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A cocoon of Terror

Rising fundamentalism and religious intolerance are threatening secularism and moderate Islam. The implications for the region and beyond are grave, but it's not too late for a counter-revolution

By Bertil Lintner / DHAKA

A REVOLUTION IS TAKING PLACE in Bangladesh that threatens trouble for the region and beyond if left unchallenged. Islamic fundamentalism, religious intolerance, militant Muslim groups with links to international terrorist groups, a powerful military with ties to the militants, the mushrooming of Islamic schools churning out radical students, middle-class apathy, poverty and lawlessness-all are combining to transform the nation.

Sounds familiar? Just like Pakistan, its former overlord, this nation of 130 million people-the third-most populous in the Muslim world-is slowly moving away from its tradition of moderate Islam. And the government seems powerless and unwilling to stem the tide, which includes growing attacks on moderate Muslims and the dwindling Hindu population.

The instability has caused concern overseas among the country's donors, who decided during an annual meeting in Paris in March to tie future development aid to an improvement in the deteriorating law-and-order situation. But the United States and its allies seem to have paid scant attention to the deeper long-term danger as they expand the war on terrorism from Central Asia to Southeast Asia.

"There are some extremists here, but they belong to fringe groups and are not part of the mainstream," says a senior Western envoy in Dhaka, trying to downplay the threat.

The country's two leading parties the secular, left-leaning Awami League and the conservative Bangladesh Nationalist Party-were quick to condemn the September 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S., which left a number of Bangladeshis dead. At a time when the country was being ruled by an interim government ahead of a general election in October, both offered cooperation, including the use of Bangladesh airspace for U.S. warplanes.

But, in a sign of how the tide is changing, the winning B.N.P.'s electoral alliance included the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami, which won 17 seats in the 300 member parliament. The Jamaat, which actively opposed independence from Pakistan in 1971, now has a voice in government for the first time.

Its leader, Matiur Rahman Nizami, was appointed agriculture minister, while MP Ali Ahsan Mohammad got the social welfare portfolio. "In a developing, mainly agricultural country like Bangladesh, these are powerful positions," says another Western diplomat in the capital, Dhaka.

The party, at least for the time being, has toned down its calls for rigorous implementation of Islamic law and put the focus on alleviating poverty. However, it clearly opposes the U.S. war on terrorism and in October launched a fund to help the "innocent victims of America's war." It stopped asking for offers when the radical Taliban were kicked out of power in Afghanistan in November.

Guns and religion form a recipe for trouble. And there are plenty of guns and plenty of religious zealots in this lawless corner of southeast Bangladesh.

The coastal area stretching from the port city of Chittagong south through Cox's Bazar to the Burmese border is a notorious centre for piracy, smuggling, armsdealing and gun-running. It is also a stronghold of the fundamentalist Jamaat-eIslami, its youth wing Islami Chhatra Shibir and other more extreme Muslim groups. These include the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, which was set up with funds from Osama bin Laden and whose leader, Maulana Sheikh Farid, comes from Chittagong.

The border area is also home to more than 100,000 Muslim refugees and migrants from Burma's Arakan state. Known as Rohingyas, they are blamed by some for the proliferation of arms and crime in the area. They are also accused of having links with Islamic extremists both within and outside Bangladesh. "These are pure fabrications to discredit us," says Nurul Islam, head of the Arakan Rohingya National Organization.

Most of the weaponry passing through here originates in Cambodia and arrives from southern Thailand on the kind of highspeed, wooden-hulled boats that clog the cyclone shelter in Cox's Bazar, Asian and Western intelligence sources say.

The guns have traditionally served local criminals or gone to ethnic insurgents in India's northeast. But there are growing signs that they are being used for politically and religiously motivated violence in Bangladesh. Some analysts link this phenomena to the increasing influence of Islamic fundamentalism and a rise in religious intolerance in the country and they fear the situation could worsen as more militants obtain weapons.

