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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
North Carolina, May 23, 2007

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Bangladesh army chief: Phantom Of The Opera


Behind Lt Gen Moeen U. Ahmed's quiet anonymity lies steely resolve to put Bangladesh back on track

THE Importance of being Lt Gen Moeen U. Ahmed.

He's the man behind the caretaker government in Bangladesh. The emergency was imposed on his directions.

- Was unknown even in his country. Keeps away from the limelight, is a devoted family man, loves to play golf.

- Became army chief in June 2005. Commissioned in 1975.

- Important assignments: Commanded infantry brigades, served with UN forces in Rwanda, was military advisor in the Bangladesh high commission in Islamabad.

- Did courses in Harvard University and the Centre for Security Studies, Hawaii.

- His agenda: Stamp out corruption, introduce electoral reforms, check Islamists, accord due recognition to national leaders like Mujibur Rahman

- Seized luxury cars. They are to be auctioned for raising money to build a hospital for the poor.

When Bangladesh president Iajuddin Ahmed declared a state of emergency and appointed Fakhruddin Ahmed to head the caretaker government in January, his seemingly precipitous actions kicked up a swirl of speculations. Was the military scripting the cataclysmic changes? Or was the upheaval even a prelude to direct army rule? Bangladeshis pondered over these questions, expressed their views in whispers.

Weeks later, on February 8, that speculative swirl evanesced because of the speech Bangladesh army chief Lt Gen Moeen U. Ahmed delivered at the Bandarban cantonment in the southeastern hills. He confirmed the army's support to the caretaker government. But, he also added, "the army has no intention to take over. We are not even running the government. But we would like to see this government succeed as we want to put the country on the right track through concerted efforts of all".

The general's speech was telecast on most TV channels, providing people a glimpse of the man whose hand now rocks the political cradle of Bangladesh, the swish of whose baton conducts the symphony of tunes emanating from the caretaker government—about eradicating corruption, introducing electoral reforms, punishing those who have looted public money or indulged in terrorism. The immense popular interest in the telecast was as much testimony to the power he wields as to the anonymity he has courted in the nearly two years he has spent as army chief.

To this post he was appointed on June 15, 2005, by ex-premier Begum Khaleda Zia. In a delicious irony, reminiscent of the dethroning of Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif by his appointee Gen Pervez Musharraf, Khaleda, to her horror, found Lt Gen Ahmed nixing her plans of conducting elections geared to favouring her party and sabotaging the chances of her rival, Sheikh Hasina. The general's taciturn nature was perhaps why politicians hadn't realised that his patience had run out with the two grand ladies whose perennial squabbles had pushed Bangladesh to the brink of a political precipice.

Perhaps his intervention was prompted by his sense of history, witness as he had been to the political turmoil in the early years of Bangladesh's birth, a period that coincided with his graduating from the Bangladesh Military Academy. He passed out in 1975, the year in which Bangladesh saw its founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman killed in a coup. Surely, there were non-violent methods of effecting a change: over three decades later, Lt Gen Ahmed showed how!

Always rated as a bright officer, his prestigious assignments have included commanding two infantry brigades and heading the School of Infantry and Tactics. Earlier, he was among the young army officers handpicked for taking security-related courses in prestigious foreign universities.This saw him spend time at Harvard University, Boston, and the Centre for Security Studies in Hawaii, as well as doing a course in intelligence in London. He was felicitated with the "US Force's commendation" because of his contribution in Op Sea Angles that the United States conducted during the devastating cyclone of 1991. Apart from serving with the United Nations forces in Rwanda, Lt Gen Ahmed's other significant duty abroad was a stint as military advisor in the Bangladesh high commission in Islamabad.

Beyond these biographical details, what is known about him is that his son studies in the US, his daughter is married, and that he loves to wield the golf club. For an insight into him, analysts have been poring through his speech delivered at Bandarban and another two in March and early April. Since then he has been content watching from the sidelines the caretaker government adhere to the broad framework set out. The contours of this framework have been defined by his deep disgust of politicians. "Our politicians do not understand anything beyond their self-interest," Lt Gen Ahmed declared at Bandarban.

There he outlined plans to stamp out corruption. "We need a heavy crane to put the train back on the track—and the strength of the people is the crane," the general said metaphorically. He cited an example of the systemic rot—disputes over who should pocket the "10 per cent kickbacks" prevented the last government from implementing a $200 million machine-readable passport project. He wondered aloud about the source of wealth of those who cruise the streets of Dhaka in BMWs, Mercedes Benzes and Fords. "This is our farmers' money," he said. A fleet of luxury cars has been seized since then, earmarked for auction to raise money for a hospital for the poor. The general said, "The time has now come to stop the politicians capitalising on money. The nation needs a competent political leadership so that Bangladesh could achieve development and progress like Malaysia and Singapore."

The drive against the entrenched venality in public affairs is being led by Maj Gen Masud Uddin Chowdhury, who is the chief of the National Coordination Committee on Combating Corruption and Crime and considered Lt Gen Ahmed's pillar of strength. To journalists, Maj Gen Masud recently said about his hunt for the corrupt, "There's no consideration of who they are. Those who appeared untouchable once are already apprehended." This was a reference to the arrest of Khaleda's son, Tarique Rahman, and the recent verdict of a special court against her political secretary, Harris Chowdhury, for failing to submit his wealth statement. Their names figured on the list of 50 corrupt suspects that the committee made public for the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), headed by Lt Gen (retd) Hasan Mashhud Chowdhury, to examine. The ACC is now expected to press ahead with the second list of 50 corrupt suspects.

Fighting the menace of corruption isn't the only thing that is consuming Lt Gen Ahmed's energy; he's as much concerned about employing history to unite a society fractured along political lines. In a speech to freedom fighters on March 27, the general said, "They (politicians) have even failed to give due recognition to the national leaders. Think about it, we haven't even given recognition to the father of the nation (Sheikh Mujibur Rahman)." His remark was a subtle condemnation of Khaleda's policy of rewriting history for effacing Mujib from textbooks. This prompted The Daily Star editor Mahfuz Anam to applaud the general and urge the caretaker government to "bury our murdered history forever and give our leaders their due place".

Perhaps nothing was more telling politically than the keynote paper the general presented at a regional conference of the International Political Science Association on April 2.He said Bangladesh needed its own brand of democracy that recognised its own social, historical and cultural conditions with religion as one of the several components of its national identity. He defined "own brand of democracy" as a "balanced government" where power was not vested in one family or dynasty, a prescription which could consign Khaleda and Hasina into political oblivion longer than what they may presently envisage. #

Outlook Magazine, India, Jun 04, 2007

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Amnesty International Report 2007-Bangladesh

BANGLADESH: People’s Republic of Bangladesh
Head of state: Iajuddin Ahmed
Head of government: Iajuddin Ahmed (replaced Begum Khaleda Zia in October)
Death penalty: Retentionist
International Criminal Court: Signed

In Bangladesh, politically motivated violence marred the run-up to delayed elections.

Escalating tension between the ruling coalition parties and the opposition alliance led to several violent clashes leaving scores of people dead and hundreds more injured.

In waves of mass protests, opposition parties led by the Awami League called for the resignation of the Chief Election Commissioner, claiming that he was a supporter of the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party.

They objected to the composition of the Election Commission and declared the compilation of the voters list to be biased and flawed. The government relinquished office in late October as scheduled. Following mass violent clashes between the outgoing ruling party members and their opposition, the designated Chief Adviser for the caretaker government turned down the post. President Iajuddin Ahmed appointed himself as the Chief Adviser amid unresolved controversy that his decision was in breach of the Constitution.

There were waves of strikes and mass demonstrations by garment factory workers, farmers and primary school teachers seeking improved
economic conditions.

Cycle of violence and abuses
Bomb blasts occurred but apparently on a much lower scale than in previous years. Targets were mainly opposition party members and court premises.

