By Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury
Finally the State Minister for Law, Advocate Qamrul Islam in Bangladesh made an open statement expressing his government’s realization that some Islamists and radical clergies are trying to turn Bangladesh into another ‘Afghanistan’. He said, “Few 'fanatics' and 'religion-mongered' want to make the country 'an Afghanistan' by snatching away women rights”.
The minister further said, a group of fanatic clergies are conspiring to destabilize the country.
This statement came following an Islamist group's protest against the policy, which, they claimed, incorporates anti-Quranic provisions.
Islamic Law Enforcement Committee chief Mufti Fazlul Haque Amini, also chairman Islami Oikya Jote, has threatened to enforce a countrywide shutdown on April 4, 2011 unless the 'anti-Quranic provisions' are not revoked.
Since past couple of weeks, Islamists are on continuous protests in Bangladesh, which is led by pro-Taliban clergies like Mufti Fazlul Haque Amini and Moulana Rezaul Karim. Both the clergies are infamous for giving instigations to Jihad and anti-West as well as anti-Semitic activities.
Islamists are gaining strength in Bangladesh for past few years, as none of the government ever showed sincere attitude in combating such elements fearing reaction from the large number of followers and supporters of radical clergies like Mufti Fazlul Haque Amini or Moulana Rezaul Karim.
The rise of such forces that advocate theocratic religious universalism and the creation of an Islamic state did not happen overnight, of course. The interplay between religion and politics in Bangladesh has a long history, and religion has always been susceptible to politicization. The trend is not just pushed along by organized radical groups such as the Hizbut Tahrir, Hizbut Towhid and the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami, Bangladesh [HuJI-B], which aim to replace the parliamentary democracy with an Islamic Sharia state. The leading political parties, many foreign-linked charities and non-governmental organizations, and the external environment are all playing a significant role in promoting religious radicalism.
The two dominant political parties, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party [BNP] and the Bangladesh Awami League [AL], have both emphasized a religious identity at various points. Though the opposition AL has repeatedly accused BNP government, led by Begum Khalida Zia, of forging an unholy alliance with radical Islamic groups, even the AL, which once took pride in its secular identity, has accepted the importance of religion in Bangladesh. AL even formed alliance with Islamists during the general election in 1996, and even in the current government, it has formed alliance with Jatiyo Party, which is headed by former military dictator General Hussain Muhammed Ershad, whose political vision is very similar to those Islamist parties and fronts.
The current ruling party, Bangladesh Awami League has readily adopted religious trappings and symbols for its political purposes. Its leaders, despite her strong secular legacy, have begun to carry prayer beads and wear a headscarf of Islamic cap. Public meetings have included Islamic religious proclamations to woo an electorate that is becoming increasingly comfortable with its Islamic identity.
On the other hand, the BNP has always been drawn toward right-wing forces. During 2001-2006, the BNP governments have witnessed increasing militant activities, including alleged targeted killings of opposition leaders, violence against religious minorities, and terrorist attacks against the personalities and institutions that oppose the creation of an Islamic state.
Bangladesh also serves as a logistical hub for transnational extremist groups such as the Arakan Rohingya National Organization [ARNO] and the Rohingya Solidarity Organization [RSO]. These are Myanmar Muslims who claim to be fighting for an autonomous Muslim region in Myanmar's Arakan state. Terrorist groups based in Pakistan and parts of Kashmir, such as the HuJI and the Lashkar-e-Toiba, also managed to set up operational bases in Bangladesh, and a number of Jihadist terrorists entered India via Bangladesh. Attacks in Delhi, Bangalore and Varanasi have all revealed Bangladesh as an important link in the Islamic terrorist network of South Asia.
The political parties and terrorist groups are aided by funds received from charities in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait in their bid to spread the message of radical Islam to the masses. Despite an embargo on releasing its funds because of alleged terror links, the Kuwait-based Revival of Islamic Heritage Society [RIHS] was said to be using bank accounts to run official work without the Bangladeshi government's knowledge. The RIHS provided funds to several terrorist outfits.
On the other hand, a huge segment of terror fund to Islamists is channelized through madrassas [Koranic schools]. Since madrassas are educational institutions within the country, they are under the purview of the country’s educational ministry. While almost all funding for these institutions comes from private donors in Saudi Arabia, there is no statute against their regulation by proper national authorities.
Bangladesh has been a secular Muslim state since its independence from Pakistan and founding by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1971. While its short history has been full of military coup d’états, it has always returned to its roots as a secular democratic state. There are, however, troubling new signs of a shift towards a growing Islamism that could jeopardize the sanctity of secularism in the country.
Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury is the Editor and Publisher of the Weekly Blitz (www.weeklyblitz.net). He is a journalist, columnist, author and peace activist. He is the recipient of the PEN USA Freedom to Write Award 2005; AJC Moral Courage Award 2006; Key to the Englewood City, NJ, USA [Highest Honor] 2007; and Monaco Media Award, 2007 among others.