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Islamists vs. Democracy

Maneeza Hossain

When the media cover Bangladesh, they do so mainly as a Third World disaster story. That may soon change, because an Islamist war against democracy is starting to be fought there. A grenade attack on an opposition rally last month, which barely made the news in the U.S., warns of growing conflict in the world’s second largest Muslim democracy (after Indonesia).

The Aug. 21 grenade attack appears to have been an attempt to assassinate Sheikh Hasina, leader of the opposition and Bangladesh’s second ever woman prime minister — she served from 1996-2001. She survived, but the assailants killed 13, including Ivy Rahman, a women’s activist. A previously unknown organization called the Hikmat al-Jihad (HAJ) claimed responsibility for the attack. Government officials, perhaps embarrassed that political violence in Bangladesh had made news abroad (even as a blip on CNN), initially argued that HAJ might well be fictitious. Two weeks later, however, HAJ sent death threats to prominent Awami League activists, calling them “infidels,” a term used by Islamists to delegitimize Muslim opponents.

The grenade attack is just the latest act of Islamist-linked terror. Since 2000, there have been attacks on cinemas, concerts and public rallies. In May 2004, a bomb in the town of Sylhet injured 50, including the British High Commissioner. Humayun Azad, a novelist who’d spoken out against the abuse of women, was stabbed in public on Feb. 27. He died in Germany, where he’d gone for treatment, on Aug. 12. Omar Faruk, a leader of the Islamic Constitutional Movement, an Islamist party, urged that the novelist not be buried in Bangladesh as he was a “a self-proclaimed anti-Muslim author.”

ICM activists also burned copies of “Prothom Alo,” a newspaper that exposed the illegal training of militants in local madrassas. The Ahmadiyya community, a Muslim sect dating from the 19th century that many clerics consider heretical, has faced harassment. The World Bank representative in Bangladesh, Christine Wallich, left earlier this month after a bomb threat.

Bangladesh has a reputation for moderate Islam, for democracy, and for promoting the rights of women. Indeed, women lead both major political parties, the governing Bangladesh National Party of prime minister Khaleda Zia and the opposition Awami League. Mainstream parties accept that they can only assume power through elections. Bangladesh is home to the Grameen Bank, cited as a model of development for the way that it empowers poor women through small scale loans, or “micro-credit.”

But the Islamist current, once marginal, appears to be growing. In 1998, when Osama bin Laden declared “Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders,” few took notice that one of his co-signatories was Fazlur Rahman, “emir” of the Jihad Movement in Bangladesh. Nobody in Bangladesh seemed to know who he was.

Indeed, the general feeling was that Bangladeshi Islamists, while sometimes noisy, lacked a constituency. Yet today, with the return of migrant workers from Saudi Arabia, they may have found one. The Saudi government has decided to reduce religious militancy among its own young men by pushing a “Saudi-ization” of the workplace, cutting back on foreign employees in favor of Saudis. Returning Bangladeshi workers are not only jobless, but have also been exposed to the intolerant Wahhabism that dominates Saudi Arabia.

The violence and Islamist assertiveness has shocked many Bangladeshis who have come to take their democracy for granted, and to assume that their compatriots could not possibly be misled by extremism. The danger now is that Bangladesh, a country the U.S. had long assumed would always be in the camp of the moderates, has been targeted for conquest by Islamists.

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