On 31 October, a bomb attack took place in Rajshahi aimed at several opposition parties, including Gono Forum. They claimed it was carried out by the Bangladesh Islamichatra Shibir cadres, the youth wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami party. On 15 November, eight people were reportedly wounded when a series of small bombs exploded near the offices of the Awami League. No one was known to have been brought to justice.

By the end of the year no one had been brought to justice for the August 2004 grenade attacks against the Awami League leader Sheikh Hasina. Electoral violence Scores of people died in clashes between the ruling and opposition parties in the run-up to the general elections. No one was known to have been brought to justice.

According to the human rights group Odhikar, at least 50 people were killed and more than 250 injured between 27 October and 5 November in violence that erupted between the two main parties over opposition demands which included the resignation of the Chief Election Commissioner.

Police brutality
Police repeatedly attacked opposition rallies, targeted leading activists and subjected them to severe beatings. Senior Awami League leader Saber Hossain Chowdhury suffered head injuries when he was severely beaten on 6 September by more than 12 police officers.

Asaduzzaman Noor, an opposition member of parliament, was beaten by police on 12 September and taken to hospital with severe back injuries. None of the police officers involved was brought to justice.

Police continued to use excessive force including live ammunition against demonstrators, causing dozens of deaths and injuries to hundreds more.

At least 17 people were killed in protests relating to electricity shortages in the northern town of Kansat in April after police fired live ammunition, rubber bullets and tear gas to dispel the crowds. No independent investigation was initiated into the killings.

At least five people were killed and more than 100 injured in Phulbari on 26 August when police and the paramilitary force Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) fired live ammunition into a crowd protesting against the establishment of an open-pit coalmine by the British firm Asia Energy Corporation. The government eventually agreed to some of their demands, giving assurances that no one would be forcibly evicted or lose their livelihoods because of the mine.

Mass arbitrary arrests
Thousands of people were arrested ahead of planned rallies by opposition parties, and thousands more were detained on suspicion of involvement in criminal activity. The families of detainees were not informed of their arrest and were forced to search for them in police stations. Many were held without charge or trial for weeks while others were released on bail after a few days.

Violence against women
Reports of women beaten to death or strangled for not meeting their husbands’ dowry demands continued. Women were subjected to acid attacks. Domestic workers were ill-treated or killed if they failed to work excessive hours.

According to reports compiled by the Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies, at least 169 female domestic workers were killed between 2000 and 2005 in Dhaka alone. Another 122 were critically injured and 52 were raped. A significant proportion of the victims were reportedly children.

Death penalty
At least 130 people were sentenced to death and one man was executed. AI country reports/visits

• Bangladesh: Briefing to political parties for a human rights agenda (AI Index: ASA 13/012/2006)
• Bangladesh: Handover to caretaker government marked by violence (AI Index: ASA 13/014/2006)

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

Monday, May 21, 2007

Revolution - The Islamist challenge to secular Bangladesh


The headquarters of Al-Markazul Islami, an Islamic organization in Bangladesh, is a single tower whose frosted green windows rise several stories above the coconut trees and rooftops of Muhammadpur, a neighborhood in central Dhaka. Below, in the streets of this capital city of seven million, bicycle rickshaws with handlebar tassels, tin wheel covers, and carriages painted with faces of Bengali film stars ding-ding-ding along. Car, dump-truck, and bus horns blast four- and five-note jingles, and ambulance sirens wail. But none of the commotion reaches Mufti Shahidul Islam, the founder and director of Al-Markazul Islami, through the thick windows of his fifth-story office.

Al-Markazul Islami provides free healthcare and ambulance services. Many Bangladeshi journalists, analysts, and politicians think it is just a cover, and that Shahidul’s real business is jihad. “Mufti Shahidul is a very dangerous man,” the owner of my Dhaka guesthouse cautioned the morning I headed off to meet him. Besides running Al-Markazul Islami, he is a former member of parliament. His party, Khelafat Majlish, wants to transform Bangladesh into an Islamic state. In 1999, Shahidul was charged with involvement in a bomb blast that killed eight Ahmadiyyas, members of a sect of Islam that denies that Mohammad was the final prophet. Islamic fundamentalists consider Ahmadiyyas heretics. When I asked about it, Shahidul denied any involvement, rolling his eyes and letting out a dismissive laugh. He does openly admit that some of the organization’s funds are used to build mosques and madrasas.

Before I left my home in Islamabad, Pakistan, for Bangladesh, I had visited a radical yet friendly cleric there—someone who talks openly about fighting in Afghanistan, his links to international jihadi organizations, and his relationship with Osama bin Laden. When I asked if he knew anyone I could speak with in Dhaka, he scribbled down Shahidul’s name on a business card. Clutching the card, I entered the downstairs reception area of Al-Markazul Islami one recent morning to find barefoot men conversing over cups of tea while custom ring tones and land-lines clattered away in the background. I took the elevator to the fifth floor where Shahidul sat behind a large desk, surrounded by assistants and relatives. His aging father-in-law looked on proudly.

“Assalaamu alaikum,” peace be unto you, he said as I opened the door. Shahidul is in his 40s. His face is framed by a scraggly, henna-died beard, and his forehead boasts a puffy, nickel-sized mehrab, a bruise that pious Muslims acquire from intense and regular prayer. He wore a white dishdasha and a diamond wristwatch. We exchanged greetings and made small talk in Urdu. Shahidul wore a wide, comic-book grin the whole time.

Local newspapers describe Shahidul as a former mujahideen who fought against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. When I asked him if he knew the cleric in Islamabad from Afghanistan, Shahidul shot back, “No, no, no. I never went to Afghanistan.” He recited his life story, which included a stint at the infamous Binori Town madrasa in Karachi and, later, a short fundraising trip to Saudi Arabia. No stops in Afghanistan. And since he started Al-Markazul Islami in 1988, how could he have the time to wage jihad? “My main business is driving ambulances and carrying dead bodies,” he said later during lunch, as we sat around a blanket covered with plates of French fries, cheeseburgers, and pizza.

Last December, Shahidul sparked a nationwide furor and reinvigorated a long-standing debate in Bangladesh. Four weeks before the parliamentary elections scheduled for January 22 (but later postponed), his party signed a “memorandum of understanding” with the Awami League, one of the nation’s two mainstream parties and traditionally its most secular one. The agreement stipulated that Shahidul’s Khelafat Majlish would team up with the Awami League for the elections. If they won, the Awami League promised to enact a blasphemy law, push legislation to brand the Ahmadiyyas as non-Muslims, and officially recognize the fatwas issued by local clerics. The deal outraged secularists across the country. “Khelafat Majlish is a radical Islamist militant group which is against the spirit of the Liberation War,” said the Anti-Fundamentalism and Anti-Militant Conscious Citizens’ Society in a written statement. “By ascending to power through a deal with a section of fundamentalist militants, the Awami League... will never be able to create a secular Bangladesh.”

The Western media had been predicting similar things for years. In January The New Republic suggested that, “Left unchecked, Bangladesh could become another Afghanistan—a base for regional terrorism.”

But the prospects for Bangladesh, a country roughly the size of Minnesota, with 170 million inhabitants, are not nearly as certain as such reports would suggest. Islamist parties have multiplied over the past decade and public support for them has grown. Yet Bangladeshi society remains overwhelmingly secular, even militantly secular. And while the Islamists have grabbed headlines, the secularists are holding their own in an intense power struggle. Bangladesh has a long history of civil activism, and people are passionate and eager to voice their opinions in the streets. The secularists may not have the finances and weapons that the Islamist groups have access to. But the same leaders who fought against the imposition of Islamic politics in the Liberation War of 1971 are not about to hand the country over to men like Mufti Shahidul Islam. And he knows it.

