Bangladesh: Playing with fire

South Asia Citizen's Wire
There is a long-held and deeply cherished conviction among Bangladeshi Muslims that we are a tolerant and moderate people - an editorial by Zafar Sobhan.
We tell ourselves again and again that there is no history of religious extremism in Bangladesh, that we have lived side by side with our Hindu, Christian, and Buddhist neighbours for generations without incident, and that there is no fear of the emergence of a Bangladeshi Taliban any time soon.
We are not concerned when religious extremists gain in power and popularity around the world from Iran to Indonesia. We tell ourselves that this kind of thing could never happen here, and dismiss out of hand suggestions that there are al Qaeda cells operating in the country or that we are a haven for international terror.

There have been any number of atrocities perpetrated over the years that can credibly be attributed to religious extremists. But we are slow to rush to judgment and even-handed in our condemnation.

If guilt cannot be determined -- as in the case of the recent attack on Humayun Azad -- we shrug our shoulders and say that it wouldn't be right to point fingers and affix blame to a certain party when the facts remain unclear.

In cases where the culpability of extremists has been determined or is openly admitted by them, we comfort ourselves by saying these are merely the actions of a marginalised and unpopular minority with no support among the general public.

Sure, religious parties now hold seventeen seats in parliament, up from two in 1996, and indeed control important cabinet positions and ministries due to their partnership in the ruling alliance.

But these people are democrats, we tell ourselves. They respect the rule of law and contest elections. They do not wish to turn Bangladesh into a theocracy, but merely to bring much-needed morality back into the public sphere.

Sure, extremists are campaigning around the country for the passage of a blasphemy law and to have the government declare Ahmadiyyas non-Muslims.

Sure, they have recently succeeded in convincing the government to ban Ahmadiyya books, and the persecution of Ahmadiyyas around the country is on the increase.

But this is nothing to worry about, we tell ourselves. We are a tolerant and moderate people and the more extreme strains of Islam will never take root here.

There may be reason now, however, to begin to doubt this conventional wisdom that has held sway for so long.

The first indication that perhaps we are not quite as moderate and tolerant as we like to believe is the recent ban on Ahmadiyya books.

If we are so moderate and tolerant, how come there has not been more of an outcry? If the extremists are such a minority, how is it that they have succeeded in getting their way?

The banning of Ahmadiyya publications shows us that numbers are not everything. Even a small minority can get their way if they make enough noise and if they are have the tacit backing of the government and are not opposed forcefully by the public.

But surely the most ominous sign in Bangladeshi politics in recent months is the emergence of the underground group Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh that is intent on enforcing its own brand of militant Islam.

The JMJB, which has been active for the past six years, came to public attention in April, with its vigilante campaign in the northwest.

The four districts in which the vigilante campaign is being conducted -- Rajshahi, Naogaon, Natore, and Bogra -- have long been the stomping grounds for the outlaw Purbo Bangla Communist Party, and the campaign that the JMJB is undertaking is to combat PBCP cadres, or Sarbaharas, as they are popularly known.

The JMJB are operating with the support of the local police and have reportedly killed seven people and assaulted hundreds of others in their drive against the Sarbaharas that began on April 1 this year.

Not only is the group accused of operating a detention centre where suspected Sarbahara men are tortured with impunity, but locals speak of a reign of terror under which anyone who opposes the group is accused of being an outlaw and dealt with accordingly.

In addition to kicking off a movement to rid the region of those it deems outlaws, the JMJB is also intent on establishing its own brand of Islam. To this end, JMJB operatives are reportedly forcing men to grow beards and women to wear burkhas, and have painted women with their navels exposed with black.

The group, which is headquartered in Dhaka and has bases all across the country, claims that 4,000 Sarbahara men have surrendered to it since the start of their operation, and that the group's nationwide membership numbers 300,000 and is growing every day.

Could the JMJB be the future of Bangladesh?

It is telling that the JMJB is operating with the full support of the authorities in the northwest. The divisional inspector general of police in Rajshahi division confirms that he has asked local police to work together with the JMJB, and the state minister for home affairs has said that he encourages such collaboration.

Both the DIG and the minister stressed that no one would be permitted to take the law into their own hands and that the police were keeping an eye open to ensure that there no excesses are committed.

But this is a dangerous game that the government is playing. Its collaboration with the JMJB is encouraging and validating both vigilante justice and religious extremism. The alliances of convenience that it has entered into will only make the extremists stronger and give them more legitimacy.

The banning of Ahmadiyya books has provided a real boost to the extremists, who have used the ban to drum up hatred and intolerance, and have seen their numbers swell as a result. Since the enactment of the ban, the movement against the Ahmadiyyas now has the imprimatur of official respectability.

And the official backing for the JMJB's campaign in the northwest can only serve to further consolidate their power and prestige.

Make no mistake about it -- the extremists are in the ascendancy and it is the government that is enabling this.

In the long run, the end result of this alignment with extremists will be to empower them to such an extent that in the not too distant future they might be the ones calling the shots.

But that could never happen in Bangladesh, right?


(Zafar Sobhan is an Assistant Editor of The Daily Star.)

Originally published in the May 14, 2004 edition of The Daily Star [Bangladesh]