Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Costs of religious extremism

ABM Nasir

I was in a café in Dhaka, sipping tea while waiting for a phone call from a foreign recruiting team, when the August 17, 2005, bomb blast shocked the entire nation. A session was arranged in a local hotel for the team to interview a few Bangladeshi job candidates for international markets. I received the desired call around 5:30 p.m. only to be informed of the team’s reluctance to visit Dhaka at current situation.

Immediately following the blast, the indices of Dhaka and Chittagong stock exchanges went down, respectively, by 1.17 and 0.89 percents. On the following day (August 18, 2005), the Daily Star reported that M.A. Salam, a vice president of BGMEA, a victim of the incidence, lost a prospective American buyer, who left Dhaka following the bomb blasts. He regretted saying that his three-month worth of correspondence fell flat only because of the terrorists incidence across the nation.

August 17 terrorist incidence may seem to have left a small dent on the overall economic activities. But, only when one does envisage the same incidence in a larger context and larger extent, as happened to the U.S. economy following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack, then one would realize the graveness of impact of such incidence on overall economic activities of the country.

Now, just imagine, yourself being publicly flogged because you had your beard trimmed or being forced to wear veil and to stay home because you are a woman. That is exactly what Afghans had to go through under the Taliban’s rule. And, this is exactly what behaviour one may expect from a religious extremist party in the state power of Bangladesh.

Bangladesh’s image as a moderate Muslim country started to take beatings right after the October, 2001, election victory of two extremist outfits, Jamaat-e-Islami and Islamic Shashotantrik Andolon, under four-party platform. Subsequent violence against the Hindu community, unleashed by the BNP-led four-party alliance, simply relegated Bangladesh as the new hotbed of radicalism. No one has ever been convicted of such heinous crime against humanity. Besides, the leaders of the alliance government kept denying their involvement in the atrocities and termed news of the severity of the violence as exaggerated. Worst of all, some Bangladeshi media and intellectuals shrugged off the reported intensity of the post-election violence as being external attempt to tarnish Bangladeshi image abroad. All these denials did nothing to assuage the pains of the victims of violence but to strengthen the moral standing of the extremists.

Since 1976, religious extremism has grown stronger under every regime in Bangladesh. They have always seemed to have been attractive choices as coalition partners for both the major parties of Bangladesh.

Why do political parties form coalition with the extremists? They form coalition only to stay ahead in the political power game. Indeed, in a competitive electoral process, selling out to the radical Islamic parties seems to make good business sense. Such alliance may make good business sense to political parties, but its undue consequences (social, economic and political) to the country is enormous.

Between September 2001 and May 2006, frequent bombing campaigns across the country left 113 civilians dead and 1458 injured. The alleged leaders of the August 17, 2005 bombing campaign are executed. But, hundred of the foot soldiers who carried out the orders of their leaders still remain at large. The most recent bombing incidence, carried out on May 1, 2007, indicates how determined, organized and effective these perpetrators are in executing further attacks. Unless the motives behind extremism unearthed, architects apprehended and brought to justice, all efforts to destroy militancy will constantly hit the snag.

To my best understanding, Islam, or any other religion, prohibits violence against innocent civilians. Religious extremists are doing entirely the opposite, invoking Islam to justify violence against innocent civilians only to capture state power.

What are the consequences of the rise of religious extremists to state power? Once in power, a theocratic regime restricts or even denies the rights of individuals, specially, those of religious minority and women. They discard democracy and capitalism as being godless materialism. (a quote from an article titled “Jamaat-e-Islami's views on Defence of Bangladesh” by Jamaat’s Late Abbas Ali Khan, former Naib-e-Ameer of Jamaat-e-Islami that “Muslims who form the overwhelming majority will not tolerate secularism, socialism, capitalism or godless materialism” indicates how a theocratic state would not hesitate to ditch development process based on scientific, economic and social theories.)

The restriction on individual rights severely undermines incentives to works and wealth accumulation. Denying women’s right to participate in the labour force increases the burden of the population. Abandoning incentive based production process, which relies on competitive process and profit motive, restricts the flow of foreign investments. Resources are relocated from modern education sector to Madrassa education. Such relocation decreases the future supply of human capital. Intolerance and violence against religious minority limit access of the Bangladeshi citizens to the foreign countries, as evident from the drop in the number of Bangladeshi students pursuing higher studies in the United States following the event of September 2001 (decrease to 2758 in 2004-05 from 3845 in 2000).

May be it is difficult for a radical political party to capture political power through election. But, it can quickly put itself to the political power either simply by exploiting people’s frustration about the failure of a secular government or through a campaign of terror. In Iran and Afghanistan, people sacrificed liberty and welcomed theocracy only to get rid of existing dysfunctional, corrupt and oppressive secular regimes. But, once placed in the helm of power, theocratic regimes did everything, more systematically and ruthlessly, to wipe out the last sign of liberty and free choice. Apparently, the costs in terms of suppression, economic hardship and backwardness the Afghans and the Iranians had had to pay for welcoming Taliban and Mullahs into power far outweighed the costs they would have had to pay under dysfunctional democracies or even under secular autocrats.

The people of Bangladesh must take lesson from the history and safeguard their future and interests from tyranny and confiscation of liberty, specially, those by religious extremism. #

ABM Nasir teaches economics at North Carolina Central University, Durham, North Carolina, U.S.A. and can be reached at nasnc@yahoo.com
North Carolina, May 23, 2007