For the most part, Islamic militancy or anti-American sentiment is not what draws support to politicians like Shahidul. While voters in Pakistan or Afghanistan might be impressed by a politician’s links to the Taliban or his jihadi credentials, in Bangladesh such affiliations are a political liability. This is why Shahidul hurries to change the subject whenever his are brought up. While he mentioned to me that he didn’t believe in secularism, he didn’t care to elaborate. He prefers to discuss other things. Take his constituency of Narail, a city in western Bangladesh, for example. “There is no corruption there,” he said. “And it is a big Hindu area.” Before the partition of India in 1947, more than half of Narail’s population was Hindu. Shahidul boasted that, because of his work, “Hindu people now say, ‘Islam is a nice religion.’ ”

Three days after our meeting, I went to Itna, a village near Narail, where I met a teacher, Rajib Asmad, at a local girls’ school. “Mufti Shahidul Islam has helped a lot of poor people—Muslims and Hindus,” Asmad said. “He’s not only built mosques. He also drilled a lot of tube wells and distributed a lot of money. So everyone will vote for him again.” A local journalist later told me that Shahidul has funded at least 40 mosques, 13 madrasas, and 350 wells. Of course, this phenomenon, where Islamist parties gain support by providing basic services, is not specific to Bangladesh. Hezbollah has done it in Lebanon. Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Since the October 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, Jamaat-e-Islami and numerous other groups, some actively involved in waging jihad across the border in Indian-held Kashmir, have provided unflagging relief and reconstruction aid. The Islamists in Bangladesh are pursuing a similar strategy. The major difference in Bangladesh is that the public is almost completely uninformed about their political aims.

“Do local people support his vision of an Islamic state?” I asked.

“Most people don’t understand what he really wants,” Asmad said. “They think, ‘Mufti gave us so much money.’ ”

Bangladesh is one of the few post-colonial countries whose demographics almost make sense. Whereas Pakistan is a hodgepodge of nations, where hardly 10 percent of the country speaks the national language, Urdu, in their homes, 98 percent of people in Bangladesh are ethnically Bengali and speak Bengali, an Indo-Aryan language derived from Sanskrit. More than 80 percent are Muslim; the rest are Hindu (15 percent), Christian (less than five percent), or Buddhist. Historically, this religious mix has contributed to the vibrancy of Bengali culture. Rabindranath Tagore, a poet and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, was a Bengali-speaking Hindu. Poems of his later became the national anthems of both Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Bangladesh.

Tagore composed both poems during the first partition of Bengal, which lasted from 1905 to 1912. In “Amar Shonar Bangla,” Bangladesh’s national anthem, he writes: “My Bengal of gold, I love you / Forever your skies, your air set my heart in tune, as if it were a flute.” After seven years of unrest and a flurry of nationalist poetry, the British capitulated and reunited Bengal. In 1947 it was divided again, this time for good. As the British were leaving the Subcontinent that year, they created two new states: India and Pakistan. West Bengal joined India; East Bengal became the East Wing of Pakistan.

From early on, the founders of Pakistan faced huge challenges trying to reconcile the West Wing (present-day Pakistan) and the East Wing (present-day Bangladesh). More than 1000 miles separated them, with their hostile neighbour, India, sandwiched in between. Bengalis accounted for more than half the population, yet the country was led by those from West Pakistan, a mix of Punjabis, Pashtuns, Sindhis, Balochis, and Mohajirs. Meanwhile, Urdu, a language spoken by less than five percent of the population, became the national language. Because the written script was derived from Arabic, and Bangla was derived from Sanskrit, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founding father of Pakistan, said Urdu was a more “Muslim” language. “What nonsense,” recalled Kamal Hossain, Bangladesh’s first law minister. “Identifying language and religion? Bangla was our language. We were Muslims. What was the problem?”

Decades of economic and cultural neglect took their toll on the Bengali masses. Between 1965 and 1970, the West Wing of Pakistan was allotted a budget of 52 billion rupees (about $865 million), while the East Wing, despite its larger population, received 21 billion. Then, in the 1970 parliamentary elections, Bengalis voted almost unanimously in support of the Awami League, which, because of the Bengalis’ numerical advantage, gained an overall majority in the national assembly. Sheik Mujibur Rahman, the head of the party, should have been named prime minister, but the leaders in the West Wing delayed the opening session. On March 25, 1971, Bengali leaders declared their independence and the Bangladesh Liberation War began. The Pakistani Army sent soldiers into the streets to crush the Bengali nationalists, an effort code-named Operation Searchlight.

Shahriar Kabir was one of hundreds of thousands of mukhti bahini, Bengali nationalists who took up arms. “It was total guerrilla warfare,” he told me. Today, Kabir is a squat man in his late fifties with a comb-over and a hand-broom mustache. On the night I visited him in his Dhaka home, Nag Champa, a type of incense from India, was burning and the room smelled of sandalwood. Between the incense and the hemp tote bag he held on his lap, Kabir didn’t strike me as a freedom fighter.

During the Liberation War the mukhti bahini faced volunteer brigades of Bangladeshi Islamists who were collaborating with the more than 100,000 Pakistani army troops stationed in the East Wing. The brigades, known as razakars, came from Jamaat-e-Islami, a fundamentalist political party formed in 1941. “They were a killing squad, like the Gestapo in Nazi Germany,” Kabir said. The razakars lurked in places where uniformed soldiers could never go. They targeted intellectuals, whom they considered, according to Kabir, “the root of all evil for promoting the ideas of Bengali nationalism and identity.” In December 1971, in the final days of the war, they murdered hundreds of prominent doctors, engineers, journalists, and lawyers.

On December 16, 1971, the Pakistani army surrendered at Dhaka’s Ramna Racecourse, and Bangladesh became an independent state. It emerged from the war as a fiercely secular nation. The 1972 constitution declared “Nationalism, Socialism, Secularism and Democracy” to be the four pillars of Bangladesh. The constitution also banned religious-based politics.

But Bangladesh lasted only five years as an officially secular state. In November 1975, General Ziaur Rahman, a hero of the Liberation War, seized power after a quick succession of military coups and counter-coups following the assassination of Mujib, who had become the first prime minister of Bangladesh, and his family in August 1975. To solidify his rule, Zia felt it necessary to appeal to the Islamists. In 1977 he removed “Secularism” as one of the constitution’s principles and lifted the ban on religious-based politics. Jamaat-e-Islami bounced back and has been steadily gaining power ever since. Its members occupied 17 out of 300 seats in the last national assembly, including the leadership of two ministries—Social Welfare and Agriculture. “With the Ministry of Agriculture, they have access to grassroots and can reach the farmers. The Ministry of Social Welfare can reach the common people by providing funds. From here, they recruit and build their power,” said a journalist with The Daily Star in Dhaka who reports on the Islamists and requested anonymity. According to Shahriar Kabir, Jamaat-e-Islami receives “enormous amounts of money” from the Middle East and “enormous amounts of arms” from Pakistan, part of what he calls their “global jihad network.”

Most of Jamaat-e-Islami’s top leaders, says Kabir, are former razakars and “enemies of Bangladesh.” Fifteen years ago, Kabir formed the Ekattorer Ghatak Dalal Nirmul Committee, which had two demands: to try former razakars as war criminals, and to reinstate the 1972 constitution’s ban on religious-based politics. (The Nirmul Committee is known alternatively as the Voice of Secularism.) He feels that the rise of parties like Jamaat-e-Islami and Khelafat Majlish contradicts everything he fought for in 1971. “We wanted a secular democracy,” he said. “Three million people were killed during the Liberation War. If we now have to accept Islam as the basis of politics to run the country, then what was wrong with Pakistan?”

A few days later, I made an appointment with Muhammad Kamaruzzaman, the assistant secretary general of Jamaat-e-Islami, whom the Nirmul Committee has accused of war crimes. According to the committee, Kamaruzzaman was “the principal organizer” of one of the most ruthless razakar brigades. Their pamphlet alleges that in 1971 Kamaruzzaman dragged a professor naked through the streets of Sherpur, a city in central Bangladesh, beating him with leather whips. It also claims that he ordered numerous killings and supervised torture cells. When I asked Kamaruzzaman about these charges one morning in his Dhaka office, he scowled and replied: “Is there any evidence? Not a single piece! I was only a 16-year-old college boy. How can I lead such a political force?”

