Bangladesh: Creeping fanaticism

South Asia Citizen's Wire
Greater notice needs to be taken in the region of the creeping inroads being made by fanaticism in Bangladesh. Some recent developments there have an eerie resemblance to events in Pakistan.
On Friday, police in Dhaka thwarted a move by an organization called the Khatm-i-Nabuwat to march on an Ahmadi mosque.
The organization has been mounting pressure for the Ahmadi community to be declared as non-Muslim — a demand raised in Pakistan in the ’70s that was ultimately accepted by the then government of Mr Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

That decision was seen as marking a major victory for the religious parties, which have been increasing their influence in politics ever since, finding a great patron in Ziaul Haq in the post-Bhutto period. Something like that may be happening now in Bangladesh, where the government of Begum Khaleda Zia has a religious party, the Jamaat-i-Islami, as one of its coalition partners and, if not exactly appeasing extremism, feels politically inhibited in confronting it headlong. Many shadowy groups have emerged like the Jamaatul Mujahideen and the Harkatul Jihad that openly profess their faith in a militant form of Islam. The former was blamed for a startlingly synchronized wave of bomb attacks across Bangladesh in August and, last month, for deadlier suicide bombings that killed at least 10 people. There are other manifestations of revivalism — again paralleling similar trends in Pakistan — such as the patronization of madressahs and reports of ostensibly charitable organizations providing training to militants.

The problem governments in Muslim countries face, even where they might believe in pluralism, is that they are often afraid and unwilling to take actions that the orthodox would project as being anti-religion. Electoral compulsions take their own toll in terms of secular values, with liberal parties forced to make alliances with conservative forces. The principle of give them an inch and they will take an ell then comes into play: one concession leads to another. This has happened in Pakistan and may well be happening in Bangladesh (Indonesia in that part of the world is already coping with extremism). The chronic tussle between the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Awami League has driven both to shoddier compromises, and both have failed to formulate a coherent strategy to tackle economic, social and political issues that breed discontent and make it easier for fringe elements to gain support.

Friday’s frenzied demonstrations in Dhaka should be treated as a wake-up call by politicians in that country, although such advice coming from Pakistan will inevitably be seen as gratuitous in view of the unholy mess here. But Bangla society has a long tradition of tolerance and religious harmony, and it would be tragic for the entire region if this rich fabric steeped in cultural diversity was damaged. The slide towards an obscurantist religious point of view should be stoutly resisted. There are other anxieties: the rise of extremism in Bangladesh may create a backlash in West Bengal, which has a large Muslim population. Communist rule there has ensured harmonious inter-religious relations that could be disturbed if Hindu revivalist parties seek to take advantage of the situation. Everyone interested in the evolution of democratic politics in South Asia should be concerned at what is happening in large swathes of the region and lower down.

Editorial originally published in DAWN on December 25, 2005.