Religious terrorism and Bangladesh
M. Serajul Islam
Source: Daily Star
July 26, 2008
A Bangladeshi journalist working for a foreign radio station warned me recently against being complacent about Islamic fundamentalists in Bangladesh. I argued that despite its overwhelming Muslim population, Bangladesh has historically rejected political parties that have used Islam in elections. Jamaat-e-Islami, the best known among such parties, has never won even a handful of seats in elections, achieving the best of 14 seats in the 2001 elections as a result of its alliance with the BNP. I also argued that despite being predominantly Muslim, Bangladesh is the most liberal South Asian country where Islam has been influenced by Sufism with the least incidence of communal violence that are so endemic in other parts of this sub-continent.
Its liberal traditions notwithstanding, the two mainstream political parties earned for Bangladesh the label of a country that supports Islamic terrorism during the last BNP term. The BNP played the major part by allowing Jamaat-e-Islami indulgence to put a terrorist infrastructure in place as a payback for its votes that helped it win a 2/3 majority in the 2001 elections. The Jamaatul Muhahadeen Bangladesh (JMB) terrorists, who earned the maximum notoriety, was nurtured by BNP top leadership to help its leaders in northern Bangladesh win territorial control over the extreme leftist elements there and also to please Jamaat-e-Islami. The Awami League did its part by publicising abroad this evil nexus, labeling Bangladesh as Taliban that countries and interested groups abroad used to identify Bangladesh as a supporter of Islamic terrorism. The Indian media also played a role in projecting Bangladesh in a bad light, identifying it as a “locus of Islamic terrorism”.
The former US Ambassador Harry Thomas had spared no efforts to warn the Government about the growing Frankenstein. India watched developments with understandable concern and conveyed these to Secretary of State Condalizza Rice on her visit to New Delhi in March 2005. Rice told the press during the visit that Bangladesh could become the next Afghanistan and that India and USA would look after Bangladesh. The BNP Government remained unmoved and termed the concern over the Islamic fundamentalist forces as “media hype”. Encouraged, these forces carried out nearly 500 simultaneous bomb blasts all over the country in August, 2005 that proved that these terrorists had a terrorist infrastructure in place and had also infiltrated the country's intelligence although the blasts caused little damage and just two deaths. Khaleda Zia cut short an official visit to China and returned home but did little to contain these forces except issue arrest warrants against leading JMB terrorists that were not pursued seriously.
The BNP finally acted only after the US Assistant Secretary Christina Rocco visited Dhaka in January 2006 and delivered a harsh ultimatum to the Government to rein in the JMB terrorists. Within weeks, Sheikh Abdur Rahman and Bangla Bhai with 4 others were incarcerated in a make believe manner that left little doubt that they had escaped being arrested earlier due to state sponsorship. In jail, these JMB terrorists were treated as VIPs, leading to speculation that they would be released at an appropriate time. The politics of the country then slipped into anarchy, leading to 1/11 when fate intervened. The JMB terrorists were executed by the Caretaker Government after due legal process but no act of revenge followed that went to prove that AL accusations and Indian media reports that Bangladesh was infested with Al Qaeda and Islamic terrorists was exaggerated and largely untrue. During this period, United States also did not find any evidence that Bangladeshi Islamic fundamentalist parties had Al Qaeda connections. Their concern was to contain the Islamic terrorism at home that was growing due to BNP Government's sponsorship.
Islamic terrorism has become benign with the fall of the BNP Government at a time when internationally Islamic terrorist groups are weakening. Newsweek in its June 9th edition under the caption “New Face of Islam” writes that within the Islamic world, a critique of radicalism is growing. Moderate Islamic scholars who were silent before and after 9/11 are now beginning to speak out against Islamic terrorism. Clerics who had supported Bin Laden are now distancing themselves from him. Countries that have tolerated Islamic radicalism like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are now encouraging moderation. In Saudi Arabia, 10,000 Government paid imams have been asked by King Abdullah to restrain their zealous excesses. A new realisation is now afloat in the Islamic world that the “apocalyptic notion of holy war” that Laden had promoted contradicts the fundamental message of Islam, which is peace. Al Qaeda is now on the run in Iraq, its haven after US invasion of Afghanistan, where the US forces are winning. As a result of worldwide hunt, Al Qaeda is no longer in any position to encourage international terrorism as its finances and infrastructure have been considerably weakened.