Kamaruzzaman wears nice suits and gold-framed glasses, and his mustache and goatee are so finely kempt they look stencilled. Critics sneer at him for being “all suited and booted,” which they say reflects Jamaat-e-Islami’s aims to dupe the masses. We snacked on two plates of potato chips, which he ate with his pinky askance.

Despite Jamaat-e-Islami’s advances in recent elections, Kamaruzzaman admits that there are numerous barriers to its growth. Its role in the 1971 war, he told me, “can be an obstacle. But we are addressing it. We have accepted reality and are now working for Bangladesh. In 1971, the leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami didn’t want to see our Muslim state separated. We wanted the country to be united, but the game is over. The countries are independent. We made a politically wrong calculation,” he said. Another obstacle is poverty. Kamaruzzaman added, “People in the villages don’t want to hear you talk on and on about religion if you can’t provide food to them.”

But what about the “Hindu factor”? If Jamaat-e-Islami ever hopes to enact its Islamic revolution, then it will have to undo centuries of cross-pollination between Hindu and Muslim cultures in Bangladesh. Jamaat-e-Islami’s puritan vision of Islam simply has no foundation in Bangladeshi society. I asked Kamaruzzaman who was winning the culture war in Bangladesh: the Islamists or those promoting a secular, pluralist vision of Bangladesh. “We are neither winning nor losing at this moment,” he said. “But one day people will realize the effects of this so-called openness. Pornography and nudity in these types of Western and Indian films are encouraging violence and terrorist activities. Children shouldn’t be distraught by such things. Society cannot be a boundless sky.

“We don’t want to impose anything. Of course, there should be a law that, in public places, someone should not be ill-dressed or undressed. But sense should prevail.” He paused a moment before reaching in my direction, palm upturned as if to present his next idea on a silver platter: “You know, self-censorship.”

Bangladesh has more than 50 Islamic political parties, militant organizations, and terrorist groups, according to Abul Barkat, an economics professor at Dhaka University. Barkat, a middle-aged man with a penchant for coining technical terms, contends that each of these groups comprise “operational research projects,” ultimately overseen by the most adept of the bunch, Jamaat-e-Islami. “They know they will never capture state power through democracy, so they all work in different ways,” he told me. “Harakat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami is not doing the same thing as JMB”—Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh—“and JMB is not doing the same thing as Khelafat Majlish. They are trying different things to find the best way to get power.”

Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh may not be the biggest of the Islamist groups, but its activities provide a terrifying example of how even the tiniest outfits can shake—or destabilize—a society. On the morning of August 17, 2005, JMB simultaneously detonated 459 bombs in 63 of Bangladesh’s 64 districts. Near each of the blast sites they left leaflets claiming responsibility in Bengali and Arabic. “It is time to implement Islamic law in Bangladesh,” the leaflets read. “There is no future with man-made law.”

The irony of the leaflets was that just a year earlier the government and its man-made law had built up Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh in order to fend off a menace from the left. Bands of Communist rebels known as Sarbaharas had been growing stronger near the northwest city of Rajshahi. The Sarbahara's arose during the Liberation War, when they fought to expel the Pakistani army from Bangladesh. They have been trying to bring an armed, Maoist revolution to Bangladesh ever since. Some prominent secularist leaders may have sympathized with the Sarbahara’s in the past. But, as Shahriar Kabir told me, the Sarbahara’s are “no longer political agents.” Kabir, who has interviewed Maoist rebels in India and remains a leftist revolutionary at heart, sounded somewhat despondent when he said that these days the Sarbahara’s are “just gangsters. They are looting and plundering the common people. Nothing more.”

Meanwhile, just across the border in India, Naxalite rebels were murdering policemen and raiding government offices in several districts. In nearby Nepal, Maoists were threatening to topple King Gyanendra. The government in Dhaka, led by Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party in conjunction with Jamaat-e-Islami and Khelafat Majlish (before it defected to join the Awami League alliance), formulated a strategy to crush the Sarbahara’s. They assigned the Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh, a previously unknown militant group, to the task.

The government initially treated JMB with respect. At least eight members of the national assembly bankrolled the group, according to a report in the January 30, 2007, edition of the Bengali daily Prothom Alo. In a phone interview, a member of JMB recalled police officers publicly saluting the JMB operations chief, Siddiqul Islam, or “Bangla Bhai”—Bengali Brother. At the time, Bangla Bhai was torturing and terrorizing anyone who he thought was even remotely sympathetic to the Sarbahara’s.

Gradually, as the Sarbahara’s were defeated, the government withdrew its support for Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh and had several of its members arrested. Bangla Bhai felt betrayed and used. JMB resolved to send the government a message. “We wanted to frighten everyone about our strength,” the JMB member told me. The organization trained in camps alongside remote riverbanks and in jungle clearings. Maulana Abdur Rahman, the group’s spiritual guide, would stand in front of the blackboard, sketching out tactics and strategy. Both Rahman and Bangla Bhai carried gym bags filled with grenades wherever they went and clutched field-hockey sticks to use in the event of an ambush. In a Daily Star interview, Rahman warned, “We don’t believe in the present political trend,” which is to say in democracy and elections.

The bombings in 2005 stunned the nation. Parents rushed to pull their kids out of school and offices closed early. But for Swapan Bhuiyan, it was a call to action. For years, people like him and Shahriar Kabir had been warning people about the threat militant Islamic groups posed to Bangladesh, though few wanted to listen. The bombings proved that their concerns were credible, but did they have any coherent strategy to respond with?

Bhuiyan, a gentle-seeming middle-aged man with dark skin and a grey beard, represents a growing class of militant secularists. Many of them are former socialists or communists who have refashioned their ideology to oppose everything that the Islamists stand for. Bhuiyan told me, “I know you shouldn’t kill other humans, but these Islamic fundamentalists are like wild dogs. The Islamists have been destroying our values since 1971. They killed our golden sons in the last days before liberation.” I had met Bhuiyan about a year earlier in Karachi at the World Social Forum. On one of my first nights in Dhaka he brought me to the office of his organization, the Revolutionary Unity Front. The electricity was out and a single candle splashed light on a poster of Chairman Mao hanging on one wall and a framed photograph of Lenin on another.

Bhuiyan has fought for a secular Bangladesh twice before. In 1971 he was a freedom fighter. Then, in 1975, while he was serving as a lieutenant in the Bangladeshi army, news broke about Prime Minster Mujib’s assassination. Incensed by the murder of the nation’s founding father, Bhuiyan led a mutiny at the Dhaka airport against those in the army who sympathized with Mujib’s killers. After a couple days, the mutiny was suppressed. Bhuiyan’s seniors sentenced him to die by firing squad. That sentence was commuted to four months of solitary confinement. “No one goes longer than three months,” he said with a slight twitch. “Four is unheard of. They tried to make me crazy.”

When the lights in the Revolutionary Unity Front’s office eventually powered on, I could make out the faces of the other six people in the room. Most of them were in their 30s, born after the 1971 war. “We are all anti-fundamentalists,” Bhuiyan said, gesturing around the room. The others nodded. Although their brothers, sisters, and cousins weren’t killed by razakars, their generation is no less militantly secular. “The secular culture of the common people is strong enough to defeat Islamic fundamentalism here,” Manabendra Dev, the 25-year-old president of the Bangladesh Students Union at Dhaka University, told me later.

I asked Bhuiyan how he viewed the contest of ideologies in modern Bangladesh. “There is only one -ism,” he replied. “That’s Marxism. When it joins with Bengalism—and it will—there will be a great revolution in Bangladesh.” His neck jerked and he ran his hands through his long, silver hair. “But first, if I had the money, I would train a brigade of people in India and return to kill all the Islamic fundamentalists in Bangladesh.”

