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Islamist militancy, intimidation of journalists

Yesterday's prophecy and today's Bangladesh

By Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury

Saturday, July 21, 2007

For years, number of local and international analysts have been predicting rise of Islamic militancy in Bangladesh or the country turning into a failed state. Each time, when a foreign press published such comment, Bangladesh missions abroad or its very foreign ministry had simply denounced saying the country was holding a 'moderate' status and there was no room for Islamist militancy to find any root in the land, which is annually washed by floods and suffers from series of natural calamity. When such predictions were made by local newsmen, the state machinery did every time either bring notorious sedition charges or tried its best to apply numerous forms of intimidations, thus forcing many of those journalists to go into exile. Ask Saleem Samad, an eminent journalist in Dhaka, who is now trying to survive the bullets of Islamist militants by taking asylum in Canada. Or, at least ask Shahriar Kabir, another newsman, who is continuing to face series of adversities, threats and oppressions, just because he raised voice against radicals. Let me not mention about my own case, when I am surely making a journey towards death penalty when a questioned judge will begin the trial of a case the former government brought against me, accusing of sedition, treason and blasphemy. Why? Because, I denounced the culture of religious hatred and advocate inter-religious dialogues between Muslims Jews and Christians. Because, I confront Islamist radicals and kindergarten madrassa where innocent children are being indoctrinated towards jihad thus killing Jews and Christians. Because I support relations between Israel and the Muslim countries. Although Bangladesh proclaims to be a partner in war on terror, the prevailing situation in the country, is quite opposite to that. Radicals are gaining strength with every sun rise, and it is predicted of even a stronger grip of Islamofascists in the government after the next general election. Before assessing the exact situation in the land of 145 million people, let us take a glimpse of the world scenario, where Islamist militancy is taking deep to deeper root.

The war on terror is being fought in many areas, and much of it is not being widely reported. Iran, for example, has become a secret ally of al Qaeda and Shia Islamic radicals in Iraq. Normally, Iran sees al Qaeda as an enemy, because al Qaeda represents Sunni Arab radicals who consider Shias, particularly Iranian Shias, as heretics and potential targets for forcible conversion to the more correct Sunni form of Islam. Reports from American troops and Iranian moderates indicate that Islamic conservatives in Iran (who control the military, police and courts) have been supplying al Qaeda, and Shia radical, operations in Iraq with money, weapons, advisors and access to Iranian training and rest camps. Iran, of course, has long been identified as a supporter of terrorism against the United States. With American troops next door, Iranian terrorist organizations have an opportunity to do something about it without getting caught. The Iranian government, of course, denies everything. But Iran is being told, quietly for now, that continued support for Islamic radicalism in Iraq, terrorism in Iraq, or anywhere, will lead to retaliation. The Iranian radicals really believe they are on a mission from God, so these warnings may not have any effect. This is why you keep hearing talk of the U.S. attacking Iran. 

Meanwhile, in Yemen, the army has been fighting a thousand or so tribal fighters loyal to Islamic radical cleric Hussein al Houthi. The skirmishing and raids, going on since June, has left over 600 people dead. About a hundred Yemeni troops have died, the rest are Islamic radicals and civilians caught in the crossfire. The problem with this is that al Houthi and his followers are still on the loose, despite the best efforts of thousands of Yemeni troops, including some trained by American counter-terrorism experts. It's thought that some U.S. troops are involved, at least to provide intelligence support (UAVs and electronic eavesdropping.) To make things even more interesting, al Houthi is a Shia, as are about 30 percent of Yemenis. While the army believes they have al Houthi cornered, three attempts to negotiate with him have been refused.

Moving further to the west, we have Italy, which is currently being accused by other European nations as being a gateway for illegal immigration. Some 300,000 illegal immigrants are believed to enter Italy each year. Much of this is due to geography, not Italy's tolerating illegal migration. Italy is convenient for illegal migrants coming from Albania, North Africa and Turkey. In fact, Turkish drug smuggling gangs are switching to the more lucrative job of moving illegal migrants (for $4,000-$30,000 a head, depending on mode of transportation and quality of fake documents.) Because many of the smugglers, and those smuggled, are Moslems, there is fear that this illegal migration has become an efficient way for al Qaeda to get people into Europe. Something is being done about this aspect of the smuggling, but no one is saying exactly what. 

Going still further west, we find Morocco has about a thousand terrorist suspects in jail, and another two thousand under surveillance. This because Morocco has been a major source of al Qaeda recruits. Last year, suicide bombing attacks in Morocco left 45 dead, and twelve Moroccans were arrested for involvement in the Spanish railroad bombings earlier this year. The Moroccans are not about to get al Qaeda gain any traction in the country, and many al Qaeda members, or wannabes, are apparently fleeing Morocco.

