Islamists Set Sights on Bangladesh

By Dr. Richard L. Benkin

News coming out of Bangladesh should not hearten those people looking to frustrate Islamist designs in South Asia. In the wake of last month’s violence, Bangladeshi remain tied to their paroxysms of denial, ignoring significant moves by Islamists who are pursuing their goals with a monomaniacal dedication. During two days of rioting, beginning with textile workers, caused well over 100 casualties and perhaps a dozen fatalities.

Several factories were destroyed; many more temporarily put out of action. When police were unable to quell the disturbances, the government called out the paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles who did the trick. Foreigners relying on the Dhaka media for good information, however, found wildly varying reports, each written from the particular paper’s bias.

One, for instance, immediately took the workers’ side, stating flatly that their revolt was in response to factory owner oppression. On the other side, one daily headlined the property damage suffered by owners and only mentioned the casualties in passing. Newspapers loyal to the political opposition suggested that government inaction or design was the real culprit.

Pro-government writers cited the leftist opposition’s influence with labor. Then as the government gained control of the situation, a plethora of conspiracy theories came to dominate public discussion about the matter; and that was far more interesting not only for what they said but also for what they omitted.

Suspicions immediately fell on forces outside of the country, and fingers pointed at China and India, allegedly after a share of the international textile market at Bangladesh’s expense. Destruction, work stoppages, and concerns by foreign buyers about Bangladeshi reliability would force them to seek other sources. No less prominent a figure than Home Minister Lutfuzzaman Babar promoted that belief when he said, "It is a conspiracy by our competitors to destroy the garment sector in our country...We will protect our country as well as our industry at any cost." Other ministers echoed those sentiments.

That explanation, however, fails to hold up even after a little thought. To begin with, it could not have been lost on most people that foreign interests were the first to be targeted during the violence. India and China like all modern nation-states have a vested interest in maintaining the international system of commerce, diplomacy, and dispute resolution. As such, they do not benefit from an unstable Bangladesh. Both countries have become extremely successful players in that system and would suffer more than they would gain from upsetting it—which is exactly what an anarchic Bangladesh would do. It is not unlike the US-USSR conflict during the Cold War. As the decades passed, it became clear that while both sides had the ability to destroy the other, they each had too much at stake to risk losing what they had. Thus, there was a continuous inertia, punctuated only at times by action; and they never pulled the nuclear trigger. Today, however, there is another force whose hallmark has been upsetting that international system and threatening to use those weapons.

There were also the expected partisan political explanations. Some members of the opposition Awami League (AL) advanced what Americans call a “wag the dog” explanation that the government provoked the violence to distract people from problems they seem unable to resolve. The reference is to a tail wagging a dog instead of the other way around, and that things are not really as they seem. Elements loyal to the ruling Bangladesh National Party (BNP) pointed to AL silence in the face of the unrest and its failure to condemn the rioting workers.

But the political conspiracy theories also fail to convince. It is hardly in the interests of any elected government to preside over a nation plagued by violence. Any lingering doubts about that should have been put to rest when Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia returned home and did not take the opportunity to declare a state of emergency—another motive suggested by the opposition. And thus far, nothing more than speculation has been advanced to support an AL conspiracy. But the violence does cast enough doubt on both parties to benefit another force.

While the various theories fall apart in whom they identify as the culprits, they do yield important insight in refusing to accept the riots as a spontaneous uprising or an event that occurred without planning. Whether they point to India, China, the AL or BNP, Bangladeshis seem to agree with one official who, as reported in Weekly Blitz said, “A vested quarter at home and abroad planned the ransacking of garment industries to create an anarchic situation.” No one seems ready to say exactly which “vested quarter” with bases both in Bangladesh and abroad that might be; although all logic points to only one group: radical Islamists.

Friends of democracy should find the prognosis chilling. The Islamists have a significant advantage because they have a multi-national perspective. Most Bangladeshis, on the other hand, still to see the matter through protectionist lenses and continue their traditional India bashing. Their Al Qaeda cohorts have moved easily from their former strongholds in Afghanistan and Pakistan, across Kashmir and the mountainous India-China frontier in to Nepal; where Indian intelligence reports that they have been operating at least since late 2005. What makes that particular interesting is the fact that Nepal is 89 percent Hindu, with most of the rest of its people Buddhist. That hardly makes Nepal a candidate to be the next Islamist state. But Nepal brings Al Qaeda closer to their non-fictional Shagri La, the world’s third largest Muslim nation, Bangladesh.

Islamists have a track record of de-stabilizing places like Bangladesh. In Iran, extensive social unrest preceded the Islamist victory. Islamist elements destroyed the centuries-old power sharing arrangements that made Lebanon a model of a stable and successful bi-religious state and gave Beirut the moniker, “Paris of the Middle East.” There might be little international agreement how to solve the Middle East conflict, but there is near unanimity that the chaos in Gaza enabled Islamist Hamas to build its power base there. The Muslim Brotherhood has been behind de-stabilizing efforts in Egypt, Jordan, and elsewhere. And today Islamist Iran proudly exports terror, as does its Lebanese lapdog, Hizbullah. With bases moving ever closer to the Bangladeshi cauldron, Al Qaeda can add its mix of violence and religious intolerance to that stew.

There is a political component as well. Both major parties suffer from the recent unrest.
The AL remains identified with labor unions and leftist coalitions that participated in the rioting. Its silence during the violence further marks it as unwilling or unable to take a strong stand on behalf of Bangladeshi order. The violence hurts the BNP since it seems to reflect the ruling party’s inability to maintain the social order. But a third political force does gain when the two major parties are weakened.

Moreover, when social unrest prevails, a party promising a “new order” and claiming to be an untainted alternative can catch the attention of voters who might fail to focus on that party’s darker intentions. Weimar Germany’s collapse paved the way for Hitler and the Nazis, but one need not go back that far. The same thing happened earlier this year in the Palestinian Authority elections. Voters chose to ignore Hamas’s anti-peace platform, choosing instead to grasp at what they hoped was a lifeline to save them from a corrupt and chaotic regime. Now that Islamist platform has impoverished those voters.

Bangladeshi Islamists—and neither of the major parties—satisfy those who point to domestic and foreign elements conspiring together. They are also the only political force in Bangladesh with a history of initiating violence among the people in support of their political goals. They proclaimed last year’s terror bombings to be undertaken to implement Sharia as the law of the land. If social unrest and violence erupts periodically from now until the January elections—the bombings of 2005, the recent labor violence, and one or two more episodes before the voting—they might achieve that goal with a showing strong enough for them to demand the Law Ministry and rule that no law can be implemented unless it conforms to Sharia. Bangladeshi politicians continue alienating legitimate voters with their squabbling and point scoring over the upcoming elections. While they are, Islamists can stuff the ballot box in favor of their own candidates by sending their minions across the remote four-country frontier where Nepal and Bangladesh almost touch. It was a tactic that worked in Iraq and the Palestinian Authority; and one they are trying out in places like Azerbaijan to thwart the traditionally tolerant Islam there.

The Islamists who murdered Bangladeshi jurists and others throughout Bangladesh last fall promised that the violence would continue if it suited their objectives. History has shown that it is best to take them at their word. In country after country and now in Bangladesh, they have not scrupled about sacrificing innocent victims to advance their nefarious platform. Bangladeshis would do well to unite with their neighbors instead of pointing fingers at them, which plays right into Islamist hands. For only a multi-national approach, involving all the nations in the region, perhaps the United States as well, will defeat their quest for international domination.

- Asian Tribune -