Bangladesh has a rich, turbulent legacy of civil, political, and cultural activism, starting from 1971, immediately after the war. “There was no government and we had no experience of ruling ourselves,” said Abul Barkat, the economics professor. “We organized to reconstruct bridges and rebuild the country. The rise of NGOs”—Barkat estimates there are more than 70,000 nongovernmental organizations in the country today, compared to 300 30 years ago—“stems from local-level initiatives. These were people’s organizations.”

The boom of NGOs is indicative of Bangladeshis’ inclination to act in the name of some greater calling. Perhaps more than in any other country, protests and strikes are seen as legitimate avenues of political discourse here. Dhaka University is a battleground between the student arms of the two major parties—the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. The campus cafeteria is referred to as “the second parliament” due to the number of student leaders who later became members of the national assembly. “It is a landmark for identity because of its powerful influence in shaping the ethos, the values, and the goals that were pursued by the country’s founders,” said Kamal Hossain. The Language Movement, which initiated Bangladesh’s campaign for independence, began at Dhaka University.

“The history of our country is one of sacrifice and struggle,” Manabendra Dev said to me one afternoon in the “second parliament.” People’s movements have defeated foreign armies, overthrown a military government, and forced concessions from a multinational energy giant. (In August 2006, Asia Energy Corporation abandoned a lucrative open-pit coal-mining project in Fulbari, a city in the northwest, after months of demonstrations against their shady dealings and environmentally damaging work.) With this kind of track record, people are optimistic that society will be able to repel the forces of fundamentalism.

As part of their efforts, Shahriar Kabir’s Nirmul Committee has built 80 private libraries around the country, targeting places where the Islamist parties are strongest. Each library doubles as a museum for the Liberation War; while Jamaat-e-Islami is trying to put 1971 behind them, Kabir’s libraries are keeping the narrative alive. In Chittagong, the second-largest city, there are 13 libraries. At the Double Mooring library there, 105 members—mostly teenage boys—pay an annual fee of five taka, or about 14 cents, for borrowing privileges. The shelves contain some of Kabir’s own work (he has written more than 70 fiction and non-fiction books), classics by Tagore, Bengali translations of The Old Man and the Sea and Harry Potter, and a section about the mukhti bahini. Arif Ahmed, a boy in his early teens with a spiky haircut, had just finished reading a Bengali translation of Hamlet on the day of my visit. His thoughts on Shakespeare? “Not my favourite. It was too much all about kings.”

Later that night, Kamran Hasan Badal, the president of Nirmul’s Chittagong chapter of libraries, explained what he hoped to accomplish. Badal and I sat on a bench in front of a hip bookstore in downtown Chittagong where poets regularly gather to sip tea and converse. He wore a blue plaid shirt and was freshly shaven. “Secular education is often not available outside of the cities. There is only madrasa education,” Badal said. “We want to start a debate through the libraries about what kind of secularism is best for Bangladesh.” While children are allowed to check out books for older siblings and parents, the Nirmul libraries are oriented toward the minds of the next generation—and their thoughts about secularism. Badal added that a top priority of a secular state should be to protect the rights of religious minorities. “When the Hindus and the Ahmadiyyas have been attacked by Islamists in the past, the government doesn’t do anything. It has to ensure the safety of minorities.”

The longer we spoke, the more I sensed Badal’s animosity toward anyone who wore a headscarf or beard. I asked how he differentiated between symbols of religious revivalism and so-called “Talibanization.” There seemed little room for compromise in his mind. “We are against anyone who capitalizes on religion for political gains,” he said.

After our conversation I left the quiet alley where the bookstore was located and stepped into the frenetic streets of Chittagong. A slight chill made the February night air refreshing. I thought about Badal’s ideas and compared them to things I had heard from Swapan Bhuiyan, Abul Barkat, and Shahriar Kabir. Besides being staunch secularists, all four men’s world views were rooted in intellectual traditions springing from the left. They romanticized the downtrodden. But in trying to protect the rights of tens of thousands of downtrodden Hindus from the aggressive Islamists, were they neglecting the plight of tens of millions of downtrodden Muslims?

On the night of January 11, 2007, after three months of violent protests, President Iajuddin Ahmed declared a state of emergency. The move dashed the hopes of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Jamaat-e-Islami, whose alliance was heading for a landslide victory in the January 22 elections; in early January, the Awami League–led opposition bloc had announced its intention to boycott the polls. The decision to boycott convinced the international community that January elections could be neither free nor fair. By the time I arrived in Dhaka on the morning of January 13, the army had postponed the election.

In the following weeks, army and police units launched an aggressive anticorruption drive. Scheduling an interview in Dhaka became difficult. Many politicians turned off their mobile phones and slept at a different place each night. Dozens of high-ranking politicians from the Bangladesh Nationalist Party were arrested, including the son of Khaleda Zia, the former prime minister. But Jamaat-e-Islami remained unsullied by corruption charges. In fact, they emerged sounding like model democrats. “The constitution has been violated,” Muhammad Kamaruzzaman, the Jamaat-e-Islami leader, said during our meeting in late January. “The election should have been held. Whether a party decides to participate or not, this shouldn’t be a consideration.”

Mustafizur Rahman, the research director at the Center for Policy Dialogue, a think tank in Dhaka, said, “Jamaat-e-Islami has handled things very tactfully. They just aren’t into the business of extortion like the other two parties,” he added, referring to the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Awami League. A top army general, who asked not to be identified, said, “Every devil has its pluses and minuses. And at least Jamaat is relatively honest.” Their party workers, the general added, are the only people in the country who show up for anything on time, “pencils sharpened and ready to take notes.”

Even Harry K. Thomas, the former American ambassador to Bangladesh, described Jamaat-e-Islami on several occasions as a “moderate” and “democratic” party. It is the only large party in Bangladesh whose internal affairs and promotions are based on merit and elections. (The mainstream parties are driven by personality cults and family connections.) Most of its members are university educated, English-speaking, and know how to speak to Western journalists. “Our idea is to bring change through a constitutional and democratic process,” Kamaruzzaman said.

Jamaat-e-Islami’s commitment to elections puts voters in an awkward situation. What constitutes democracy? Is it elections? Or liberalism? Should voters back a liberal, one-woman party like the Bangladesh Nationalist Party or the Awami League? Or the democratic but illiberal Jamaat-e-Islami? Who is a liberal, democratic Bangladeshi to support?

In light of the mainstream parties’ autocratic ways and backroom deals with Islamist parties, Abul Barkat is relying on civil-society groups to build and sustain a convincing model of secularism. Though the Islamists are strong, he is confident that they aren’t going to win. “Jamaat-e-Islami can only succeed if we, as civil society, fail,” he said. He rehashed his days as a freedom fighter and nodded slowly, as if impressed by his own strength of character. “The burden is on us.”

After our first meeting at Al-Markazul Islami, Mufti Shahidul Islam and I stayed in frequent contact. I think he liked having an American friend; perhaps he thought our relationship would shield him from allegations of being pro-Taliban. But on the first Friday in February he didn’t show up for a planned meeting at the headquarters of Al-Markazul Islami. When I inquired into his whereabouts, a colleague of his told me that he was in bed. “High blood pressure,” he added. Four days later, Shahidul was arrested for having links to militant Islamist organizations.

The following morning, I visited Kamal Hossain, the former law minister, who wrote the 1972 constitution. Hossain has a deep voice and modest bulges of fat around his cheeks and knuckles. He heads a political party known as the People’s Forum. I met him at his house, where we sat in a room with towering ceilings, Turkmen carpets, and glass coffee tables.

“I see that the army arrested a political ally of yours yesterday.”

“Mine? No, no, no,” Hossain said. His party belonged to the Awami League’s electoral alliance that Khelafat Majlish had joined. He glared at me. “I feel insulted and offended and outraged that I should be called an ally of this man. The signing of the deal with Khelafat Majlish was about rank opportunism and totally unprincipled politics,” he said. Spittle collected on his lips. “Some of us are still guided by principle.”

