Dhaka in Decline


November 16, 2007

In September, Arifur Rahman, a cartoonist for a leading Bengali newspaper in Dhaka, was sacked, arrested and jailed for a month. His offense? He published a cartoon featuring a joke about the Prophet Mohammed. Readers who remember last year's Danish cartoon scandal may be forgiven for thinking that such a cartoon was bound to cause offense in a predominantly Muslim country.

Yet such an impression would be unwarranted -- Bangladesh wasn't always so intolerant. Until recently, Bangladesh had a tradition of cultural and religious pluralism; a feisty and irreverent press; and an iconoclastic intellectual and literary tradition. No more. Since a military-backed government took power in January, these institutions have been systematically squeezed, leading to creeping Islamicization -- a worrying trend in a country of nearly 150 million.

The irony is that Bangladesh's intellectuals welcomed the coup. Squabbling between the leaders of the two major political parties, the Awami League's Sheikh Hasina Wajed and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party's Begum Khaleda Zia, led to the postponement of elections for 18 months and the declaration of a state of emergency by a caretaker government. These moves were a clear violation of constitutional provisions, which call for elections to be held within 90 days of the expiry of a government's term. Yet the elites hoped the newly installed technocrats might tackle the country's economic and social pressures.

Instead, the caretaker regime, with the backing of the army, has proven to be no less arbitrary and callous than its predecessors. Headed by Fakhruddin Ahmed, the few checks that once existed on its actions have been effectively removed. An Emergency Powers Ordinance was passed, giving the state the right to set up special courts designed to try anyone under the terms of the state of emergency.

The regime then moved quickly to cripple the two major political parties. First, Ms. Hasina was arrested on extortion charges; then Ms. Zia, on corruption charges. Their families and key political supporters have also been jailed. Even the normally assertive press has been cowed. The caretaker government says national elections will be held at the end of next year, but there are no guarantees.

Meanwhile, the signs of creeping Islamicization in Bangladesh are widespread. In April, attacks on Bengali new year celebrations by a militant Islamist group, Jam'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh, dampened what is usually a vibrant, shared cultural tradition between Muslims and Hindus. Nongovernmental organizations that promote women's rights, based in cities near Dhaka, have been bombed. And one of the principal Islamist parties, Jamaat-i-Islami, declared earlier this year that it seeks to establish a Sharia-based state by overthrowing the existing order.

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The potential for an Islamist government has always been present in Bangladesh. Since the country's uncertain transition to democracy in 1990, the presence of a loyal opposition, a sturdy respect for minority rights and opinions, an independent judiciary and a robust civil society have been slipping away. The recent political vacuum has only accelerated this trend.

This is partly due to the abject failure of a series of Bangladeshi regimes, both civilian and military, to provide the most basic services such as health care, primary education, housing and sanitation while systematically enriching themselves and their acolytes. These failures enabled religious zealots to make headway into the political arena by promising change.

As they gained power, the two major political parties -- especially the BNP -- started to rely on religious fanatics and their ability to organize street protests and shows of force to bolster their own electoral fortunes. In the last BNP-led regime, Jamaat-i-Islami was part of the ruling coalition. Even the nominally secular Awami League, fearing a loss of electoral support, started to nod and wink toward the activities of these religious fanatics.

Foreign governments played a role, too. In recent years, the mullahs have benefited significantly from both Pakistani and, more importantly, Wahhabi Saudi largesse. Pakistani regimes have sought to make inroads into Bangladesh largely as a means to exploit existing political turmoil in India's northeastern states, which abut Bangladesh. The Saudis, on the other hand, have been willing to promote their ideological proclivities as part of their overall strategy to boost the appeal of Wahhabi Islam.

Today, the military-backed government under Mr. Ahmed seems powerless to stop these trends. Minorities, especially the steadily dwindling Hindu population, are increasingly under assault from Muslim religious zealots. In January, Muslim zealots set fire to some 10 Hindu residences in the town of Hahibgugj, leaving more than 150 people homeless. In late June, a Christian community in Nilphamari district also incurred the wrath of local Islamists and were beaten with wooden clubs. Even small, heterodox Muslim communities such as the Ahmadiyyas are now treated as virtual apostates. Their mosques are periodically attacked.

The caretaker government hasn't commented much on these attacks, perhaps because the political influence of the Jamaat remains considerable. Jamaat leaders, for example, are allowed to travel abroad -- while members of other parties are not. Also, while the government has dealt with normal student activists and agitators with a firm hand, it granted considerable leeway to the activists of the Hizbut Tahrir, a radical Islamist organization with transnational links, during the agitation surrounding the recent cartoon controversy.

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Bangladesh's relatively small economic impact on the global economy, its widespread poverty and its lack of any immediate strategic significance explains the paucity of attention that the United States and most Western powers have paid to its political future.

Such neglect, however, is exceedingly myopic. Bangladesh is home to over 100 million Muslims and abuts India, and the situation cries out for greater attention. Humanitarian concerns alone should justify increased focus on this country. Allowing Bangladesh to become a haven of Islamic extremism is not in America's or the world's interest. The time to try to rescue the country from a pathway to perdition is at hand.

Mr. Ganguly is a professor of political science and the director of research at the Center on American and Global Security at Indiana University.
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