Vol. 4 Num 172 Sun. November 16, 2003  

Dear Bangladesh
An American Jew's perception

Ask most Americans what they know about Bangladesh, and chances are, you will hear something about George Harrison, maybe about poverty and disasters, and a few might even say, 'oh, yeah, isn't that somewhere around India.' And that's after you eliminate those who just give you a blank stare. That is a shame, too. For I read your major English-language dailies, and I consider myself fortunate for having done so. For it is clear to me that you are a nation of thoughtful individuals with whom I can find agreement, and with whom I can disagree; individuals I can respect in either case. I have seen debate and dialogue even the beginnings of one surrounding the Middle East. Do you know what a rarity that is in the Moslem press?

Beyond that, you are a nation with a dynamic foreign policy, committed to regional cooperation. You also attempt to find common ground with old foes in your region. Bangladesh is also, to your great credit, a democracy. The fact that you engage in self-criticisms about your shortcomings only strengthens that democracy and helps keep you free. While so many other nations seem to have turned away from democracy, and seem to feel that their people cannot handle the free flow of ideas, you have endured in your struggle, and continue to do so.

I also believe that Bangladesh is uniquely positioned to help bring peace to a region that has resisted peace for so long: the Middle East. What? Am I daft? Bangladesh is a small nation with its own problems to solve, you might say. We might remind ourselves, however, that when the United States negotiated a peace between Russia and Japan in 1903, it was still a relatively minor player on the world stage. More recently, modest Norway attempted to broker a peace between Arabs and Israelis. Other historical events are also instructive. From the end of World War II until the 1970s, America refused to recognise the People's Republic of China, demonising it, and not accepting its legitimacy. The president who finally changed that was one of the least forgiving of those old cold warriors, Richard Nixon. A liberal Democrat who tried to do it would have faced tremendous opposition. Similarly, the first peace treaty between Israel and an Arab country was signed not by doves from each side, but by two men who fought vehemently against each other's peoples: Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin. So, what country is better qualified to broker a truce than a non-Arab Moslem nation and a democracy at that: Bangladesh.

Moreover, issues that have surfaced in your part of the world, as well as the history, are strikingly similar to those that Israelis and Arabs face. To begin with, both regions were under British hegemony until shortly after World War II, when Europeans began to despair of their colonial legacy and started disbanding it. As with the Middle East, the so-called Indian subcontinent was an amalgamation of formerly separate peoples, cropped into one body by the outside European power. In both parts of the world, these divisions were along religious and ethnic lines. Yet, despite the continuing sabre rattling between India and Pakistan, as well as periodic flare-ups of Hindu-Muslim violence, this area has accommodated itself to its religious conundrum. Such is not the case in the Middle East. Even forgetting about Muslim-Jewish violence, we have seen Shiites war with Sunnis, Arabs fight Kurds; and their was the Alawite massacre in Hama, Syria. Additionally, the post-colonial period began here with extensive population transfers based on religion. While the numbers in the Middle East come nowhere close to those who transferred here, both Muslim Palestinians and Jews throughout the Middle East had to make the same choice.

Of all the nations that were carved out of the former British colony in South Asia, Bangladesh has become the most successful in accommodating a diverse population. Its different groups have been able to live side by side without inter-ethnic violence. Can either India or Pakistan make the same claim? You provide the world with a unique example of a nation that allows its people freedom of religion, even while having its own state religion. Yes, Bangladeshis do have a great deal to teach the peoples in the Middle East.

Taking the religious conflict a step further, one of the most contentious issues in the Mideast conflict revolves around Jerusalem's Temple Mount. That is, we Jews call it the Temple Mount because it was the site of our Holy Temples, including the one built by King Solomon. Muslims of the region speak of The Noble Sanctuary, and identify it as the place from which The Prophet ascended to heaven in his Night Journey. The problem is that both Jews and Muslims are talking about the same place and have not been able to agree on a way to share it. Here you have a similar situation in Ayodhya, where the Babri mosque was built on a site holy to Hindus.

There are similarities on a more practical level, as well. There has been much concern expressed in your press of late over water rights, and Indian projects that you believe threaten Bangladesh's water supply. As any reader can well imagine, water is an extremely critical issue in the arid Middle East, and is necessary not only for agricultural production, but often for human survival as well. Over time, both Israelis and Arabs have had cause to complain about each other's projects and their affect on water supply. Perhaps together, all groups can arrive at a workable solution.

Why should the world assume that only a superpower like the United States, or a European country like Norway, should offer itself as a broker for peace? Bangladesh is really a more logical vehicle to bring together Israelis and Arabs. On the one hand, you share a Muslim heritage with Arabs. On the other, you share Israel's religious diversity. (Do you know, Israel has approximately the same percentage of Jews as Bangladesh has Muslims?) You share the Arab world's past subservience to western powers; but your democratic government is much closer to Israeli democracy than Arab autocracy. There is only one thing missing to complete the equation.

It would be very difficult for Bangladesh to play such a role in this conflict while it does not formally recognise the sovereignty of one of the parties. It would be difficult to broach such an issue when there is no Bangladeshi diplomatic corps in Israel to contact its Israeli counterparts. (Before trying to broker Middle East peace, the US allowed Palestinian Arabs to open a diplomatic office in Washington, and recognised the Palestinian Authority.) Imagine for a moment what would happen if Bangladesh established diplomatic relations with Israel, then announced its intentions to hold a peace conference for the parties in the Middle East? Although it would not be the first Muslim nation to recognise Israel, your action still would no doubt shock many around the world. For you would be denying the pernicious belief, which holds that a sovereign Jewish state can exist in the Middle East only at the expense of Muslims. Consign that lie to the ashbin of history where it belongs! Declare to the world that Jews and Muslims can live side by side as equals, and the world can know peace. Your bold action would demonstrate to the world a level of courage and maturity that too few nations possess. And it would place Bangladesh on the centre stage of world events.

Peace is possible in the Middle East, but it will take a special kind of wisdom and courage. Most nations are too mired in self-interest, stilted thinking, and ideologies to take that leap of faith. Let the nation and people of Bangladesh be the one to lead us out of those traps and into a new era of peace.