Hossain describes himself as faithful Muslim, but he is also a militant secularist. He admires the way that the U.S. Constitution framed secularism. The rise of groups like Khelafat Majlish and Jamaat-e-Islami, he believes, is totally anathema to that style of secularism. “I go into the Jamaat areas and tell them, ‘You have completed misinterpreted Islam. The Prophet didn’t summon you as guides. We had Islam in Bengal for 700 years and we didn’t need you then. You did the wrong thing in 1971—and it would be just as well if you stayed out.’ ” From 1998 to 2003, Hossain had similar conversations with the Taliban government of Mullah Omar while he was serving as the UN Special Rapporteur to Afghanistan. “ ‘Who keeps telling you this nonsense that women can’t work?’ I’d ask them. ‘The Prophet’s wife was a business lady and you don’t even let them go to school.’ ”

As the author of the 1972 constitution, Hossain played as pivotal a role as anyone in deciding the nature of secularism in Bangladesh. I asked him if he ever imagined that he would see the day when the Awami League would be signing agreements with Islamist parties. “Absolutely not,” he said. In fact, he says he often asks himself, “What have we done to deserve this?”

Hossain struggles to determine a proper course of action. Immediately after the Awami League signed the memorandum of understanding with Khelafat Majlish, many secular-minded people experienced near paralysis. Hossain cautions that, especially now, society should be vigilant not to be “psychologically blackmailed” into inaction.

But inaction is only one possibility. Overreaction is another.

One evening, near his hometown of Dinajpur, Swapan Bhuiyan and I were sitting on a flat-bed trolley being pulled by a bicycle when we passed a one-room madrasa standing in the middle of a rice patty. Banana and coconut trees leaned over the ramshackle structure. “They are training terrorists there,” Bhuiyan said.

The madrasa sign was written in Bengali and Urdu, and I could see that the seminary was for young women memorizing the Quran. “Swapan, it’s a girl’s madrasa,” I chuckled. “Not all madrasas and mosques are training terrorists.”

He jerked his head side to side. Then he shared a short Bengali parable with me. In it, a cow gets burned by fire. The rest of its life, the cow is too afraid to even look at the sunset.

Bhuiyan paused. “We are thinking like that,” he said. “When we hear about a new madrasa we get frightened.” #

This article was first published in Boston Review, May/June 2007

Nicholas Schmidle is a writer and fellow at the Institute of Current World Affairs

Interim Government’s Crusade Against Family Politics


THE current interim government of Bangladesh especially its Law Advisor would like to eliminate 'family politics' from Bangladesh. He has launched a crusade. This means, government would prohibit any close relatives of any political leader to run for or even hold any public office. Such family politics is considered bad to many as Sheikh Hasina, former Prime Minister and the leader of the oldest and the largest grass root political party of Bangladesh, the Awami League (AL) happened to be the daughter of Bangladesh founder, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and Begum Khaleda Zia, the immediate past Prime Minister and the leader of the second largest party, the BNP happened to be the widower of Maj. Gen. Ziaur Rahman, who emerged as a ‘strong man’ and subsequently became President after a military coup in 1975. The situation, as per many became intolerable in recent years mainly due to excesses of Tareque Rahman, Arafat Rahman, sons of Khaleda Zia and Major (retd.) Sayeed Iskander, brother of Gen. Zia. In the AL camp, few close relatives of Sheikh Hasina such as Sheikh Selim, Sheikh Helaluddin, Amir Hossain Amu, and Hasnath Abdullah, all elected MPs had more access to Sheikh Hasina. They have been in politics since their school days and many of them are known in political circles as good organizers.

Although population wise Bangladesh is a big country and it has nearly 147 million, however, in the area of managing the government and enjoying benefits, only a few families get upper hand. It is not new either. Once when General Zia asked me about the size of Bangladesh population during his trip to Iran in 1977, I gave him two figures; one was 81 million and the other was 10 thousand. His then Finance Advisor Dr. M. N. Huda was surprised at it and wanted to know why did I mention two figures? I told him, 81 million to get foreign aid and assistance, and 10,000 are those for whom all resources are devoted and all rules and regulations are designed and made for their well being. Now due to garment factory owners /exporters, apartment builders and additional government employees that 10 thousand increased to, maybe, 100,000 or less. Nevertheless, only few families still run the show whether in a political or a technocratic government in Bangladesh. For example, currently, Chief Advisor Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed picked up few of his own relatives---his wife’s youngest brother Dr. Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury as his Foreign Advisor, his nephew's wife, Geteara Safiya as his Industry Advisor, and his batch mate and old friend, Dr. Mirza Azizul Islam as his Finance Advisor. But all of them are highly competent and therefore, 'family politics' is not necessarily bad. He picked them up as he can trust them and can have confidence on them. President Clinton, one of the most successful Presidents of the U. S. appointed most of his college mates as his secretaries as he had confidence in them.

Dr. ATM Shamsul Huda, current Chief Election Commissioner is the brother-in-law of our Education Advisor Ayub Quaderi. Does it mean Dr. Huda or Ayub Quaderi, one or the other, should not be allowed to hold office? No. If they are competent, let them hold the office to serve the community and the nation. Similarly, replacement of Dr. Iftekhar Chowdhury and Mrs. Geteara Safiya, grand daughter of our pride Dr. Mohammed Shahidullah would be a disservice.

Person who appears to be mostly vocal against 'family politics' is our Law Advisor Mainul Hossein. Reportedly he wanted to have the AL nomination in the last election for his 2nd son against the seat of his estranged brother Anwar Hossain Monzu, former Minister. They both are known primarily because of their great father, Toffazal Hossain Manik Mia, editor of the daily Ittefaq. Major (retd.) Sayeed Iskander's wife is the sister of the wife of Maj. Gen. Masud, the 9th Div commander. General Masud is also the current Chief Coordinator of Anti-Corruption cases. Does it mean that Gen. Masud cannot hold office as his relatives, Major (retd.) Sayeed Iskander, Tarique Zia or Arafat Zia are being investigated for corruption? In mature economies, where there is possibility of questions of partisanship, in such cases, the official involved generally withdraw from handling such cases to maintain neutrality and ethics. However, such does not disqualify them from holding the public office.

Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed's two close relatives basically his wife's elder brothers, Faruque Ahmed Chowdhury is the AL Adviser and the other brother Enam Ahmed Chowdhury is the BNP Adviser. Current Corruption Commission Chairman, Lt. Gen (Retd.) Mashud Chowdhury is also their relative. However, they are all highly qualified and competent and the nation needs their services. Therefore, such 'family politics' slogan ‘without any qualification’ could be politically cheap but may not serve the people's or nation's long term interest. Rather, such combination may reduce political polarization and rivalries that caused harm to the nation in the recent past.

Family politics is common especially in South Asia and even in mature democracies such as USA and India. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's daughter Benazir Bhutto was the Prime Minister of Pakistan and also the President of the PPP party due to her father, so is the case of Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, and Rahul Gandhi and in Sri Lanka, Sreemavo Bandaranayke or Kumarathanga. President Sukarno's daughter Sukarnoputri became President of Indonesia.

Even in USA such is not uncommon. Massachusetts is known as the ‘spirit of America’ and ‘conscience of the world’. This state is the pioneer of many progressive movements including the independence of USA in 1770s and its leaders and educators spearheaded the support for independence of Bangladesh in 1971 at a time when the U. S. administration was opposed to it. In such progressive state, family and ethnic politics is still very ripe. Former Mass Senate President William Bulger, a very powerful politician who recently retired as the Chancellor of the University of Massachusetts has never been prohibited to do politics although his older brother, James Whitey Bulger has been a notorious mobster and a fugitive over last many decades. His brother’s criminal record did not prohibit Bill Bulger to hold public office for years. The basic reason is ‘serving in public office’ is one’s basic civil and human rights irrespective of family ties. In fact, as per holy book the Quran, every individual, male or female, irrespective of his or her family ties would be independently treated on the Day of Judgment.

