Bangladesh for Beginners

Why Americans should care about the increasingly radical insurgency.

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Khaleda Zia

When Bangladesh’s first two suicide bombers blew themselves up recently, the attacks marked a significant escalation in the growing militant insurgency that threatens an already wobbly state. Now, at long last, the world is beginning to pay attention to the spate of bombings, killings, and threats against judges, lawyers, journalists, teachers, professors, politicians, and religious minorities by the banned jihadist group Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh, among others, for the past five years.

Faced with increased pressure at home and abroad, the Bangladeshi National Party, the leader in the four-party coalition government, is finally rounding up the terrorists—more than 600 so far—and scrutinizing its alliance with two Islamist parties within the ruling coalition that are suspected of having links to the militants. But the government will have to end the long-standing tradition of using young men to foment violence for political ends if it wants to ensure that the nation of 152 million—the world’s third-most-populous Muslim country—does not become another Afghanistan or, more aptly, another Darfur, where the rebels whose presence the government has long tolerated have seized virtual control.

One of the problems in routing Bangladesh’s militants is that sectarian violence is so deeply entrenched in the nation’s brief history, and religious division has been used to justify violence since the country gained its independence in 1971. Bangladesh’s brand of Islam has always been overwhelmingly moderate, and the constitution enshrines religious tolerance, but as Tasleema Nasreen writes in her 1993 novel Shame (she had to flee the country after its publication), rural governments outside Dhaka have relied on the fury of young jobless men they call cadres to bully locals into supporting them and to drive religious and political minorities off valuable land. This bullying has often taken the form of the targeted use of rape, and since independence, many cadres have used violence between Hindus and Muslims to mask and legitimize their bid for political power. During the last nationwide election in 2001, in one northern village, at least five Hindu women were gang-raped in an explicit bid to control the town’s votes, according to one of the victims. (The victim who told me this story had her eyes cut out by her attackers so that she could not identify them after the rape.)

Although Bangladesh’s GDP is currently on an uptick, much of the country still lives on less than a dollar a day. This is one reason thousands of Bangladeshis left the country in the 1980s. Some traveled to the Middle East and returned as born-again Muslims. In the most remote villages, a stringent new strain of devotion became increasingly evident. Other young men traveled for schooling, primarily to Pakistan. Because religious scholarships were the easiest to come by, they ended up in many of the religious schools that encouraged their students to take jobs as jihadistsin Afghanistan. There, a select handful created a militant group, Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, known as Huji, reportedly at the behest of Osama Bin Laden himself.

Since their return in the early 1990s, those veterans of the Afghan war have been calling for the implementation of Islamic law in Bangladesh. Because the vast majority of Bangladeshis are devout Muslims who support their civil government and society, no one paid much attention to these fanatics for a decade or so. Nor to the fact that in 1998, when Bin Laden first issued his fatwa declaring war on the West, one of its five signatories was Fazlul Rehman, a still-shadowy figure linked to Huji and, according to Bin Laden’s fatwa, the head of global jihad in Bangladesh.

Neither the current government nor the opposition parties paid adequate attention to the rise of religious militancy or to the social problems underlying it. This year, for the fifth time in a row, Bangladesh was named the most corrupt country on earth by Transparency International, a Berlin-based anti-corruption watchdog group. Almost once a week, hartals, or strikes, most often led by the two endlessly feuding main political parties, shut down the country. During a hartal, leaving one’s house is forbidden, and anyone traveling on the roads runs the risk of being killed. It is impossible to go to work, to school, or even to the hospital.

As a result, the young thugs of the Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh and other militant groups virtually control several remote districts. In Rajshahi, where the insurgency is at its worst, a political thug who claimed to have fought in Afghanistan attempted to install a Taliban regime. He went into hiding last year after U.S. pressure finally forced the government to issue a warrant for his arrest.

In the run-up to the 2006 national elections, political violence masked by religious extremism and widespread corruption will flourish unless the international community pays greater attention. Bangladesh doesn’t need a democratic revolution; they’ve already had one. The vast majority of Bangladeshis do not support the militants nor do they want Islamic law.

“It used to be when the mullahs came asking for money, we’d shoo them away. Now, I’d pay,” one devout and moderate Muslim professional told me. “It won’t be long before I get a letter telling me that my wife and daughter need to wear burkas,” he said. “What will I do? I’ll have no choice; they’ll have to wear them.”

What Bangladeshis want, he said, is continued international pressure on the BNP to distance itself from the militancy. What they want are monitors for next year’s elections who don’t just sit in the polling places but go to the villages to make sure that the patterns of political intimidation—including the widespread use of rape—are broken. What they want is a newfound international interest that takes nongovernmental organizations into the rural areas where 90 percent of the country lives. All these steps are possible and much more cost-effective for the United States than simply quadrupling the size of the CIA station in Dhaka.

To most of us, Bangladesh seems like a remote mess—poor and devoid of natural resources. The country has been plagued by sectarian violence since its independence, but the nature of that violence is changing, and we ignore the rise of militant Islam there at our own peril. The jihadists will continue to do their best to make our civil intervention look dangerous and impractical. Our disinterest is their most effective weapon.