Bangladesh is a remote South Asian country, about the size of Florida, bounded on three sides by India.
Since independence in 1971, acquired in a bloody civil war from the politically and militarily dominant western wing of Pakistan, Bangladesh has known only mounting adversities.
Geographically the country is an alluvial plain formed by the confluence of two major rivers, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra. Climatically it is a wash-basin of hurricanes sweeping north from the Bay of Bengal, and regular monsoon flooding from over-flowing rivers.
But if it is not watched and adequate preventive measures not taken, Bangladesh could well be the next Afghanistan in the making as a haven for Islamist jihadis.
The attempted assassination on August 21, 2004 of Sheikh Hasina, leader of parliamentary opposition and former prime minister of the country, is a cautionary tale of Muslim world’s second largest democracy after Indonesia precipitately edging towards a failed-state syndrome and predictable consequences witnessed elsewhere.
As a Muslim majority country – some 15 per cent of Bangladesh’s population of 130 million are Hindu – it staked out a position for secular democracy in a region plagued by religious fundamentalism. This was a result of language-based nationalist politics during the period when Bangladesh was the eastern wing of Pakistan, and it has survived this far under increasingly adverse conditions of poverty and the rising assault of Muslim fundamentalist politics.
The secular politics since 1971, however, has been a cycle of violence, military coups, and regularly staged civil disorder. The founding leaders of the country belonging to the Awami League, presently led by Sheikh Hasina, daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, were killed by military officers as were those military officers who then assumed power, most notably General Ziaur Rahman. The slain general’s wife, Khaleda Zia, is the ruling prime minister.
More than half of Bangladesh’s population live in abject poverty. The per capita income is less than a dollar per day. The political future is grim as a young and growing population finds itself squeezed between scarce agricultural land and living space, and an economy dependent substantively on international assistance.
Despite overwhelming socioeconomic problems, corruption and ineptness of political leaders, Bangladesh has somehow managed to put together the requirements of a relatively open society – a free press, an independent judiciary and a multi-party parliamentary democracy. This is not a mean achievement, though the system remains fragile and could be swept away in a violent tide of religious fanaticism.
Bengal is the eastern region of India partitioned in 1947 into East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, and West Bengal, a province in the Indian republic. In the larger complex of the Indian subcontinent, Bengal is exceptional. Richard M. Eaton in his very useful study, The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier 1204-1760 (University of California Press, 1993), observed that here "a majority of the indigenous population" adopted Islam, the religion of the ruling dynasties in Delhi. As a result Bengalis presently "comprise the second largest Muslim ethnic population in the world, after the Arabs."
But Bengal, now Bangladesh, is physically far removed from what historically might be identified as the core area of Islam, between the Nile and the Indus. Bengali, the language of the area, is distinctly different from the main cluster of languages spoken in the core area – Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Urdu – as are the people different ethnically and culturally. Consequently, Islam in Bengal acquired its own distinct flavor.
Islam in Bengal belongs to the "little tradition" of indigenous people and folklore as in Indonesia in contrast to the "high tradition," meaning the knowledge and practice of Islam based on scholarship of the classical period of Damascus-Baghdad caliphates. Islam arrived in Bengal in the 11th-12th century and was spread by itinerant religious preachers or practitioners of the mystical tradition within Islam known as Sufi.
The success of Islam in Bengal, as preached by Sufis, was in its assimilative capacity borrowing local non-Islamic traditions, myths and popular stories and investing them with new meaning. As Asim Roy has described in The Islamic Syncretistic Tradition in Bengal (Princeton University Press, 1983), here Islam was on the main tolerant, open and non-dogmatic.
Bengali Muslims and Hindus, despite their religious differences share a common cultural universe bonded by language. This aspect of linguistically shared values resurfaced after 1971, with Muslims of Bangladesh once again taking pride in their language and investing in their secular-oriented culture. The national anthem of Bangladesh is a song by Rabindranath Tagore. The Indian national anthem is also adopted from a poem of Tagore, and he is revered as the national poet of both countries which is a rare, if not unique, honor.