American democracy has matured over centuries. It’s not perfect but maybe better than that of others. Yet it has ‘family politics’. The 41st President George H. W. Bush's son 43rd President George W. Bush who is messing up the world is second such case in USA since John and Quincy Adams, father and son who were the 2nd and the 6th Presidents of the U. S. If President Bush, the 43rd would not have been so unpopular, his brother Governor Jeb Bush could have been a Presidential candidate now. Least we forget the great Kennedy clan --- a family that has been leading the politics of the U. S. and the free world for last many decades. They are the mouth piece and hope of millions of people primarily the deprived and the have-nots across the globe. Undoubtedly, they are competent, sacrificing and dynamic. They have the courage and vision and they can face any challenge in spite of their family misfortunes one after another. If they would have been deprived on the basis of 'family politics', their constituents and the greater world would have been a net loser. Currently, Hillary Rodham Clinton is getting lot of support for her husband President Bill Clinton---- the New Yorkers are happy to have her as their State Senator and millions of Americans are pleased to have her as their leader. Under Barrister Mainul Hossein's formula, she would have been disqualified to run for office and her constituents would have lost her commendable services. Therefore, Advisor Mainul Hossein's crusade or jihad should have been against 'incompetent people' not necessarily against 'family politics'. Question is; will Mainul Hossein disqualify Barrister Anisul Islam Mahmud, former Foreign Minister to hold public office only because he is his beyei, his son’s father-in-law? We hope not. #

Dr. Abdul Momen, a professor of economics and business management, Boston, USA

This article was contributed on May 19, 2007

Friday, May 18, 2007

My angst over the gruesome killing of Cholesh Richil, a minority community leader


Because of the folly of a few politicians who wanted to rig the election by questionable means our motherland, Bangladesh, went through a period of turmoil and turbulence before the current government under Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed took over power. The people of Bangladesh including the expatriate Bangalees were happy to see the change of the government. It was anticipated that Bangladesh would be governed by a well-educated and well-experienced person like Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed, who would uphold the rule of law and human rights in Bangladesh. As far as I remember, he himself expressed his determination in his first speech to maintain the human rights and rule of law for the people of Bangladesh. Unfortunately, there occurred a number of disturbing incidences in Bangladesh while the government is headed by a western-educated individual like Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed, who seemingly appeared to be committed to prevent any violation of human rights.

One of the disturbing occurrences is the killing of Mr. Cholesh Richil (a Garo tribe leader) by the combined forces consisting of army, police, and rapid action battalion. Dr. Zafar Iqbal wrote a sub-editorial on the gruesome killing of Mr. Richil by the combined forces in vernacular newspaper, Prothom-Alo, a few days ago. It is difficult to control emotion for the victim, Mr. Cholesh Richil and to control anger against those who committed the crime by killing him mercilessly. The description of the killing given by Dr. Zafar Iqbal exposed the sadistic and animalistic nature of those individuals, who killed the minority community leader from Madhupur area of Mymensingh district.

Dr. Zafar Iqbal’s sub-editorial indicates that Mr. Richil was returning from the wedding ceremony of his nephew while he was picked up by forty armed persons of the combined forces. They took him to their camp where they tied the victim to a window grill. An officer ordered his people to give Mr. Richil a lesson. Following the army boss’s order, nine people started beating Mr. Richil in an inhuman and brutal fashion. At one point, Mr. Richil started throwing blood through his mouth and became unconscious. When he got his conscious back, the killers started to beat him again. Then, they poured hot water through the nose of the victim. The killers did several things that include: taking his nails off from the fingers, inserting nails in his hands and legs, and gauged his eyes. Dr. Zafar Iqbal knew about many more torture unleashed upon Mr. Richil but these were so brutal, sadistic, and animalistic that he preferred not to mention them at all. Finally, the hapless victim died in the hands of his killers of the combined forces. We saw and heard about these brutalities by the Pakistani military in 1971 but in 2007 Mr. Richil was tortured and killed by the combined forces of his own country Bangladesh, which receives 100% of its funding from taxpayers such as Mr. Richil.

There are ample reasons why the combined forces targeted the Garo community leader. Read on and you will learn more on this. Originally, Mr. Cholesh Richil antagonized the fundamentalist alliance government under Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Jamaat-i-Islami (JI). The government wanted to establish an Eco-Park in Modhupur, where Garo tribe people lived. It was planned to evict about twenty five thousand Garo tribe people systematically from Modhupur. Mr. Cholesh Richil organized the Garo tribe people and subsequently led a protest rally on January 3, 2004. The police forces under then fundamentalist government fired shots mercilessly at the rally. One person died and many tribal people were wounded. Subsequently, the government filed five thousand cases against the Garo people in Modhupur police station. In almost all the cases, Cholesh Richil was named as an accused. Under protest from different quarters along with the tribe people, the government stopped building the Eco-Park. In the emergency rule under the government of Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed, the works on building the Eco-Park resumed. Mr. Cholesh Richil again organized the tribe people and protested. As a consequence, he was picked up and later killed by a group of people belonging to the combined forces.

In a Bangla vernacular newspaper it was recently mentioned that the forest department officials in Madhupur has adversarial relationship with Mr. Richil. The Garo community leader opposed indiscriminate cutting of the trees in the nearby forest. In all likelihood the forest officials were illegally cutting the trees to pocket the money. Therefore, they also targeted Mr. Richil for harassment. It makes sense why the government forces had arrested the minority community leader.

In another development, in the SAARC summit, Asian Center for Human Rights sent the description of this brutal killing to the participating heads of the governments of the member countries. The head of Bangladesh government Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed should know about the brutal killing of Mr. Cholesh Richil. Since the home ministry and the government as a whole is under his control, it is our expectation that Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed would take necessary steps to bring those into justice, who committed such a gruesome murder and crime. If he remains silent and indifferent, then there will be enough reasons for people to doubt about his sincerity in terms of establishing human rights and rule of law throughout Bangladesh. Anyone can evaluate him as a man full of words but not full of deeds. He should act because for a few bad people, the principle of the armed forces and the law enforcement agency people of Bangladesh should not be questioned in the whole world. The inertness on Dr. Fakhruddin's part will not enhance the sagging image of his government and the country as a whole.

In the past, while the newsman, Tipu Sultan was beaten by Joynal Hazari’s goons, the newspapers took an active role to protest and raised funds for the victim. Even some of the expatriate Bangalees took very praise-worthy steps to collect funds. It is a mystery for a relative silence of the media and other organizations on the brutal and gruesome murder of Mr. Cholesh Richil. I sincerely hope that Mr. Richil’s ethnicity is not the reason for this deafening silence and indifference on the part of mainstream newspapers. I hope that all will come forward and will raise their strong voice to protest the killing of an innocent man, who was killed so brutally and mercilessly. #

SHABBIR AHMED is an engineer in Jacksonville, Florida. He graduated from BUET & obtained M.S. in Mathematics from the Univ. of Tennessee and Ph.D. in civil engineering from the City Univ. of New York

Bangladesh under emergency rule for 125 days: A dismal report card


THE big bombshell from the U.S. Senate reached Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed’s desk on May 15, 2007. Fifteen prominent U.S. senators including John Kerry, Ted Kennedy, and Hillary Clinton wrote collectively a letter to the Chief Advisor requesting him to lift immediately the emergency rule, restore full civil rights of people, and disclose a roadmap towards a free and fair election. It will be interesting to note how the caretaker government reacts to this high octane plea.

No one really told the 145 million citizens of Bangladesh to fasten their seat belt for the nation’s uncertain and bumpy ride. And bumpy it was. This article will summarize the triumph and failure of the military-backed technocrat run administration, a first of a kind for this beleaguered nation that has seen many ups and downs in the last 35 years.

