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Bangladesh: The New Afghanistan?

By Bertil Lintner

Bangladesh: The New Afghanistan?, by Hiranmay Karlekar. Sage Publications. 311 pages. INR 320 / $26.99

The image of Bangladesh as a moderate and tolerant Muslim country was shattered on the morning of Aug. 17, when more than 400 explosions went off simultaneously in 50 cities and towns across the country, including the capital Dhaka. Scores of people were arrested in the wake of the blasts, and the main suspects turned out to be Islamic extremists.

In November, security was again stepped up in Dhaka after a faxed message purportedly from al Qaeda threatened to blow up the British and U.S. embassies. Two days later, 10 people were killed and 21 badly injured in what the authorities described as the country's first suicide bombings. The targets were a court house and a bar association, and the police identified the assailants as members of the hard-line Jamatul Mujahideen, which wants to turn Bangladesh into an Islamic state.

Bangladesh is a predominantly Muslim country, but unlike Pakistan it was not formed on the basis of religion. On the contrary, when then East Pakistan broke away from the West Pakistan in 1971, it was in opposition to the notion that all Muslim areas of former British India should unite in one state. The Awami League, which led the struggle for independence, grew out of the Bangla language movement and was based on Bengali nationalism. Thus the country started with a commitment to secular government.

So how is this changing and why? Hiranmay Karlekar, a distinguished Indian journalist who has covered Bangladesh for over four decades--including the 1971 war of independence--answers those questions well. The title is somewhat misleading, as he is not suggesting a Taliban-style takeover of power in Bangladesh; rather the country risks being used as a base for various indigenous and international terrorist groups because it is "a soft state with ineffective governance and an inefficient police force."

At the same time, Mr. Karlekar emphasizes that the vast majority of Bangladeshis remain moderate in their approach to religion and that the militants are a tiny minority in this country of approximately 141 million people. But there are reported to be over 50,000 Islamic extremists belonging to more than 40 militant groups who have received, or are receiving, military-style training in 50 camps all over Bangladesh. Moreover, in recent years a multitude of radical Islamic organizations have sprung up, funded by Islamic charities in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

The threat posed by these groups must be taken seriously. They are well-organized, as the synchronized bombings last August clearly demonstrated, and prepared to die for their beliefs, as shown in the November attacks. They are also connected to like-minded groups in the Middle East, Pakistan and Indonesia.

Mr. Karlekar first sets the problem in historical perspective, describing Bangladesh's political development from independence in 1971 to today's volatile situation. He argues that although the Islamic extremists pose a threat to the government and public security, they initially emerged as a result of the Awami League's enemies, who used religion as a tool to mobilize people against the league. A political Frankenstein was created which the authorities are now unable to control.

Because the extremists lack support from the population at large, violence is all the more important as an instrument of political action. On the other hand, Bangladesh's authorities have, at least until very recently, denied that there are any Islamic militants in the country. Foreign journalists who have written about the issue have been severely criticized, threatened, and in one case arrested and deported.

There is also an open question how much influence the militants wield over state authorities. Two fundamentalist parties, the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Islami Oikya Jote, are members of the four-party alliance, led by the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which won the 2001 general election. Jamaat has two ministers in the government while the smaller Islami Oikya Jote has representation only in the parliament. According to Mr. Karlekar, both parties have close ties to the more militant, underground groups, including those responsible for the latest spate of bomb attacks. The BNP is not a fundamentalist party, but, as the author points out, a section of it is close to the Jamaat, which thus can manipulate even the ruling party.

But to what extent are the extremists likely to succeed in turning Bangladesh into an Islamic state? Can Bangladesh, after all, become another Afghanistan? The Islamization of Bangladesh is real, but the country is also far more developed than Afghanistan, Mr. Karlekar argues, and it remains principally a moderate Muslim country with a significant degree of religious tolerance: "It has tasted democracy, has an organized system of political parties, and a vocal and assertive civil society supported by an active and secular intelligentsia ... [and] women play important roles in the country's political, intellectual, social and economic lives."

Nevertheless, there are disturbing signs, as Mr. Karlekar also points out, and those should be taken seriously. In the absence of adequate, state-funded education, madrassas, or Islamic schools, are mushrooming across Bangladesh. In 1999, there were 64,000 in the country, of which only 7,122 were run with government assistance. The rest are private, unregulated, more traditional, and, to quote Bangladeshi journalist Salahuddin Babar, produce young men who are "poorly equipped to enter mainstream life and professions [and] easily lured by motivated quarters who capitalize on religious sentiment to create fanatics, rather than modern Muslims."

At the same time, Bangladesh has become a very violent society. Most of the violence may be criminally and not religiously or politically motivated, but even that can play into the hands of the militants. In Afghanistan, "there was mismanagement everywhere," and the authorities "were either unwilling or unable to curb the rising tide of anarchy"--which led to a situation where the Taliban were seen as steadfast, principled and uncorrupted saviors.

But apart from the level of development there is also another very important difference between Bangladesh and pre-Taliban Afghanistan: Bangladesh is heavily dependent on foreign aid, and has to take into account the donor countries' wishes. Mr. Karlekar mentions as an example attacks in January 2005 on the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee and Grameen Bank, respected NGOs known for their contributions to rural developments. Islamic militants were behind those attacks, and Mr. Karlekar states that "it is widely believed that pressure from donor countries, particularly the United States and the European Union ... compelled Bangladesh's government to take tough measures."

Mr. Karlekar's book is extremely well documented, but at times it becomes annoyingly repetitive with constant and unnecessary references to what will be said in subsequent chapters. For someone who is not familiar with all the characters on the political scene in Bangladesh and other South Asian countries, it could also be bewildering. But it is a solid study which deserves to be read by a wide audience, even outside the subcontinent.

This article first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, December 2005

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