EDITORIAL: Mainstream party warfare sustains extremist Islam in Bangladesh
Last Wednesday, 400 small explosive devices were set off across the length and breadth of Bangladesh, killing at least two people. The rightwing BNP (Bangladesh National Party) government of Begum Khaleda Zia then rounded up 100 suspects, but that didn’t stop the opposition Awami League (AL) of Hasina Wajed from calling a general strike on Saturday. What followed was the typical Bangladeshi scene: aggressive demonstrations with occasional violence in which the two parties which are engaged in a fierce competition became even more estranged from each other, neatly dividing the young nation down the middle.
The less said the better about the legendary vendetta of the two parties. The BNP ruled Bangladesh from 1991 to 1996; the AL ruled from 1996 to 2000. The BNP is currently in power. It has enforced crippling strikes against the AL government at least 60 times; the AL has enforced similar strikes against the BNP over 140 times. Another tragedy imposed from the outside is that the two parties are supposed to be separately backed by India and Pakistan; and the ISI and RAW are allegedly active in the country according to who is in power. As the 400 bombs went off, there were border skirmishes between Indian and Bangladeshi troops.
The Wednesday bombs have been claimed by the Jamaatul Mujahideen, whose leaflets were found near the explosions. But trying to make out who is who in the Islamic underworld in Bangladesh is a frustrating exercise. The BNP government had recently banned Jamaatul Mujahideen and another group, Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh, for carrying out a series of bomb blasts, including those at two local aid agencies — Grameen and BRAC. The Jamaatul Mujahideen stated: “It is time to implement Islamic law in Bangladesh” and “Bush and Blair be warned and get out of Muslim countries”.
Last year, there was a flurry of terrorist activity in Bangladesh, which unfortunately, Bangladeshi intellectuals of all stripes denied for reasons known only to themselves. Vigilante groups in the north and south of the country led by Afghan war returnee leaders went around imposing hijab and other Islamic rituals on the rural population, which is already much put upon by the local mullah and traditional elite offended by the women-related success of the Grameen Bank credit scheme.
Among those in denial of last year’s violence was the writer, Taj Hashmi, who wrote the well-received book Women and Tyranny and Islam in Bangladesh some years ago, reporting that after 1994, nearly 3,000 women were killed annually through fatwas by village clerics. According to him, in 1993 alone, 6,000 women had committed suicide after being trapped in fatwa situations. Like other intellectuals of the left, he had even then sought the cause of the country’s religious violence in the US- and World Bank-backed Grameen Bank Programme empowering women and not in the rising tide of extremist Islam. But when the BNP government cracked down on the “mujahideen” vigilante groups in north and south Bangladesh in February 2005 there were the usual allegations that the action was taken “under pressure from the US and the EU”!
The tide of Islamic violence is rising in Bangladesh and it is more lethal than anything we have known in Pakistan. One Mufti Fazlul Haq Amini, who wants complete shariah imposed on the country, sermonises at Dhaka’s Jamia Qurania-Arabiyya and is able to gather nearly 600,000 bicycle rickshaws around the mosque, blocking traffic for hours. He writes in Bangla and Arabic but also knows Urdu, which he learned at a seminary in Karachi during his days of jihad. His fatwas run into several volumes. Judging from the number of students he has in his Dhaka seminaries, he can be called Bangladesh’s equivalent of Pakistan’s Mufti Shamzai who was murdered in Karachi in 2004.
The two main parties hate each other somewhat like the PPP and the PMLN in Pakistan. The Jamaat-e-Islami, which agitated against independence in 1971 and remains close to Pakistan — and was banned after independence for its role in the war — has slowly worked its way back to political legitimacy thanks to the BNP. Since 2001, the Jamaat-e-Islami has been a crucial part of a governing coalition dominated by the BNP. In 2001, as Pakistan started outlawing militant jihadi organisations, Bangladesh began its tilt into tough Islam. The returning jihadis from Karachi in 2001 added the latest edge to the Islamic sweep in Bangladesh.
The dreaded Harkatul Jihad al-Islami (HUJI), whose leader Qari Saifullah Akhtar was arrested from Dubai for his involvement in the attempt to kill President Pervez Musharraf in 2003 and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz in 2004, has been active in Bangladesh since 1996, as part of a policy of regional jihad radiating from Kandahar under the patronage of Mullah Omar and Al Qaeda. Because of the impunity offered to HUJI by the Bangladesh state, other vigilante groups like Bangla Bhai in the north and Jangi Bhai took the field and created their own domains of power before they were arrested.
Six years ago when HUJI tried to kill a poet named Shamsur Rehman, the government had to clamp down on HUJI. Around 44 members of HUJI were arrested. Two men, a Pakistani and a South African, claimed they had been sent to Bangladesh by Osama Bin Laden with more than $300,000, which they distributed among 421 madrassas. The seminaries in Bangladesh, now numbering 64,000, have been receiving Saudi funds and stiffening their brand of Islam.
This year, under pressure from the EU and US, the BNP government cracked down on two HUJI camps not far from Chittagong. Dhaka’s Islamists responded by coming out in the capital city shouting slogans about transforming Bangladesh into the Afghanistan of the Taliban. Unlike President Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan, BNP leader Khaleda Zia denies the presence of terrorist Islamic organisations in Bangladesh, mainly because her country is not targeted by UN Security Council Resolution 1373 under Chapter Seven of the UN Charter. Unless some way can be found by the UN committee under Resolution 1373 to include punitive sanctions on Bangladesh, the BNP will use the Islamists to beat back its enemy party, the Awami League, whose leader Hasina Wajed was attacked this year and narrowly escaped death.
The Pakistani and Bangladeshi foreign secretaries who met on Saturday to, inter alia, discuss terrorism, did not obviously focus on the above detail, but the truth is there for the world to see. And unless the truth is faced squarely, it will keep on hurting the two countries. *