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    South Asia
     Apr 4, 2006
Engage Bangladesh before it is too late
By Swati Parashar

During his state visit to South Asia a month ago, US President George W Bush heaped praises on India and Pakistan, but he studiously ignored the other giant of the region, Bangladesh. This was an unfortunate oversight given the country's strategic importance as the world's third-largest Muslim nation and a buffer between the subcontinent and Southeast Asia.

An unstable Bangladesh would not only pose a serious threat to regional powers such as India and China but would contribute to



religious extremism and terrorist violence already on the increase. Bangladesh enters its 37th year of independence increasingly uneasy and concerned about its future, but with a leadership determined to fight religious militancy and terrorism.

The rise in Bangladesh of forces that advocate theocratic religious universalism and the creation of an Islamic state did not happen overnight, of course. The interplay between religion and politics in Bangladesh has a long history, and religion has always been susceptible to politicization.

The trend is not just pushed along by organized radical groups such as the Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami, Bangladesh (HuJI-B), which aim to replace the parliamentary democracy with an Islamic sharia state. The leading political parties, many foreign-linked charities and non-governmental organizations, and the external environment are all playing a significant role in promoting religious radicalism.

The two dominant political parties, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Awami League (AL), have both emphasized a religious identity at various points. Though the opposition AL has repeatedly accused the present BNP government, led by Begum Khalida Zia, of forging an unholy alliance with radical Islamic groups, even the AL, which once took pride in its secular identity, has accepted the importance of religion in Bangladesh.

The AL has readily adopted religious trappings and symbols for its political purposes. Its leader Sheikh Hasina, despite her strong secular legacy, has begun to carry prayer beads and wear a headscarf. Public meetings have included Islamic religious proclamations to woo an electorate that is becoming increasingly comfortable with its Islamic identity.

On the other hand, the BNP has always been drawn toward right-wing forces. The past five years of the BNP regime have witnessed increasing militant activities, including alleged targeted killings of opposition leaders, violence against religious minorities, and terrorist attacks against the personalities and institutions that oppose the creation of an Islamic state.

The BNP government, however, confounded some of its critics early last month when it arrested two dreaded militants, Siddikul Islam Bangla Bhai and Sheikh Abdur Rahman of the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). But its own political allies, such as the Islami Oikyo Jote and the Jamaat-e-Islami, continue to advocate an Islamic state.

Jamaat has two ministers in the present government, and some of its members have been linked to terrorist groups such as the JMB and the HuJI. The Jamaat also has a student wing, the Islamic Chhatra Shibir (ICS), to promote its radical ideas among the youth. The Islami Oikyo Jote (IOJ) is another political party with religious overtones. It has two seats in parliament and supports the BNP government even though, unlike the Jamaat, it does not enjoy ministerial status.

Among the radical militant groups, the JMB has been of particular concern. It gained prominence when it claimed responsibility for the August 17, 2005, bombings throughout Bangladesh. The JMB (Party of the Mujahideen), which avows establishing the rule of Islam through an armed struggle, was banned on February 23, 2005. The outfit opposes even the idea of democracy and calls for the government to be conducted under Islamic law.

Apart from the JMB, the other militant group that has acquired considerable notoriety is the HuJI-B. It works in alliance with with the HuJI-Pakistan, and its main aim is to establish the Islamic hukumat (government) in Bangladesh. It actively recruits madrassa (religious school) students and is believed to be working closely with sympathetic groups in Pakistan and Kashmir.

Bangladesh also serves as a logistical hub for transnational extremist groups such as the Arakan Rohingya National Organization (ARNO) and the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO). These are Myanmar Muslims who claim to be fighting for an autonomous Muslim region in Myanmar's Arakan state. Terrorist groups based in Pakistan and parts of Kashmir, such as the HuJI and the Lashkar-e-Toiba, have also set up operational bases in Bangladesh, and a number of jihadi terrorists have entered India via Bangladesh. Recent terrorist attacks in Delhi, Bangalore and Varanasi have all revealed Bangladesh as an important link in the Islamic terrorist network of South Asia.

The political parties and terrorist groups are aided by funds received from charities in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait in their bid to spread the message of radical Islam to the masses. Despite an embargo on releasing its funds because of alleged terror links, the Kuwait-based Revival of Islamic Heritage Society (RIHS) is said to be using bank accounts to run official work without the Bangladeshi government's knowledge. The RIHS has provided funds to several terrorist outfits, including the JMB.

With general elections due in Bangladesh next January, the international community needs to ensure that the country remains an example of participatory democracy in the Muslim world. Constructive engagement with Bangladesh by the regional and Western powers must be emphasized. As Bangladesh's immediate neighbor and an aspiring global power, India has a special role to play in this regard.

Thirty-six years is perhaps a short time in the life of a nation to resolve its identity issues, but it cannot be denied that Bangladesh is at a crossroads and must act before it is too late. Nationalism is like Proteus, the Greek sea god, who was able to take any shape he wished but changed only to prevent change. For Bangladesh, the challenge is to bring about change that is conducive to its growth and stability.

Swati Parashar is a visiting research analyst with the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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India looks east to Bangladesh
(Mar 22, '06)

Terror stalks India's progress (Jan 4, '06)

 
 



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