Wednesday, March 02, 2005

BANGLADESH:The rise of Islamic extremism

The gross inequality between rich and poor within the country is generated by forces that are within the reach of the government. Economic growth turns futile unless it benefits the disadvantaged. Such unequal distribution of national wealth leads to frustration and desperation among impoverished young people.Young unemployed people are easier target by the extremist organizations to lure them with the propaganda that religion is the panacea of all social ills. It is believed that the orthodox votaries of Islam hold that their version of Islamic way of life is ordained by God and it will continue to remain so without any change until the end of time. Any deviation from the way of life will constitute a mortal sin, a sure entry to hell.

The rise of Islamic extremism in Bangladesh
Harun ur Rashid

In the backdrop of rising deep concern among development partners, on February 23 the government finally took action in banning two Islamic extremist organizations in the country, namely, Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB) and Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), accusing them of a large number of bomb attacks and killings in recent times to create chaos in the country.

It is reported that eleven Islamic thinkers and leaders of the Jatiya Shariah Council on February 23 in a joint statement expressed the view that, "Those who are involved in terrorist activities in the name of Islamic organizations, are the enemies of the country and the nation. They should be brought to justice for punishment according to Islamic law (italics mine)."

A query may be put why the Islamic thinkers were so late in expressing their views when people have been suffering from the pernicious activities of the Islamic extremists for about two years. Again it is not understood why reference has been made to punishment under "Islamic law."

In the country there is an established criminal law which the judiciary uses for trial of criminal cases. Islamic law is applicable to personal matters, such as inheritance, marriage, divorce, custodianship, of children, guardianship, etc. There is no Islamic criminal law, to my knowledge, that exists in the country because Bangladesh is a multi-religious country and criminal law applies to all, irrespective of a person's faith.

While the government has decided to crack down on the Islamic extremists, in Washington, the development partners held five sessions in a two-day meeting on February 23-24, and issued a statement not favourable to Bangladesh's prevailing situation.

The view of the development partners on Bangladesh has been based partly on facts, and empirical analysis and partly on perceptions. The foreign missions located in the country are the "eyes and ears" of the development partners and no doubt provide regularly the state of conditions and developments in Bangladesh to their headquarters.

The very fact that the development partners did not invite any one from the Bangladesh government to the sessions demonstrates that they wished to discuss the matter candidly among themselves, although they invited Bangladesh's alternate director of the World Bank to brief him on the outcome of the meet. It is reported that under the orders of the government the alternate director would not attend the briefing meeting.

It is more than two years, activities of Islamic extremists have become bolder and bolder and many of them have been caught, interrogated and arrested for violent activities in different parts of the country. Headlines in the national newspapers attest to their nefarious activities which many call asymmetric warfare. They hit the weakest points of society to show their cowardly violent attacks.

It is not understood how could the Islamic extremism rise in the country when the Islamic parties made a poor show in the last three general elections. It has been noted that in successive elections since 1991, their share of popular vote has declined continuously. Let us briefly look at the statistics. A well-organized party, Jamaat secured 12.13 per cent in the 1991 election, 8.61 per cent in 1996, and in 2001 only 4.31 per cent. The Islamic Oikya Jote got 0.68 per cent of the vote. Given the veracity of the figures, the strength of Islamic parties in the country certainly seems to be much exaggerated.

The question arises how Islamic extremism is spreading all over Bangladesh, in particular in northern Bangladesh and who is funding them. The next thing is how weapons including grenades are being smuggled into the country in large quantities. The other question is who are training Islamic extremists to make sophisticated bombs and how these explosive materials are made available to them.

Our intelligence agencies must have some indication of the answers to the above questions. If our intelligence agencies do not have latest techniques or state of art equipment, the government can easily get them from friendly concerned countries.

It has been reported that during the last 20 years, the number of students in junior and high madrassas (religious schools) increased by 818 per cent as against a 317 per cent increase in ordinary secondary schools. What are the causes of such increase? What kind of curriculum do they teach to young persons?

History tells us that after 14th century, new interpreters of Islam came who taught that acquisition of knowledge by Muslims in madrassas meant only the study of theology. The study of science and technology was discouraged. The early successes of Ottomans did not stimulate intellectual renaissance. They became more occupied with rituals. The Industrial revolution missed the Islamic world. Some say that there has been no Martin Luther in Islam.

Another question merits attention. Is Islamic extremism getting some kind of support from frustrated and unemployed youths? To paraphrase the Mexican poet Octavio Paz, rich community in the country can no longer afford to be "islands of abundance in an ocean of universal misery."

It has been reported that some 70 million people live below the poverty line. About 30 million people are practically unemployed. Unemployment has increased by 3.3 per cent per year. About 90 million have no access to health care. Landless households have increased to 56 per cent in 1996 from 19 per cent in 1960.

According to Bangladesh Economic Survey 2003, richest 10 per cent control 40.72 per cent of national income while the poorest 10 per cent control only 1.84 per cent of national income.

The gross inequality between rich and poor within the country is generated by forces that are within the reach of the government. Economic growth turns futile unless it benefits the disadvantaged. Such unequal distribution of national wealth leads to frustration and desperation among impoverished young people.

Young unemployed people are easier target by the extremist organizations to lure them with the propaganda that religion is the panacea of all social ills. It is believed that the orthodox votaries of Islam hold that their version of Islamic way of life is ordained by God and it will continue to remain so without any change until the end of time. Any deviation from the way of life will constitute a mortal sin, a sure entry to hell.

Islam is for all times. The moral and spiritual teachings of Islam have eternal value and validity. Islam is not wrong, but literal or orthodox interpretations are wrong. Social and cultural practices are the result of a particular place. An Islamic scholar expressed the view that the more obscure and incomprehensible an assertion is on religious matters the more is the intensity of devoted acceptance displayed by the ignorant followers of the faith.

On interpretation of Islam, the former Prime Minister of Malaysia, Dr. Mahathir Mohammad, while hosting at the 2003 Islamic Summit in Kuala Lumpur, said: "Over the last 1400 years the interpreters of Islam, the learned ones, the ulamas, have interpreted and reinterpreted the single Islamic religion so differently that now we have a thousand religions which are often so much at odds with one another that we often fight and kill each other."

David Landes in his book The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (1998) looked into the question why some nations are poorer than others, came to the conclusion that Protestant-nations are generally richer than the Catholic nations because of their inherent conservatism of Catholic populations, and than Islamic societies, which were once inventive before orthodoxy in Islam discouraged invention, individual curiosity, and primacy of reason. Whether one agrees or not with Landes, the fact remains that the Islamic world remains a silent spectator to the industrialization and scientific advances of the West.

To support the above position, Dr. Mahathir said: "Whether we like it or not we have to change, not by changing our religion, but by applying its teachings in the context of a world that is radically different from that of the first century of the Hijrah. We talk so much about following the sunnah of the Prophet. We quote instances and the traditions profusely. But we actually ignore all of them."

For the last ten years Bangladesh has been marching forward in socio-economic development. The 2004 UN Human Development Index shows that the country has outranked Pakistan in socio-economic indicators. Poverty has fallen to 9.2 per cent between 1991 and 2000, according to the UNDP Bangladesh Progress Report released last February.

At this point in time of development activities, where it is estimated that $900 million of foreign assistance was committed by donors for the current fiscal year, Bangladesh cannot afford to distance itself from the assistance and cooperation of development partners.

Barrister Harun ur Rashid is a former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.