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Is religious extremism on the rise in Bangladesh?

Over recent years, Islamist schools have proliferated and extremist groups have become more vocal in Bangladesh, the world's third most populous Muslim country. Bertil Lintner reports.

In the general election in October 2001, the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami emerged as Bangladesh's third largest party, capturing 17 seats in the 300-strong parliament. The staunchly secular and mildly leftist Awami League (AL), which had been in power since 1996, was ousted. It was replaced by a new coalition led by the rightist Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and including the Jamaat, which was allotted two cabinet posts.

The Society for Environment and Human Development (SEHD), a well-respected local non-governmental organisation (NGO), quotes a local report that says non Muslim minorities have suffered as a result: "The intimidation of the minorities, which had begun before the election, became worse afterwards." Amnesty International reported in December 2001 that Hindus - who make up less than 10% of Bangladesh's population of 130m - in particular have come under attack. Hindu places of worship have been ransacked, villages destroyed and more than 100 Hindu women are reported to have been raped.

While Jamaat is not directly behind these attacks, its inclusion in government has meant that more radical groups feel they now enjoy protection from the authorities and can act with impunity. The most militant group, the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI), is reported to have 15,000 members. Hindus and moderate Bangladeshi Muslims hold them responsible for many), of the recent attacks against religious minorities, secular intellectuals and journalists.

India, which is watching the growth of Bangladesh's Islamic movements with deep concern, has linked HUJI militants to the attack on the American Center in Calcutta in January, and a series of bomb blasts in the state of Assam in mid-1999. These actions indicate a network of contacts that stretches beyond Bangladesh's borders.

The Bangladeshi authorities have been quick to deny that groups from their country are involved in such incidents, and Dhaka-based Western diplomats tend to downplay the fundamentalist threat. They view local movements as rather insignificant fringe groups and emphasise that both the outgoing prime minister, Sheikh Hasina Wajed of the AL, and the new prime minister, BNP leader Begum Khaleda Zia, condemned the 11 September terrorist attacks on the USA. Both leaders also offered the USA use of Bangladesh's air space, ports and other facilities to launch military action against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Furthermore, many Bangladeshis were moved by the loss of up to 50 Bangladesh nationals in the World Trade Center attack. A Bangladeshi embassy official in Washington branded the attacks "an affront to Islam... an attack on humanity".

Jamaat's stand on the 'war against terrorism', however, contrasts sharply to that of the more established parties. Shortly after the US attacks on Afghanistan began in October 2001, Jamaat created a fund for "helping the innocent victims of America's war". According to Jamaat, Tk12m (US$210,000) was raised before the effort was discontinued in March. Remaining funds, Jamaat says, will go to Afghan refugees in camps in Pakistan.

Anti-US rhetoric has continued. In December 2001, Maulana Ubaidul Haq, the khatib (cleric), of Bangladesh's national mosque, Baitul Mukarram, and a Jamaat associate, publicly condemned the US war on terror and urged followers to wage holy war against the USA. "President Bush and America is the most heinous terrorist in the world. Both America and Bush must be destroyed. The Americans will be washed away if Bangladesh's 120 million Muslims spit on them," the cleric told a gathering of hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshi Muslims which included several highranking government officials.

Main Groups in Bangladesh

Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) - A political party that dates back to the British colonial era, and the (East) Pakistan period (1947-1971). It supported Pakistan against Bengali nationalists during the liberation war, and most of its leaders fled to (West) Pakistan after Bangladesh's independence in 1971. In December 2000, Motiur Nizami Rahman, a former pro Pakistani militant, became leader. In the October 2001 election, JI emerged as the third largest party, with 17 seats in the parliament and two ministers in the new coalition government. JI's final aim is to establish an Islamic state in Bangladesh, although this will be implemented step by step.

Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS) -Jamaat's youth organisation. Set up in 1941, it became a member of the International Islamic Federation of Student Organisations in 1979. ICS is also a member of the World Assembly of Muslim Youth and has close contacts with other radical Muslim youth groups in Pakistan, the Middle East, Malaysia and Indonesia. One of its main strongholds in Bangladesh is at the university in Chittagong and it dominates privately-run madrassahs all over the country. It has been implicated in a number of bombings and politically and religiously motivated assassinations. Nurul Islam Bulbul is its current president and Mohammed Nazrul Islam is the secretary general.

Islami Olkyo Jote (IOJ) - A smaller Islamic party that last year joined the four-party alliance led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which won the October 2001 election. The IOJ secured two seats in the parliament, but did not get any cabinet posts. The fourth member of the alliance, a faction of the Jatyio Party led by Naziur Rahman Manzur, has no obvious Islamic profile.

Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI) - Bangladesh's main militant outfit. Set up in 1992, it now has an estimated strength of 15,000 and is headed by Shawkat Osman aka Maulana or Sheikh Farid in Chittagong. Its members are recruited mainly from students of the country's madrassahs, and until last year they called themselves 'Bangladeshi Taliban'. The group is believed to have extensive contacts with Muslim groups in the Indian states of West Bengal and Assam.