For example, in November last year four assassins shot dead Gopal Krishna Muhuri, 60, a leading secular humanist and principal of Chittagong's Nazirhat College, after posing as policemen to gain entrance to his home. Locals and associates of the dead man claim the gunmen belonged to a gang patronized by the Jamaat, which entered government for the first time after the October general election.

The Chittagong-Cox's Bazar area has also proved to be fertile soil for recruiting warriors to the fight against India and others seen as enemies of Islam, according to Asian intelligence sources. And there are unconfirmed reports that the Harkat maintains six training camps near Cox's Bazar.

The recruits have fought in Kashmir, Chechnya and Afghanistan, but numbers are not known. There seems to be no doubt that their numbers include young, restless and stateless Rohingyas, whose families have fled from Burma over the years citing religious persecution. The United Nations repatriated many, but Burma is refusing to take back the rest-some 21,000 live in two UN camps, while tens of thousands more live in grim conditions in squatter villages near the border.

Afghanistan's interim Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah recently told the REVIEW that "we have captured one Malaysian and one or two supporters from Burma" in their pursuit of Taliban and Al Qadea forces-it seems clear that these were Rohingyas from Bangladesh.

"New refugees are coming every day, not in large numbers as before, but in smaller groups," says a local council member, Bakhtiar Ahmed, during a visit to one such settlement, Gumdrum, just a few hundred metres from the mined border. They form a significant potential recruitment pool for groups like the Harkat as they seek to build up their militant forces. And so long as nothing is done to better their lot, and that of the locals, many more young men are likely to join up.

While the Jamaat is moving cautiously toward its goal of an Islamic state, its elevation to government has encouraged other more extreme Islamic fundamentalist groups and individuals. They range from rabble-rousing cleric Maulana Ubaidul Haq to around a dozen radical groups often referred to as the Bangladeshi Taliban.

They include the shadowy Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, which is believed to have been founded as an offshoot of a Pakistani group in 1992 with money and support from suspected global terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden. Western intelligence officials believe a certain Fazlul Rahman, who signed bin Laden's February 23, 1998, declaration of holy war on the U.S. on behalf of the Jihad Movement in Bangladesh, is an associate of the now independent group.

Moreover, the radicals' ranks are being swelled by graduates from the estimated 64,000 madrassas, or religious schools, which have mushroomed in the past decade and are described by a retired high-ranking civil servant as a "potential political time bomb."

Just as in Pakistan, the madrassas fill an important function in a country where basic education is available only to a few. But the government has no control over them and, as journalist Salahuddin Babar wrote in a recent edition of Probe magazine, "passing out from the madrassas, poorly equipped to enter mainstream life and professions, the students are easily lured by motivated quarters who capitalize on religious sentiment to create fanatics, rather than modern Muslims."

The madrassas' focus is on religious instruction and many are funded by proselytizing Arab charities- as in Pakistan, whose madrassas were the nurseries for many of Afghanistan's Taliban leaders. Some analysts fear Bangladesh's madrassas could also become exporters of Islamic revolution.

In the immediate term, Bangladesh's secular tradition is most at risk from the rise in fundamentalism. Attacks on Hindus, who generally support the staunchly secular Awami League, are increasing. "The intimidation of the minorities, which had begun before the election, became worse afterwards," said The Society for Environment and Human Development, a local non-governmental organization, in a report on the October poll. An Amnesty International report concurred and indicated that members of the BNP-led coalition were responsible.

But neighbouring India and Burma -which both have Muslim minorities are also at risk, while the Western world cannot afford to be complacent either, analysts say.

For example, Maulana Ubaidul Haq, preaching to hundreds of thousands of people, including cabinet ministers, at the national mosque in Dhaka, condemned the U.S. war on terrorism and called for a jihad against the Americans. "President Bush and America is the most heinous terrorist in the world. Both America and Bush must be destroyed. The Americans will be washed away if Bangladesh's 120 million Muslims spit on them," the cleric snarled in an address marking the Eid-ul-Fitr Muslim festival in December.

Thousands of Islamic militants took part in anti-U.S. street protests, many brandishing posters of bin Laden, while the fighting was taking place in Afghanistan.

