[Cross-posted in the Guardian’s ‘Comment Is Free’ section here.]
Two weeks ago, the Generals in control of Bangladesh were on the cusp on completing their coup through the ‘democracy minus-two’ plan, with the imminent exile of both previous Prime Ministers, Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina. This attempt to end their dynastic and allegedly hugely corrupt control over the country spectacularly backfired however, with the former leaders popular again, whilst the military-backed interim government has lost a huge amount of both international and domestic support and legitimacy. Then on Tuesday May 1st, three small bombs exploded in the three major cities, planted by ‘Jadid Al-Qaeda’. Political power and the responsibility that comes with it must now look far less attractive.
Before the electoral crisis erupted at the end of October last year, the rise of Islamic extremism in Bangladesh was raising the most international concern. Tuesday’s attacks have now reminded everyone that regardless of the current political posturing, outside of that arena another long-term threat to Bangladesh and the region is fermenting, and the people behind it have less interest in gaining power through the ballot box. The proliferation of jihadist groups willing to resort to terrorism must be addressed as soon as possible by
Bangladesh’s eventual democratic government.
The last government tried to deny the presence of extremists until on August 17th 2005 the simultaneous detonation of over 400 bombs across Bangladesh shattered that illusion. The current regime has recently executed six leaders of the biggest militant organisation, Jama’at ul-Mujahedeen Bangladesh (JMB), but within two weeks the prosecutor of that case was killed in retaliation, and it is estimated that over 50,000 extremists are still active across the country, belonging to more than 40 groups. For example, Hizb ut-Tahrir, with a large base in
Britain, recently had 22 of their activists arrested in Dhaka.
The necessity of a democratic government confronting this threat is crucial. Over the last few years the intensely polarised and hostile political atmosphere has squeezed out space for any moderate and secular politics to function, and the leading Bangladesh Nationalist Party used an alliance with two Islamic parties to narrowly win the 2001 election, the Islamist’s 4% of the vote making the vital difference. Whilst these two parties have never been involved with terrorist attacks, they are believed to have connections to the militant underground, and their critical position in Bangladesh’s government has given radicals a strong voice and electorally disproportionate influence in what was originally created in 1971 as a secular country, formed in direct response against rule on the basis of religious national identity.
The military coup in 1975 began the restoration of Islam in
Bangladesh’s constitution, and in Bangladesh, as in Pakistan, military rulers have consistently allied themselves with the clerics to attempt to both pacify the people and legitimate their power. The New York Times recently noted that military regimes often magnify the political influence of religious extremists, as when there is no democratic platform for debate, the sound of violence gets heard above all else.
Bangladesh is increasingly being seen as a regional locus where can militants consolidate and expand. The poverty, deprivation and isolation of 100 million people living in rural areas makes for an ideal environment, and the previously corrupt and chaotic political elite offered little hope for Bangladesh’s social development. The execution of the JMB leadership was not enough, as Tuesday’s bombings demonstrate. The ‘Jadid Al-Qaeda Bangladesh’ have strong links to the JMB, were seeking publicity and protesting against the presence of NGOs and Bangladesh’s much persecuted Ahmadiya sect, but what they have really demonstrated is that it is it is even more important that democracy is restored in Bangladesh as soon as possible.
After the failure of their exile attempts and subsequent loss of credibility, the Generals have reportedly been looking for an ‘exit strategy’. This is simple: deliver a free and fare election, which was the basis of your seizing control. End the ban on politics, immediately. Although Khaleda Zia, Sheikh Hasina and others were allowed to make the obligatory statements condemning terrorism, this is not enough; it is only through the emergence of a broader political space where open and civil debates can be held so the true issues that affect Bangladesh can seize the agenda.
Currently the military regime and consequent suspension of fundamental human rights and freedoms can only benefit the cause of Islamic extremists. To combat these groups from a non-democratic standpoint is truly to fight with one hand tied behind your back. And no-one with an interest in Bangladesh or an interest in freedom can want that.