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Can Dhaka Learn from Istanbul?

Can Dhaka Learn from Istanbul?

Dr. Richard L. Benkin writes from USA


After a recent trip to Turkey, noted scholar of Islamic Studies Dr. Daniel Pipes, wrote an article in The New York Sun reviewing that country’s history and current situation.  The current Turkish government was established in 1923, on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.  It is civilian, democratic, and secular, and the military is the guarantor of all that.  Bangladesh’s current leaders would do well to consider how adapting the Turkish model to their nation.  Like the “Young Turks” of 1923, today’s leaders in Dhaka are coming in on the heels of a corrupt regime that plundered the nation and brought it to the brink of disaster.  Like the Turks, success requires that they make a clean break from a sad past.  And like the Turks, they face a skeptical international community.  Given the recent trend in world opinion towards Bangladesh, considering the Turkish option at this point could be critical in the government’s short and long term success internationally.

Consider:  The New York Times, which has almost ignored Bangladesh through most of its 36 year history, wrote a scathing editorial recently, calling the current government a “military dictatorship.”  Human Rights Watch and others have written to US and European officials charging mass arrests and rights curtailment in Dhaka.  Informed sources in Washington also report that the recent visit of Special Envoy Farook Sobhan to the US capital was not as rosy as reported in the press.  Officials raised these same issues, as well as the case of Weekly Blitz editor Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury.  And consider as well that during a brief exchange recently, one former Dhaka official repeated the allegations in New York Times.  No doubt, he is not alone among those Bangladeshis who now find themselves on the outside looking in.  Whether there is complete, partial, or no substance to the charges, they have become real and significant elements that threaten to shape Bangladesh’s international role, as well as the trade and aid its people so desperately need.

By the time Mustafa Kemal Ataturk led the reform movement, the Turkish nation was at its ebb.  It had chosen the wrong side in World War I and was only five years out from an almost laughable defeat.  It’s Middle Eastern and other possessions, which provided a sizeable number of jobs and graft, were gone, as were their actual and potential international markets.  The people were miserable, the leaders massively corrupt, and Turkey was an international basket case.  At best, it was an afterthought; at worst, a joke.  Many of those circumstances no doubt sound familiar to Bangladesh; and even while it has not lost any colonies, it has lost market share and stands to lose more.

But the current government of Bangladesh finds itself in a conundrum.  While one foreign diplomat told me frankly that the events of January “saved the nation,” many more quarters are questioning the credentials of the democratic and human rights credentials of the current government. This might seem odd considering the lack of such criticism under the previous regimes—when Bangladeshi religious minorities were decimated with impunity, journalists beaten and killed with the government’s tacit approval, the judiciary was used to silence journalists and dissidents, and an entire people was kept in poverty because a few thought it a better idea to line their own pockets with money that otherwise would feed hungry Bangladeshis.  The great eighteenth century social thinker, Alexis de Tocqueville, wrote that the most dangerous time for a government is when it begins to reform itself, the phenomenon that might be driving this.

While the attention might be unaccustomed or unwanted, it is a fact of life.  The best way for Bangladesh to be successful internationally and domestically is to manage and respond to it; recognize what is legitimate and what is not; and have a coherent plan for lifting the country from the shame of its recent past and uncertainty of its present.  And returning to Turkey helps provide answers.

The Turkish military intervened in Turkish politics three times toward the end of the twentieth century.  Moreover, unlike Bangladesh’s State of Emergency, which was carried out under provisions of the constitution, these interventions were out and out coups.  The civilian governments were unceremoniously tossed out and the military appointed new ones.  After the 1980 coup, there were massive arrests of suspected militants and others, including the two most recent prime ministers, Suleyman Demirel and Bulent Ecevit.  Some of the arrestees were executed, and many remained in jail long after their arrests.  The two prime ministers were eventually released, but when Ecevit started writing articles critical of the military government, he was re-arrested.  The military abolished the National Assembly and barred its members from politics for periods of up to ten years. Political parties were abolished and their assets liquidated by the state. The trade unions were purged and strikes banned.  Elections were not held until three years later.

Some of those events might sound familiar; some might sound significantly harsher than what is happening in Bangladesh.  But the fact is that even though Turkey came in for some harsh criticism, primarily from Europe, and that continent temporarily withheld its aid package to Turkey; when the crisis passed, Turkey was in as strong a position as it ever was.  Even though there are concerns about Turkish military intervention today, the country still has been invited to join the European Union.  But what of Bangladesh?  Even after the immediate crisis, even after elections are held, even after major questions about rights have been answered, what will be its international standing?  It is doubtful that the current regime longs for the international impression of Bangladesh that persisted prior to the events of January 11.  But what is the alternative?

Today’s Bangladesh, justifiably or not the subject of international criticism, offers the international community no coherent endgame.  Friends of Bangladesh worldwide believe that the military intervened only because things had deteriorated so badly that there was no hope for the people without a drastic break from the zero-sum politics and radical coalitions that were stymieing any movement out of an interminable morass.  That is also the near-unanimous opinion I heard on the streets of Dhaka in January.  And to be sure, despite the allegations, the government has begun on a hopeful note with its anti-corruption and anti-terrorist program.  But after that, what?  How can we expect that the old regime morass will not return?  That is where the Turkish model provides a solution.

The answer that model provides is that the nation is committed to maintaining a free and democratic society, which protects the rights of minorities and dissidents, and guarantees freedom of all religions while opposing the state’s official adoption of a religious doctrine.  And the nation agrees that should individual forces act to undermine those commitments, the military will protect the public from them.  At the same time, Bangladesh needs to be clear to the rest of the world about what role it can play in that larger arena.  There are many:  a bulwark against terrorism; a defender of all faiths; a productive contributor to world economies; and a unique resource that can unite the majority of Muslims—fundamentalist, practicing, and secular; Sufi and Ahmadiyya—with others in the fight against the terrorists who threaten us all.
Posted on 23 May 2007 by Root


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