More ominously, senior Indian police officers tell the REVIEW that Harkat gunmen were involved in a January 22 attack on the American Cultural Centre in Calcutta that left four of their colleagues dead. Furthermore, Indian intelligence officials accuse Pakistan's Interservices Intelligence agency, which long backed the Taliban in Afghanistan, of securing a foothold in West Bengal through the infiltration of extremists across the border with Bangladesh. These charges are angrily denied by Dhaka.

The Indian police and analysts also claim that the Harkat group has links with banned Islamic militant groups in Pakistan, such as Jaish-e-Mohammed and Laskar-eToiba, and the Middle East.

There is also evidence that Harkat members and Muslim refugees from Burma-the Rohingyas (see sidebar) have been sent to fight against the Indians in Kashmir, the anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan and the Russians in Chechnya since the late 1990s.

Meanwhile, the REVIEW met young Muslim radicals from Malaysia and Indonesia in the southeast coastal towns, of Cox's Bazar and Chittagong who were meeting with local Muslim groups. Their presence adds fuel to fears that Bangladesh could become a haven for militants of all nations.

But while the threat is growing, the influence of fundamentalism is nothing new. The door was opened by the military, who needed to find a support base to counter the secular, leftist policies of the Awami League, when the two fell out not long after leading the country to independence.

The next major step came when Lt, Gen. Hussain Muhammad Ershad, who ruled the country from 1982-90, declared Islam as the state religion. He also brought the Jamaat back in from the cold to help crush the secular opposition. The armed forces are believed to retain close contacts with fundamentalists.

Ironically, the rest of the world first became acquainted with the growing religious intolerance and creeping fundamentalism in Bangladesh in 1993, when Muslim author Taslima Nasrin fled the country after receiving death threats for being critical about aspects of Islam in her writings. She returned to see her dying mother in 1998, but was soon forced to flee once more. Bangladeshi human-rights groups say the Harkat was behind the threats against her and the attempted murder in early 1999 of popular poet Shamsur Rahman, symbol of the nation's secular identity. The 70-year old also chaired a national committee of editors, writers and artists dedicated to resisting fundamentalist forces opposed to individualism and democracy.


But despite the dear evidence of creeping fundamentalism over the past decade, successive governments, including the current one, seem either unable or unwilling to tackle the problem.

Awami League leader Sheikh Hasina Wajed, whose government was ousted at the October poll, said in mid-March that the new BNP-led coalition government has created "a reign of terror across the country." Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, in turn, accused the Awami League of being engaged in a "conspiracy to disrupt peace" and pledged that her government is determined to "control terrorism with an iron hand."

The law-and-order situation must be tackled if Bangladesh is to continue receiving the overseas aid it relies on. But neither party seems to link the violence to a growing fundamentalist threat-they blame each other for it and so fail to address the root causes. Coalition government officials deny there is any such problem while the middle class tend to dismiss the fundamentalists as irrelevant. Begum Zia, responding to opposition charges about her Jamaat cabinet colleagues, insisted there were no Taliban in her government, according to a report in India's The Hindu newspaper on January 11.

The overseas community, while concerned about increased violence, also seems to downplay the threat. Some observers say this may partly be because their intelligence channels are not very good, adding that most Western embassies in Dhaka are aid-oriented. When British Prime Minister Tony Blair visited in January defying street protests-the war on terrorism was high on the agenda and Bangladesh offered to join an international security force in Afghanistan.

But it seems the growing religious extremism and intolerance within Bangladesh, and the rise of groups linked to overseas militant groups, were not addressed in depth during his meetings with government officials.

For the time being Bangladesh's secular roots are holding, but the fundamentalist cause is in the ascendant. And as the rise of militant Muslim groups in Indonesia has shown, economic collapse and political crisis can galvanize support for extremists very quickly.

The process is not irreversible, but if left unchallenged for too long, Bangladesh could deteriorate and become a new nest for terror. There is still time for a counter-revolution.

This article first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, April 4, 2002

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