Thursday, May 24, 2007

Whether Bangladesh is moderate or radical Muslim nation?


I’M in two minds, facing a dilemma. I hold myself as one of democracies most vivacious supporters, but I’m also becoming a reluctant pragmatist. I have never endorsed the Truman or the Kirkpatrick doctrines of foreign policy, which proposed that the US should support authoritarian dictatorships which would help contain radical ideologies to the detriment of democracy and human rights, but I am beginning to understand and sympathise with the logic behind them.

I haven’t forgotten the role of the US in the assassination of Salvador Allende and the overthrow of his democratically elected government in Chile or countless other programmes to destabilise left leaning movements and parties in the ‘Third World’ for the sake of stopping perceived Soviet influence. If Gen Augusto Pinochet hadn’t mercilessly rounded up socialist activists by using death squads that executed unlawful death warrants, maybe I could have begun to stomach the policies attached to Operation Condor, a controversial programme to counter communism in Latin America. Well to be honest I doubt it, because with a democratically elected government in power I would have been reluctant, but then again how would I feel if the Muslim Brotherhood made further electoral gains in the Middle East?

The current ideology now being countered is radical Islamism and I fear the blueprint for containing this menace will be modelled on Operation Condor, especially as the neoconservatives, the war-mongering yet idealist defenders of democracy have been mainly dethroned and discounted for their view that democracy is universal and should be aggressively pursued. My democratic idealism has been blunted by harsh realities.

The Iraq war was become a major folly for neo-conservatism and democracy building and I fear it will quickly fall to the more merciless and pragmatic strategists-who won’t mind a civil war between the Sunni and Shia’s as it will keep jihadi fighters focussed on fighting between themselves rather than attacking the US and its allies. Seymour Hersh recently wrote in his article “The Redirection” published in The New Yorker magazine that elements of the US government, mainly from the National Security Council, was covertly supporting the Sunni-Islamist militant group Jundallah to attack Iranian interests.

As we hear discussions and read editorials about the benefits of pragmatic foreign policies by retired and serving diplomats who often appear gloating at the Iraqi misadventure, we miss the major theme of pragmatism- unabashed self interest. In un-coded language it simply reads “We don’t care if you don’t have democracy or human rights as long as our countries economies and security are not effected- go whine about it to Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch”

Bangladesh is currently being ruled by a military backed administration- its implementation of a corruption drive on the political and business leaders have been widely received by the international community as a positive development. The fear of the military returning to centre stage for a prolonged period has left the country quietly simmering, a welcome relief as many thought the country was ready to boil over during the run-up to the abandoned January ‘07 elections.

Military leaders have made statements which have alarmed human rights and democracy supporters. Lt Gen. Moeen Uddin Ahmed, Bangladesh Army’s Chief of Staff and de-facto leader recently said "We do not want to go back to an elective democracy where corruption becomes all pervasive, governance suffers in terms of insecurity and violation of rights, and where political criminalisation threatens the very survival and integrity of the state". A curious statement that has left observers wondering how the administration sees itself evolving in the future, especially when electoral reform and scheduling has been on most peoples agendas. A worrying sign!

The proposed plan for “minus two” which threatened to keep Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina, two of the countries most powerful political leaders in exile also raised concerns by the international community. It is true that the leaders aren’t the best of friends and their relationship has polarised parts of country but Bangladesh can control this if its civic society and infrastructure is reinforced and can rise above party politics and influence. Anti-corruption campaigns are a priority, but it will take a decade or more to have any sort of real effect. The status-quo cannot continue for there to be any meaningful reform. The judicial system must be strengthened and be the primary vehicle for the campaigns, but they must not be allowed to turn into witch-hunts to silence and defame politicians.

Military governments in the developing world are favoured by realists, so I think I can safely say that democratic reform in the Middle East and South Asia will be on hold depending on if countries and their electorates are Sharia friendly or not. Bangladesh is not a Sharia friendly country so why should the populous be made to wait any longer? The violence that marred the aborted elections was threatening to turn the uneven democracy into anarchy. The military did save the country from a potential civil or party war- its role as saviours of ‘democracy ‘should be rightly applauded. It has helped to salvage the country’s economy and reputation. However the international community must put pressure on the Bangladeshi authorities to return the country back into the hands of its people. Transferring power back in the hands of the politicians who are craving for reform and who nurture secularism and democracy is the best tonic to anarchy, sectarianism and creeping totalitarianism. Bangladesh is a fragile country that needs slow gradual reform not “shock and awe”.

Bangladesh will not always be a model for stability, but if the military takes a backseat and vows to keeps its hands off the controls, it could help to implement a plan which will help Bangladesh to live up to its potential. The military must take a role in helping to foster better relations with foreign and domestic partners, but it must acknowledge that reforms must be in partnership with civil society not forced.

Politicians must also acknowledge that with the threat of radical Islamists increasingly looking to target the country with devastating attacks they must look to the military rather than law enforcement groups such as the controversial Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) to provide security. Bangladesh and democracy must not fail because of threats from a minority- the majority have shown they support humanitarian values and it is time for the current administration to let the people start to reform their own system of governance. The struggles have always and will be persistent, but the crisis is definitely over. #

Chris Blackburn is based in London and specialises on Islamic terrorism & Jihad. He is director of the Foundation for Democracy and Global Pluralism