Friday, February 02, 2007

Bangladesh: Rhymes With Afghanistan


For 16 years, Bangladesh has stood out as a rare success story in the Muslim world, boasting fairly free elections and a mostly secular political culture. All that may now be changing. In the last month, the country has descended into chaos. Parliamentary elections scheduled for last week have been postponed, political activity has been banned and thousands have been arrested. But this South Asian nation of nearly 150 million is more than just another failed state in the making. As its political climate deteriorates, radical Islamists are stepping into the breach. If the military seizes power, warns Selig Harrison, director of the Asia program at the Center for International Policy, Islamists could come to occupy key posts in the government and turn Bangladesh into "a regional hub of terrorism."

What went wrong? Five years ago, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) formed an alliance with the fundamentalist Jamaat-i-Islami in order to win an election. In return, experts argue, the BNP—which was replaced by a caretaker government last October—allowed Jamaat sympathizers in the security services to ignore the rise of local radicals. "The BNP has been pussyfooting with the radical[s]," says Sumit Ganguly, a South Asia expert at Indiana University. Taliban-style madrassas, he argues, have also grown in popularity as the public-school system has broken down.

All this means Bangladesh could soon start to resemble prewar Afghanistan. By postponing the vote, the BNP and its Islamist allies hope to cling to power, says Harrison. "They can't win an election," he says, and Islamists in the Army "want to extend the state of emergency indefinitely." This, in effect, would amount to a coup. More and more Bangladeshis might then opt out of secular politics.

Homegrown radicalism would mushroom and the country would start to harbor even more foreign terrorists. "If we get a grip on radicals in Afghanistan and Pakistan, then they'll land in Bangladesh," says Ganguly. "It's like squeezing a balloon." #

Republished from Newsweek magazine, Feb. 5, 2007 issue