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Extremism Threatens Bangladesh’s Tolerant Ways

Bangladesh was born out of a secular, nationalist movement that ultimately won independence from Pakistan in 1971. Bangladeshi Muslims are considered quite tolerant of other religious groups, according to Robert Hathaway, Director of the Asia program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars here in Washington. “Bangladesh has been historically a very moderate, secularized Islamic country and I think that is one of its great strengths. What is happening now is a matter of considerable concern to those of us who have looked to Bangladesh as an example that other Muslim majority countries might emulate.”

Human rights organizations say a growing tide of violence in recent years is threatening minorities in Bangladesh, including the one-hundred-thousand Ahmediyas -- a sect within Islam. Many Sunni Muslims regard the Ahmediyas as non-Muslims, because, unlike Sunnis, they do not believe that the Prophet Mohammed was the last Muslim prophet.

Last month, a report by the New York-based group, Human Rights Watch, criticized the Bangladeshi government for failing to end intensified violence and discrimination against Ahmediyas. Sam Zarifi, Deputy Director of the Human Rights Watch's Asia program, said “the scale of violence has been massive.” “Almost every other week there is an attack on an Ahmediya Mosque and threats against members of the group. In each of these cases, instead of stepping in to protect the minority community, the Bangladesh government has turned a blind eye to these problems. The Bangladeshi authorities have failed to prosecute any of the groups that have been engaged in anti-Ahmediya violence,” he said.

Human Rights Watch says that if the violence is not stopped by the government, it could spread -- threatening other minorities, including the country's nearly 20 million Hindus.

Shamsher Chowdhury, the Bangladeshi ambassador to the United States, says the report's findings exaggerate the problem. “This is a total misreading of the situation. The government has taken very strong measures to ensure the safety of all the groups in the country. The Ahmediyas can have their gatherings without any fear of attack. Police are doing everything needed to protect Ahmediyas as much as they do for any other citizen of the country.”

Ambassador Chowdhury points to the tradition of religious tolerance in his country and notes that none of the international terrorists arrested since the September, 2001 attacks have been Bangladeshi.

Some analysts say what is really happening in Bangladesh falls somewhere between these

Tensions between the two main political parties have spilled over into violence.
two assessments. Tariq Karim is a senior advisor at the Center for Institutional Reform and the Informal Sector at the University of Maryland and a former ambassador from Bangladesh. “Human Rights Watch and others are getting reports from a lot of minority group organizations and opposition organization. There is substance in these reports but there may be some element of things blown out of proportion. At the same time the government position of everything 'being alright' could be a reflection of denial and an attempt to play down because the government does not want to appear in a bad light.”

By nearly all measures, violence has increased in the country. The main victims have mostly been members of the minority communities and politicians. Many observers say bitter tensions between the country's two main political parties have contributed to the increase in violence in the past few years.

Bangladesh's fledgling democracy has become essentially a winner-takes-all contest at the polls. Members of the defeated parties are rarely included in the new government after the election, and as a result, they often look for ways to discredit and weaken the party in power. Sometimes those efforts lead to violence.

In the last year, scores of people have been killed in attacks by unknown assailants at opposition gatherings and public venues. In January a former finance minister was killed in a grenade attack. Last August, the main opposition leader narrowly survived a seperate grenade attack at a huge party rally in the capital Dhaka.

Publications such as the The New York Times Magazine and The Nation have issued stories including "The Next Islamic Revolution [in Bangladesh]?" and "The 'Talibanization' of Bangladesh." But Howard Schaeffer, Director at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University, says such characterizations are unfair and imply that Islamic extremism is far more advanced in Bangladesh. “I see the root problem of Bangladesh as a problem of governance. That is the inability of the democratically successive governments to lead the country properly and to curb the increasing violence, corruption and other problems the country faces.”

Mr. Schaeffer says the apparent inability of the secular government to improve the lives of the average Bangladeshi creates fertile ground for the growth of political Islam.

Since 1991, the country has held three mostly free and fair elections with high voter turnout. In the 2001 election, the secular country witnessed a change in the relationship between faith and politics. That year, two Islamist parties won seats on the coalition. The religious parties, now sharing power with the leading party, say they could do better if they were in charge.

But Human Rights Watch contends that these Islamist coalition members are using their influence to sow the seeds of communal dissent, that they are fanning hostilities -- for example against the Ahmediyas -- and generating an atmosphere of religious intolerance across the country. One Islamist leader expressed support for an Islamic revolution. The Islamist parties deny any ties to militant groups.

The U.S. government is concerned about the upsurge in violence. Last month a top U.S. diplomat visited Dhaka and said the country faces substantial challenges -- including corruption, political violence and the need to protect minority rights.

On a positive note, the U.S. State Department praised Bangladesh's cooperation with U.S. anti-terrorist efforts and its substantial contribution of troops to U.N. peacekeeping operations.

The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars' Robert Hathaway says Bangladesh's future lies in democracy and religious tolerance. “A much larger percentage of the religious community still practices this traditional moderation and tolerance -- and I would like to see that leadership step up and become even more vocal proponents of moderation.”

Mr. Hathaway and other scholars agree that Bangladesh has not reached a crisis point, but the current trends could jeopardize the country's tolerant way of life and its democratic institutions. Some observers worry that political deals with Islamist parties could play into their authoritarian agendas. Mr. Hathaway says the 2006 national election will be an important test of whether the country's two main political parties can end their bitter rivalry and, instead, work together for the interests of Bangladesh.