These positive developments offer Bangladesh a great opportunity to re-establish its liberal traditions. The mainstream parties have the most critical role to play. The BNP must not repeat its past mistakes and must rein in Jamaat, with whom it is again very likely to form election alliance. It should also not allow Jamaat to nominate anyone for the next general elections with blood on its hands for its role in 1971, knowing how much the people detest the war criminals. The AL must fight Islamic radicalism in the country politically and refrain from giving the international media wrong impression about Bangladesh by talking of our internal politics abroad as it did during the BNP era. It must also be consistent in dealing with Islamic fundamentalist forces. It has not fully explained to the people its election alliance with Khelafat-e-Majlish, a fundamentalist Islamic party that supports the fatwa, just before the postponed 2007 elections as well as its alliance during the first BNP term with the Jamaat to force the BNP out of power. It also needs to explain why during its tenure it did not deal with the war criminals.
The role of the civil societies and sector commanders of our liberation forces is critical here. Those who committed war crimes in 1971 should be tried under law as murderers and rapists, remembering that there is no statute of limitation here.
Those in Jamaat-e-Islami who are war criminals must be brought under the law. Jamaat's opposition to Bangladesh's independence is a political issue and must be dealt politically. Unfortunately, in pursuing the war criminals, these groups have called for banning Jamaat as a political party, only indirectly labeling it as a party of war criminals. They have also used the secularism card in seeking to ban Jamaat because of its belief in Islam, claiming secularism as fundamental to our statehood. In doing so, they have overlooked that democracy gives all political parties the right to address their beliefs to the people directly who as sovereign authority accept or reject them.
They have also insensitively set aside the importance of Islam as a way of life both in literal and spiritual sense to majority of Bangladeshis. Furthermore, the belief in Islam that helps people retain mental sanity in the face of extreme poverty and unbearable natural and manmade calamities that they face regularly has also been over-looked. Islam based parties, particularly Jamaat, may thus be getting the benefit of over-kill with the secular card because a lot of people feel that those attacking the Jamaat are also targeting Islam.
Sadly, the detested war criminals may also be getting the reprieve by moves to ban Islam based parties from politics. The fact that the groups seeking to ban Jamaat are also supporters of the Awami League is also taking the wind out of the sail for trial of the war criminals with which few people differ. Just as the West has made the mistake of putting Islam in the dock, because of Al Qaeda, those seeking trial of war criminals have similarly erred by bringing Islam into the equation. This could eventually lead to sympathy for Islamic parties arising from the perception that Islam is in peril. For tackling Islamic fundamentalism, these groups must therefore ensure that they do not put Islam and secularism in conflict for there is no reason to do so. Because of Bangladesh's liberal traditions and that in case of a conflict, Islam is going to get the majority nod over secularism.
History, internal politics and recent developments in the Islamic world do not therefore place Bangladesh in imminent danger of a takeover by fundamentalist Islamic forces. These notwithstanding, the next elected Government must bear in mind that there are 9000 Government registered madrasas and 15,000 Qawami madrasas and Islamic fundamentalist parties like Jagrato Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB), Shahadat-e-al-Hikma, Al-Harakat-ul-Islamia, Harkat-ul-Jehad Islami and Al-Khidmat. These institutions and parties would need strict surveillance by the intelligence agencies to keep them on track which should not be difficult if the next Government is sincere about it.
Whether Bangladesh becomes a haven for international Islamic terrorists and whether Islamic fundamentalism plagues our politics will thus depend largely on the mainstream political parties and the civil societies. The Islamic parties by themselves have the ability to cause disturbances but little possibility of doing much more. It is time that the mainstream parties and the civil societies work together in the interest of the nation and ensure our liberal Islamic heritage. There is no reason for complacency about Islamic terrorism in Bangladesh but no reason to cry wolf either.
The author is former Bangladesh Ambassador and Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.