perpetrators of a host of attacks going back to 1999 remain at large despite help from both the US Federal Bureau of Investigation and Britain's Scotland Yard.

Targets last year included the British High Commissioner who was slightly injured in a grenade assault that killed three people and a Bangladeshi academic who was stabbed and seriously injured. He made a partial recovery but later died of natural causes.

An opposition lawmaker was gunned down at a rally and a grenade attack on another rally in Dhaka killed more than 20 people.

There have also been blasts at cinemas and theatres.