Bangladesh started out being a war-torn nation in December 1971 after fighting a bloody war against an occupation force in which an estimated 3 million people lost their lives. The nation became a Peoples’ Republic after a new secular constitution was ratified by the national assembly. A parliamentary election was held in March 1973 to legitimize the first government led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. However, Bangladesh’s journey to democracy was derailed by army on August 15, 1975. The nation was virtually under military rule for the next 15 years during which time two successive military General rule this tiny nation with absolute power. In late 1980s when Eastern European nations one-by-one came out of the Soviet bloc to embrace democracy and free market economy, the whirlwind also touched Bangladesh. Democracy re-entered the nation of about 100 million in 1991. The military leader was not only booted out of office but also disgraced and jailed on corruption charges; in its place came a truly democratic government. Three consecutive democratically elected governments ruled the impoverished nation from 1992 through 2006. I won’t call the democracy as practiced in Bangladesh a perfect system but the nation made a stride to establish various institutions to foster democracy.

Even though the nation made progress in various field notably in food production during 1996 through 2001 and made inroads in garments and apparel industries but politically-backed corruption and graft were on the rise exponentially. The country topped the list of most corruption consecutively for the last 3-4 years as per Transparency International (TI), which assigns the ranking of most corrupt nations on earth. Also, the very political parties that ruled the nation for last 15 years were not practicing democracy themselves. The leadership was confined to two political families and there were no signs in the horizon to indicate that the leadership of two major parties was about to change anytime soon. The corruption was so endemic and deep rooted that the eldest son of Khaleda Zia, the departing Prime Minister earned the dubious distinction of Mr. Ten Percent. The prodigal son ran a parallel government and he took bribes right and left thus becoming a billionaire in a short span of 5 years. A new class of super rich was born in Bangladesh; they all had connection to the past government of Khaleda Zia. Such were the ground realities in Bangladesh.

In October 2006, Khaleda Zia’s government resigned after completing the term and the nation was preparing to hold another parliamentary election on January 22, 2007. The opposition vehemently protested against the holding of election fearing that a level playing field did not exist and the administration and election commission was restructured by departing administration in a way to allow for massive vote rigging. The opposition also complained about the veracity of the voters’ list, which supposedly contained 10% fake voters. A supposedly “neutral” interim caretaker government took power in the last week of October 2006 headed by the partisan president by breaching the constitution. That caretaker government did not do any reform of the Election Commission and nor did they correct the voters’ list that contained enough ghost voters to sway the election result in favor of Khaleda Zia’s party. Consequently, there was a stalemate, which led to the paralysis in government. On January 11, 2007 barely 11 days before the election emergency was declared at the behest of the military. Buckled under pressure, the partisan president, Iajuddin Ahmed, resigned from the position of the chief adviser of caretaker government. A new interim government was formed on January 12, 2007 again breaching the constitution, which was led by 10 technocrats headed by Fakhruddin Ahmed.

The events of last 125 days under the military-backed interim government kept the masses on their toe. The government was set to clean up the Augean stable of Bangladesh politics. A massive campaign by the joint forces of police, RAB, and military netted about 160,000 citizens from the four corners of the country. About 100 political leaders and dozens of top businessmen were also incarcerated. The government is trying to frame cases against the arrested politicians and businessmen. This Herculean task has earned a good reputation for the interim government both inside the country and abroad.

The second task the government took was to reform the existing political parties. They formulated a plan, which was dubbed by the press as "Minus Two" plan. Under this plan the two party chairpersons, Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina Wazed, would be sent to exile and the two major parties, Awami League and BNP, would undergo reform. It was expected that the new leadership will take charge of these two parties. There was another initiative taken by the military-backed government that concerns the birth of a third political party. Bangladesh’s glitterati Nobel Laureate, Muhammad Yunus, was propped up to float a party. The government thought the voters would show their solidarity with Yunus’s new party. However, the high-tech method that Yunus chose to communicate with the masses did not garner him any support from the hoi polloi and the initiative just simply withered in the vine. Rumor is persistent now that the government is trying to float yet another new party headed by Dr. Kamal Husein, the leader of Gono Forum. It is expected that many seasoned politicians from BNP would join the new party. It however remains to be seen what lies ahead vis-à-vis the floating of this third party.

In March 2007 Sheikh Hasina visited America to be with her son and daughter’s family. A month later, the government blocked Hasina’s re-entry to Bangladesh by declaring her a persona non grata. This move by the government eventually backfired. Hasina garnered enough support both inside the nation and abroad and the government swallowed their pride while lifting the ban. The government’s half-hearted effort to force Khaleda Zia to find a safe haven in Saudi Arabia also failed miserably. In a hurry, the government abandoned their “Minus Two” policy to reform the political parties. Hasina triumphantly returned home on May 7, 2007. Defying the emergency rule an estimated 25,000 people flocked to the air port and vicinity to greet her.

The interim government did everything to prolong their grip on power. It spent too much time to accost the alleged corrupt politicians without reforming the election commission. It revamped the anti corruption commission placing a new administrator from military background. However, no real effort was made to change the voters’ list. The government to support their ‘go slow’ policy said it may take 2 years before the election could be held. Sheikh Hasina vehemently protested against the long delay and the US Administration is also applying pressure on the government to hold the election at an earlier date.

The two major areas where the interim government failed miserably are: controlling the price of staples and foodstuffs; gross human rights violation. The spiraling price hike of rice, lentil, and other agro-commodities led to inflationary tendencies in Bangladesh. The government essentially failed to check the inflation. This is causing a great deal of concern among Bangladeshis. There are no signs anywhere that indicate the inflationary pressure is ebbing. If this trend continues, the interim government may become very unpopular and the politicians may foment agitation by their incendiary remarks.

The Fakhruddin Administration has earned a bad name due to their poor human rights record. First, to clean up the capital the government demolished slums that housed tens and thousands of poor people. The poor has no lobby whatsoever; therefore, the government in their zeal to clean up the capital city had displaced thousands of residents. Second, an estimated 170,000 people or even more are now languishing in jail without any formal charge against them. Third, the elite law and order force, RAB, had killed few dozens people under custody. Fourth, the military also killed many people and one such instance had caught the attention of International organizations, Amnesty International that deal in human rights violation. Bangladesh’s premier civil rights organization, Odhikar; is also very vocal on the spate of civil rights violation carried out by government’s forces.

A tribal leader belonging to Garo community was arrested by the military, tortured, and killed in March 2007. This news has already embarrassed the government but a deafening silence centering this gross abuse of human rights has mired the military and the government. The Fakhruddin Administration is acting like the proverbial ostrich by burying its head in the sand. The human rights abuses done by the government agencies may however break the proverbial camel’s back. Bangladesh already had portrayed a bad image in respect to corruption by the powerful bodies and on top of it the nation will surely earn the distinction of most violator of human rights.

In summary, the Fakhruddin Administration is in power for over 125 days. Some say that it is a government that cannot be supported by the existing constitution of the country. While the government is trying to break the monopoly of the two families, the Chief Advisor had appointed three of his family members in the interim government. Some progress has been achieved to apprehend corrupt politicians but the administration is too slow to frame charges against the arrestee. The government’s initiatives to float a new political party centering Yunus had failed and so did the exile attempt on Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia. There are persistent rumor that the government is working to float yet another party with the help of Dr. Kamal Husein. The inflationary pressure on foodstuffs has not yet ebbed thus causing price to escalate further. The government gets an F mark in upholding the civil rights of the citizens. The death of Cholesh Richil, the Garo community leader and others who dies under custody may make waves and send a very negative image of the nation. The government is surely acting like a behemoth too slow to prepare the voter list. While the spokesperson for the government had alluded to the media that it may take even two years to hold the election, the major political parties are showing their dissatisfaction to the proposal. And now comes the wake-up call from 15 senior U.S. senators. The road to next election is bumpy and strewn thick with uncertainties. Therefore, stay tuned because more is yet to come. #

Dr. A.H. Jaffor Ullah, a researcher and columnist, writes from New Orleans, USA