On the other side of the world, Bangladesh is seeing an increase in Islamic radicals trying to terrorize the more moderate politicians who still dominate the country. This is being done relatively quietly, as two Islamic conservative political parties were part of the just past coalition running the country. The Islamic conservatives don't have the votes to control the country all by themselves, but they appear to have agreed to use terror to expand their power. Islamic conservatives are not nearly as powerful in Bangladesh (which, until the early 1970s, was "East Pakistan"), but they are definitely in Bangladesh, they are recruiting, and they are terrorizing, and killing, those that oppose them. 

According to international analysts, 'A revolution is taking place in Bangladesh' that threatens trouble for the region and beyond if left unchallenged. Islamic fundamentalism, religious intolerance, militant Muslim groups with links to international terrorist groups, a powerful military with ties to the militants, the mushrooming of Islamic schools churning out radical students, middle-class apathy, poverty and lawlessness-all are combining to transform the nation.

Sounds familiar? Just like Pakistan, its former overlord, this nation of 145 million people-the third-most populous in the Muslim world-is slowly moving away from its tradition of moderate Islam. And the government seems powerless and unwilling to stem the tide, which includes growing attacks on moderate Muslims and the dwindling Hindu population.

"There are some extremists here, but they belong to fringe groups and are not part of the mainstream," says a senior Western envoy in Dhaka, trying to downplay the threat.

The country's two leading parties the secular, left-leaning Awami League and the conservative Bangladesh Nationalist Party-were quick to condemn the September 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S., which left a number of Bangladeshis dead. At a time when the country was being ruled by an interim government ahead of a general election in October, both offered cooperation, including the use of Bangladesh airspace for U.S. warplanes.

While the Jamaat-e-Islami and other Islamist parties are moving cautiously toward their goal of an Islamic state, Jamaat-e-Islami's elevation to government has encouraged other more extreme Islamic fundamentalist groups and individuals. They range from rabble-rousing cleric Maulana Ubaidul Haq to around a dozen radical groups often referred to as the Bangladeshi Taliban. For example, Maulana Ubaidul Haq, preaching to hundreds of thousands of people, including cabinet ministers, at the national mosque in Dhaka, condemned the U.S. war on terrorism and called for a jihad against the Americans. "President Bush and America is the most heinous terrorist in the world. Both America and Bush must be destroyed. The Americans will be washed away if Bangladesh's 120 million Muslims spit on them," the cleric snarled in an address marking the Eid-ul-Fitr Muslim festival in Dhaka.

Thousands of Islamic militants took part in anti-U.S. street protests, many brandishing posters of bin Laden, while the fighting was taking place in Afghanistan.

They include the shadowy Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, which is believed to have been founded as an offshoot of a Pakistani group in 1992 with money and support from suspected global terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden. Western intelligence officials believe a certain Fazlur Rahman, who signed bin Laden's February 23, 1998, declaration of holy war on the U.S. on behalf of the Jihad Movement in Bangladesh, is an associate of the now independent group.

Moreover, the radicals' ranks are being swelled by graduates from the estimated 64,000 madrassas, or religious schools, which have mushroomed in the past decade and are described by a retired high-ranking civil servant as a "potential political time bomb."

Just as in Pakistan, the madrassas fill an important function in a country where basic education is available only to a few. But the government has no control over them and, as a Bangladeshi journalist wrote in a local magazine, "passing out from the madrassas, poorly equipped to enter mainstream life and professions, the students are easily lured by motivated quarters who capitalize on religious sentiment to create fanatics, rather than modern Muslims."

The madrassas' focus is on religious instruction and many are funded by proselytizing Afro-Arab charities- as in Pakistan, whose madrassas were the nurseries for many of Afghanistan's Taliban leaders. Some analysts fear Bangladesh's madrassas could also become exporters of Islamic revolution.

In the immediate term, Bangladesh's secular tradition is most at risk from the rise in fundamentalism. Attacks on Hindus, who generally support the staunchly secular Awami League, are increasing. "The intimidation of the minorities, which had begun before the election, became worse afterwards," said The Society for Environment and Human Development, a local non-governmental organization, in a report.

With all these proven facts, possibly there is some room for the conscious people in the world to be concerned about the rise of Islamist militancy in Bangladesh, especially after the series blasts that rocked the entire country in August 2005. Most importantly, even recently a number of Afghanistan returnee were held by law enforcing agencies with arms and explosives, who were allegedly working secretly with the agenda of establishing shariah law in Bangladesh. Indications and subsequent evidences are definitely worrisome.