The Jihad Movement - Osama bin Laden's February 23, 1998 fatwa urging jihad against the USA was co-signed by two Egyptian clerics, one from Pakistan, and Fazlul Rahman, "leader of the Jihad Movement in Bangladesh". This is not believed to be a separate organisation but a common name for several Islamic groups in Bangladesh, of which HUJI is considered the biggest and most important.

Arakan Rohingya National Organisation (ARNO) - A political group among Rohingyas migrants from Myanmar, who live in the Chittagong-Cox's Bazar area. It claims to be fighting for an autonomous Muslim region in Myanmar's Arakan (Rakhine) State. It was set up in 1999 through a merger of the Arakan Rohingya Islamic Front (ARIF) and the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO). Within months, the front fell apart. The leader of what remains of ARNO, Nurul Islam, is considered a moderate. He led the ARIF before the merger in 1999.

Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO) - Following the breakup of ARNO in 2000-2001, three new factions emerged, all of them re-claiming the old name RSO. Traditionally, the RSO has been very close to Jamaat-e-Islami and Islami Chhatra Shibir in Chittagong and Cox's Bazar. In the early 1990s, RSO had several military camps near the Myanmar border, where cadres from the Islami Chhatra Shibir were also trained in guerrilla warfare.

Bangladesh's militants may be a small minority, but they are becoming more vocal and daring in their attacks on 'infidels,' a worrying sign in what is a basically very tolerant society. The Muslim radicals first came to international attention in 1993, when author Taslima Nasrin was forced to flee the country after receiving death threats from Islamic fundamentalists who objected to her critical writings' about what she termed outdated religious beliefs. Extremist groups offered a $5,000 reward for her death. She now lives in exile in France.

While Nasrin's outspoken, feminist writings caused controversy even among moderate Bangladeshi Muslims, the entire state was shocked when, in early 1999, three men attempted to kill Shamsur Rahman, a well-known poet and a symbol of Bangladesh's secular nationhood. During the ensuing arrests, the police said they seized a list of several intellectuals and writers (including Nasrin), whom local fundamentalist groups had branded "enemies of Islam".

Bangladeshi human rights organisations openly accuse HUJI of being behind both the death threats against Nasrin and the attempt to kill Rahman.

According to sources, HUJI was formed in 1992 with the aid of Osama bin Laden. Originally, it consisted of Bangladeshis who had fought as volunteers in the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. The existence of firm links between Bangladeshi militants and Al-Qaeda was proven when Fazlul Rahman, leader of 'the jihad Movement in Bangladesh', signed the official declaration of 'holy war' against the USA on February 23, 1998. Other signatories included Bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri leader of the Jihad Group in Egypt), Rifa'i Ahmad Taha aka AbuYasir (Egyptian Islamic Group), and Sheikh Mir Hamzah, (secretary of the Jamiat-ul-Ulema-e-Pakistan).


Cadres for the militant organisations have been recruited from the thousands of madrassahs (Islamic schools), that have mushroomed throughout the country. Many are located along the Indian border in the west and north, where young radicals from both countries are taught the virtues of orthodox Islam. Funding for the madrassahs comes from donations from local communities and international Islamic charities, such as the Saudi Arabia based and immensely wealthy Rabitat Al Alam Al Islami.

The madrassahs fill an important function in a country where basic education is available only to a few, especially in the impoverished countryside, but, as Bangladeshi journalist Salahuddin Babar said: "Once the students graduate from the madrassahs, they either join mosques as imams or similar religious-related jobs. There are hundreds of thousands of mosques, so there is employment in that field. But they find it difficult to get employment in secular institutions. Certain quarters grab this opportunity to brainwash them, make them into religious fanatics rather than modern Muslims."

A retired civil servant has called the madrassahs a "potential political time bomb". According to latest estimates, there are at least 64,000 in Bangladesh, most of which are beyond any form of governmental control or supervision. Moderate Muslims note that the Taliban was born in similar madrassahs in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province and in Afghan refugee camps, where they promoted a new radical and extremely militant model for 'Islamic revolutions'.

Another breeding ground for religious extremism is the lawless southeast, including the border with Myanmar. With its fluid population and weak law enforcement, the region has long been a haven for smugglers, gun runners, pirates, and ethnic insurgents from across the Myanmar border. It is also a traditional stronghold for Jamaat and, in particular, its militant youth organisation, Islami Chhatra Shibir. The past decade has seen a massive influx of weapons, especially small arms, through the fishing port of Cox's Bazar, which has made the situation in the southeast even more dangerous and volatile.

In one of the most recent high-profile attacks, Gopal Krishna Muhuri, the 60-year-old principal of Nazirhat College in Chittagong and a leading secular humanist, was gunned down in November 2001 in his home by four hired assassins, who belonged to a gang patronised by the Jamaat, according to local sources.

