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     Jun 24, 2006
The Talibanization of Bangladesh
Bangladesh: The Next Afghanistan? by Hiranmay Karlekar

Reviewed by Sudha Ramachandran

Four hundred low-intensity bombs exploded across Bangladesh on August 17, 2005, resulting in two people killed and more than 100 seriously injured. The blasts, though not powerful, were well coordinated, signaling that those who masterminded them had a network to carry them out. Leaflets calling for the establishment of Islamic law in the country were found at the sites of the blasts.

The serial blasts were not Bangladesh's first brush with terrorism. In August 2004, a bomb blast at a rally being addressed by Sheikh Hasina Wajed, former prime minister and leader of the secular, center-left Awami League, killed 21 people and injured

hundreds. Besides, there have been innumerable other attacks on religious minorities and secular intellectuals by Islamic fundamentalist outfits.

The growing frequency of such attacks is triggering concern not only that Bangladesh is vulnerable to violence by Islamic fundamentalists but also that it is emerging as another Afghanistan, ie as a base from which terrorists can plan and carry out attacks elsewhere.

This is the basic premise of Hiranmay Karlekar's book Bangladesh: The Next Afghanistan?

Linguistic nationalism, not religious nationalism, resulted in the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. The collaboration of fundamentalist parties such as the Jamaat-e-Islami with Pakistan had in fact led to a fall in their stature in the eyes of the people. Yet within a few years of its creation, the forces of religious fundamentalism had gathered steam again.

Bangladesh's descent to fundamentalism is captured in rich detail by Karlekar. He provides a vivid analysis of how successive governments that followed the assassination of Bangladesh's founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rehman in 1975 strengthened the fundamentalists and systematically undermined the secular constitution of the country. The fundamentalists who had collaborated with Pakistan during the 1971 liberation war were rehabilitated and both General Ziaur Rahman (president 1977-81) and General Hossain M Ershad (dictator 1982-90) courted the fundamentalists for political support and allowed them to entrench themselves in the system again.

But civilian governments too have allowed the fundamentalists a free rein.

General elections in 2001 provided an even more favorable environment for the growth of extremist outfits. A coalition government led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and including two Islamic fundamentalist parties - the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Islamic Oikya Jote (IOJ) - came to power in that election. And it is under the patronage of this government that Islamist extremist outfits have proliferated and such organizations as the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI) and the Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB) have been able to operate with impunity.

Given the limited electoral support the fundamentalists enjoy the Jamaat won only 18 and the IOJ only two of the 300 seats in 2001 - it does seem inconceivable that they can ever win a majority to form a government that can Talibanize the country. But they don't have to capture power to take hold of government and run it into a second Afghanistan, the author argues. "All they need is a government that can bend to do their bidding." This they have in the BNP-led government.

The book examines Bangladesh's potential as a base for terrorists. The author points out that Bangladesh is a soft state with poor governance; its police force is ineffective and easily influenced by such outfits as the Jamaat-e-Islami and the extremist HUJI. Bangladesh's geostrategic location, too, makes it an ideal base from which terrorists could direct operations in countries as far apart as Spain and Indonesia. Besides, its porous border with India facilitates militants slipping in and out of the country.

The objective of Bangladesh's fundamentalist outfits is the destruction of the country's secular parliamentary democracy and the establishment of an Islamic state. Will they use violence to achieve their objective? On its website, the Jamaat claims that it is "devoted to peaceful and upright means of struggle". The author points out that its role in the 1971 war tells a different story. The Jamaat not only opposed the liberation war but also participated in the savage atrocities and slaughter of secular intellectuals and activists unleashed by the Pakistani troops. He draws attention to a recent report that provides the Jamaat's blueprint for capturing power. In this report the Jamaat states that if it cannot come to power through "normal means" it will do so through armed struggle.

The book details the ideology and activities of the Jamaat, the HUJI and the JMJB. It draws parallels between these outfits and the Taliban. The Jamaat says it "fully supports what Taliban did and given a chance would like to do the same in Bangladesh". The kind of Islam the JMJB espouses is quite like that of the Taliban. In Bangladesh, the JMJB has insisted on women wearing burqas and men keeping beards. It is opposed to singing and dancing and many of its attacks have targeted those who violate its diktats.

So is Bangladesh another Afghanistan? The author draws attention to important differences between the two. He compares Bangladesh with Afghanistan under Taliban rule and concludes that the former is far more developed, has an organized system of political parties, has tasted democracy and has a vocal and assertive civil society. It is a moderate Muslim country with a significant level of religious tolerance, and women play an important role in the country's political, economic, social and cultural arenas. So while the Islamization of Bangladesh is real, the country is not on the brink of being Talibanized.

An interesting issue that Karlekar draws attention to is the financing of terrorism. Besides funds from Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf monarchies, the fundamentalist outfits get money from their investments and enterprises. The author cites a lecture delivered by Abdul Barkat, professor of economics at Dhaka University, which claimed that enterprises run by fundamentalist Islamists in Bangladesh make a yearly profit of 12 billion taka (US$180 million). About 10% of this amount is spent on providing salaries and training, and it enables them to maintain about 500,000 cadres. The fundamentalist sector of the economy averaged an annual growth rate of 7.5-9 % compared with the 4.5-5% of the mainstream, national sector.

Bangladesh: The Next Afghanistan? is a useful addition to literature on Bangladesh, especially on issues of fundamentalism and extremism in the country. It is well argued and backed up with evidence and examples. However, the repetition of facts and excessive listing of names are likely to confuse the reader.

An important flaw of the book is that it ignores the military and the extent to which it has been infiltrated by extremist thinking. The author does explore the support extended to fundamentalists by military regimes, but he is silent on where the armed forces stand with regard to the jihadist and pro-Taliban outfits mushrooming in the country. He ignores the possibility of an army officer with a Talibanized outlook staging a coup, a prospect that might not be imminent but is not improbable.

Bangladesh: The Next Afghanistan? by Hiranmay Karlekar. New Delhi: Sage, January 2006. ISBN: 0-7619-3401-4. Price US$26.99, 311 pages.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.

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