Bangladesh: Fertile Ground for Democracy or Extremism?

Policemen escort activists from the Bangladesh main opposion party Awami League

Policemen escort activists from the Bangladesh main opposion party Awami League during a nation-wide general strike last month in Dhaka. (Photo: Farjana K. Godhuly / AFP-Getty Images)

The Bangladeshis have much to be proud of. They achieved independence and a pluralistic state after a hard fought war. They took to the streets nearly twenty years later dissatisfied with military rule and stood united for democracy. Devastating annual floods covering a third of the country does not deter their commitment to entrenching democracy and promoting modernity. Lately Bangladesh has gained notoriety for the spread of Islamic extremism, but jihadis don’t spring from the ground like mushrooms.

In October 2001, the Bangladesh National Party (B.N.P.) in a four party alliance was voted into office by a large majority. The alliance included two hard line Muslim parties, the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Islamic Oikya Jote (I.O.J.). Since then, the existence and growth of a radical Islamist movement has been officially denied by the B.N.P. Bangladesh Finance and Planning Minister M. Saifur Rahman called the rise of extremists “a fake issue,” and “foul propaganda.” The denial went on for years.

Islamic extremists have spread their ideology, primarily among the disadvantaged poor, using over 700 mosques built across the country by the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society. In 2002, Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill said the society “had been stealing from widows and orphans to fund Al Qaeda terrorism.” The society’s funds were blocked in Afghanistan and Pakistan, among other nations, and O’Neill said, “These bad actors will now be pariahs in the civilized world.” But they were not pariahs in Bangladesh, where they operated with impunity in certain areas.

The January assassination of former finance minister Shah A.M.S. Kibria sparked turmoil in Bangladesh. A leader of the center-left opposition Awami League (A.L.), Kibria was murdered in a bomb blast.

In recent years there has been a spate of unchecked political violence. An August bombing of an A.L. rally killed twenty-one and injured hundreds. Jatras (village theaters) and cinema halls have been targets, as have secularists, moderates and Awami League party members. These crimes remain largely unsolved. Amnesty International noted, “The government has failed to investigate previous attacks with the rigor and determination they deserve.”

Apparently the assassination of Mr. Kibria finally got the attention of Bangladesh’s Western donors, who called an informal meeting to discuss the deteriorating rule of law and rise of terrorist activity in Bangladesh. Bangladeshi officials were pointedly not invited to attend several meetings. Reportedly, European Union officials considered cutting Bangladesh’s aid portion. Just as this meeting was about to convene, the Bangladeshi government took action against the terrorists, banning two Islamist groups and arresting several people.

Among those arrested was Dr. Muhammad Asadullah Al Galib, head of an Islamist militant group. Dr. Galib is a Rajshahi University Arabic teacher. His three associates taken into custody were all employed by either madrasas or colleges.

The banned groups, Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (J.M.J.B.) and Jamaatul Mujaheedin Bangladesh (J.M.B.), are said to be complicit in the series of bomb attacks and murders throughout Bangladesh. In a rather startling turn, the ban was not applied to Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (Huji), which has confirmed ties to Al Qaeda and the International Islamic Front. Terrorist mastermind Bangla Bhai is still at large.

While demonstrating the impact Western pressure may have, many observers see the ruling was late, halfhearted, and toothless. “Had the government been really sincere and not complacent about the rise of fanaticism and extremism, it would have acted long before instead of issuing a press note hours before the Washington meeting,” Parliamentary opposition leader Saber Hossain Chowdhury said.

Politics in Bangladesh has nearly halted, with the A.L. boycotting parliament, and many B.N.P. members not bothering to show up either. A series of A.L. sponsored hartals (nationwide strikes) has exhausted the population and damaged the economy.

Bangladesh is light-years ahead of some other nations in achieving representative government. The issues it faces today may be a telling indication of tomorrow’s concerns in other regions. The rise of extremism in Bangladesh is a cautionary tale of the dangers of a democracy in form more than substance and of social constructs that preclude democratic safeguards.

A government-controlled media, everywhere it exists, is an anti-democratic institution. Similarly, democracy is poisoned by an executive branch that wields influence in the judiciary or bureaucracy. An educational system that does not teach economically viable skills is a disservice to the nation. Corruption denies citizens of their equality and prevents achievement based social mobility. Fringe parties cannot be permitted to undermine the law, the political system, or the centrist consensus.

For their democracy to flourish and thrive, the Bangladeshi people need Western assistance in cutting off the external sources of terrorist funding, developing their export markets, protecting themselves from natural disasters, and growing their economy. Given this support, 140 million Bangladeshis can achieve their goal of a modern, pluralistic, self-sufficient state. Without it, militant Islamic groups will continue to find fertile ground in Bangladesh to the irritation of the West and the despair of the Bangladeshis themselves.

Jane Novak is an American political analyst and columnist.