The Rohingyas

Much of the violence in the Chittagong-Cox's Bazar area has been blamed on the Rohingyas, a refugee community of Muslims from Myanmar's Arakan State. In 1991, over 250,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh, claiming religious persecution in Myanmar. They were sheltered in more than 20 camps near the border south and east of Cox's Bazar. The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) managed to repatriate most of them, but an estimated 20,000 destitute refugees remain in two camps between Cox's Bazar and the border, which is heavily mined in some areas on the Myanmar side to prevent smuggling and crossborder guerrilla activities. There is also an undisclosed number of Rohingyas living in villages outside the UNHCR supervised camps. In one village, Gumdrum, located only a few hundred metres from the Myanmar border, virtually everyone is of Rohingya descent. Some are recent arrivals, while others have settled here over the past three or four decades. According to officials, new refugees arrive daily.

In January 2001, Bangladesh clamped down on Rohingya activists and offices in Chittagong and Cox's Bazar. Hundreds were rounded up, and the local press was full of reports of their alleged involvement in gun- and drug-running. Local Rohingya leaders vehemently deny such accusations, and refute claims that they are connected with Islamic fundamentalist groups in and outside Bangladesh: "These are pure fabrications to discredit us," said Nurul Islam, president of the Arakan Rohingya National Organisation, a moderate Rohingya group active in the border areas. Another Rohingya spokesman blamed local Bangladeshi gangs with highlevel connections for the violence, smuggling and lawlessness in the area. The paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles have also been accused of involvement in smuggling activities around Cox's Bazar.

Al-Qaeda recruitment

There is little doubt that extremist groups have taken advantage of the disenfranchised Rohingyas, including recruiting them as cannon fodder for Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. In an interview with the Karachi-based newspaper, Ummat on 28 September 2001, Bin Laden said: "There are areas in all parts of the world where strong jihadi forces are present, from Indonesia to Algeria, from Kabul to Chechnya, from Bosnia to Sudan, and from Myanmar to Kashmir." He was most probably referring to a small group of Rohingyas on the Bangladesh-Myamnar border.

Many of the recruits were given the most dangerous tasks in the battlefield, clearing mines and portering. According to Asian intelligence sources, recruits were paid Tk30,OOO ($525) on joining and then Tk10,OOO ($175) per month. The families of recruits killed in action were offered Tk100,000 ($1,750). Recruits were taken mostly via Nepal to Pakistan, where they were trained and sent on to military camps in Afghanistan. It is not known how many people from this part of Bangladesh - Rohingyas and others - fought in Afghanistan.

According to Asian intelligence reports, many of HUJI's members may also have been recruited from Rohingya settlements in the southeastern corner of the country HUJI is headed by an extremist cleric from Chittagong, Maulana Sheikh Farid, who also maintains links with like-minded groups in Pakistan.


Bangladesh is far from becoming another Pakistan, and the rise of extremism should be seen in the context of the country's turbulent politics since breaking away from Pakistan in 1971. Bangladesh was formed in opposition to the notion that all Muslim areas of former British India should unite in one country. Bangladesh is the only state in the subcontinent with one dominant language group and very few ethnic and religious minorities.

The AL, which led the struggle for Bangladesh's independence, grew out of the Bangla language movement, and was based on Bengali nationalism, not religion. It soon fell out with the country's military, which began to use Islam as a counterweight to the league's secular, vaguely socialist policies. Lieutenant General Hossain Mohammed Ershad, who ruled from 1982 to 1990, declared Islam as the state religion and changed the weekly holiday from Sunday to Friday. He also revived the Jamaat to counter secular opposition.

The Jamaat, formed long before independence, opposed separation from Pakistan. Its current leader, Motiur Nizami Rahman, fought against Bengali nationalists in 1971. When he took over Jamaat in December 2000, veterans of the freedom struggle burnt an effigy of the 'collaborator' and demanded he be put on trial for war crimes. Today, he is a government minister.

The rise of fundamentalism in Bangladesh is not just a side effect of military politics. Enayetullah Khan, editor of the Bangladesh weekly Holiday, says that a Muslim element has always been present; otherwise, what was East Pakistan could have merged with the predominantly Hindu Indian state of West Bengal, where the same language is spoken. "We're having a bit of an identity crisis here," said Khan. "Are we Bengalis first and Muslims second, or Muslims first and Bengalis second? This is the problem. And when Muslim identity becomes an Islamic identity we're in real trouble."

This is a dilemma that Bangladesh has to tackle very carefully. The urban middle class may resent the fundamentalists and dismiss them as irrelevant, and the government - which is heavily dependent on foreign aid - has to contain the extremists so as not to upset relations with its powerful donor countries, the West and Japan.

However, extremist influence is growing, especially in the countryside. A foreign diplomat in Dhaka said: "In the 1960s and 1970s, it was the leftists who were seen as incorruptible purists. Today, the role model for many young men in rural areas is the dedicated Islamic cleric with his skull cap, flowing robes and beard." As Indonesia has shown, an economic collapse or political crisis can give rise to militants for whom religious fundamentalism equals national pride, and a way out of misrule, disorder and corrupt worldly politics.

This article first appeared in Jane's Intelligence Review, May 2002

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