The Rising Tide of Islamism in Bangladesh

By Hossain, Maneeza | Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, January 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

The Rising Tide of Islamism in Bangladesh


Hossain, Maneeza, Current Trends in Islamist Ideology


On August 17, 2005, three hundred bombs detonated almost simultaneously throughout Bangladesh. The massive attack sent shockwaves across Bangladesh, the third largest country in the Muslim world. Since then, Islamist-inspired violence in Bangladesh has escalated. At least five people were killed and more than 50 wounded in two December 8, 2005 bomb attacks in Netrokona, in northern Bangladesh. In the last week of November, three bombs exploded near courthouses and a law office in the cities of Gazipur and Chittagong. Two days later, a suicide attack in Gazipur was followed by the discovery of nine bombs near government buildings in the south of the country that were eventually defused by police. According to media reports that same week, the British diplomatic mission in Dhaka received a threat from someone claiming ties to al-Qaeda against its building as well as those of the United States and other European countries. In midNovember, two judges were assassinated by bombs.

The radical Islamist group believed to be behind the August attacks, the Jamatul Mujahidin (Party of Holy Warriors), is similar to other militant Islamist groups around the world. In a political pamphlet outlining its agenda, the group rejected any accommodation with non-Muslims and democratic government, calling instead for the implementation and enforcement of Islamic law:

In a Muslim country there can be no laws other than the laws of Allah... The Quran or hadith [examples from the Prophet's life] do not recognize any democratic or socialist system that is enacted by infidels and non-believers... [We] reject the constitution that conflicts with Allah's laws and call upon all to abandon the so-called election process and run the affairs of state according to the laws of Allah and the traditions of the Prophet.1

These are extremely worrisome developments, especially in Bangladesh, a country long thought to be a place of traditional Islamic moderation and tolerance. In recent years, Islamist political parties and terrorism have emerged as increasingly visible and destabilizing forces in the country. Their rise has been facilitated by the combination of several factors, including the increased infiltration of foreign-funded Salafist organizations, as well as the impact of returning of Bangladeshi migrant workers who have been imbued with Salafist ideas during their stays in the Middle East. Even more worrisome is that the Bangladeshi government has only just begun to face these grave realities.2 In fact, it is not clear whether any response from the government, which continues to be plagued by political impotence and entrenched corruption, will be effective in dealing with the threats posed by Islamism and radical Islam. A recent analysis in Jane's Intelligence Review has described Bangladesh as "on the brink of being a failed state," and warned of its vulnerability to "al-Qaeda and its ever-expanding network of Islamic extremist organizations."3

For reasons both understandable and also regrettable, U.S. policymakers dealing with South Asia have focused their attention almost exclusively on the problems of Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan and political instability in Pakistan. But the rising tide of Islamism in long tranquil Bangladesh requires a fresh look. Should Bangladesh become a safe-haven for radical Islam, the impact upon the global war on terrorism in the region and elsewhere would be truly severe.

Undoing Traditional Bangladesh

With the 1947 partition of India, East Bengal, the province that is now Bangladesh, became East Pakistan, united in government but not in territory with West Pakistan. While post-partition India proceeded toward consolidating its democratic trajectory, the Pakistani experience was much more checkered. The initial vote of East Bengal Muslims for inclusion into Pakistan reflected the tremendous complexity of identity in South Asia, with local, national, as well as religious dimensions. But Pakistan's claim to represent Muslims in the Indian subcontinent and a new Islamic nationalism backfired. …

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