However, there has been an element of the Salafi-reformist movement in Bangladesh drawing upon influence of Wahhabism since the late 19th century. The proponents of this movement hold in disdain the popular folklore tradition of Islam as corrupting influences from Hinduism, and seek to impose their dogma-laden imitation of fundamentalist reform from the core area of the Muslim world.
Maulana Maudoodi’s Jamaat-i-Islami, the fundamentalist Islamist party of Pakistan, found a marginal base in Bangladesh society. During the period of popular uprising preceding the civil war of 1971, militias linked with the Jamaat such as "al-Badr" and "Razakar" and supported by the Pakistani army engaged in atrocities against unarmed civilians, primarily Hindus. Consequently, Muslim fundamentalists were discredited and isolated after 1971.
Yet over the past thirty years Muslim fundamentalism has made gains with support received from the Arab world. Petro-dollars have flowed into the country as funds for mosques and charities, and from incomes of Bangladeshi migrant workers in the Middle East.
The Tablighi-Jamaat, the largest Muslim organization for missionary work founded in pre-1947 India, began organizing an annual gathering for Muslims outside of Dhaka, the capital city. These annual meetings have now become the largest gathering, next to the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, of Muslims, local and foreign, and this traffic influences popular sentiments of the Bangladeshi people to tilt in the direction of fundamentalism.
The returning migrant workers are foot-soldiers of the contemporary Wahhabi influenced Islam. Saudi money through donations for building mosques and religious schools have penetrated deep into the country undermining the far more moderate, peaceful and Sufi-oriented tradition of Bengali Islam.
The urban secular middle class, small in numbers yet critically influential in shaping politics and culture of the country, has nothing in common on the surface with the thinking and practice of religious fundamentalism. But ideologically this class, and the secularist Awami League being its preferred political party, indulges in politics of the left – a mish-mash of anti-imperialism, socialism, nostalgic admiration of Maoist China and resentment of America that remain stuck in the world of nineteen-sixties, of the Vietnam war and China’s cultural revolution.
West Bengal interestingly is unique in being the only jurisdiction in the world freely and democratically electing a communist government. This province was also the seed-bed of Maoist insurgency which coincided with the 1971 war in Bangladesh. The borders here are porous, and local conditions in Bangladesh provide a fertile ground for contrary ideological trends of left-wing politics finding common grounds with Wahhabi influenced violent sectarianism of jihadis.
August 21 bombing of the rally Sheikh Hasina was addressing was not an isolated event. The casualty figures were 20 killed and over 200 wounded. Earlier in May the British High Commissioner to Bangladesh was wounded in a similar bomb attack in Sylhet, a town north of Dhaka, killing three. During the past six years there have been more than 20 such incidents with 158 deaths directly related to them.
In March 2000 President Bill Clinton visited Bangladesh as part of his tour of South Asia. This was a first visit to the country by an American president. But his planned field trip to a village outside of the capital to witness the effects of microcredit lending, an innovation of the Grameen Bank and its founder Mohammed Yunus that has now spread to other parts of the developing world, was canceled for security reasons. The inability of Bangladesh security forces to guarantee the safety of the visiting American president showed how great is the mounting threat of militant Muslim fundamentalists.
An insurgency led by Muslim fanatics with the aim of securing a portion of the country and declaring it as some sort of "liberated" Taliban-type society is not entirely improbable. Gun-running and arms smuggling into the country remain outside the capacity of local police and border guards to contain. The country sits precariously poised between a future without hope and anarchy, while politicians of all parties regularly call for general strikes to force their demands knowing fully well how destructive such irresponsible politics is for an impoverished economy.
Poverty and despair provide the ideal condition for jihadis, their propaganda masked as religious sermons, to push Bangladesh towards disorder and insurgency. If they succeed, the front for Islamist terror will take a huge leap forward and greatly complicate security in one of the world’s most densely populated regions.