BOOK REVIEW 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
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.
is the basic premise of Hiranmay Karlekar's book Bangladesh: The Next
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
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
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