Of Faith and Deviation
a village around 50 kilometres off the capital, Anwar Miah has
shot to fame for a unique reason. This tiny Bangladeshi hamlet
of about 2000 people named him 'Afghan baba', after his second
son, Sanu, died for the Talibans in the late nineties. Sanu's
mamu (maternal uncle), Zoinal, accompanied him; first to Pakistan's
Northwest Frontier Province, then to Kandahar, and saw Sanu
die in the battle for Baghram with General Rashid Dostam's forces.
returned home a month after his nephew's death, because he “couldn't
bear it any more.” He hasn't taken back arms since then; but
like him, many have returned, and with them have brought extremism
to a country once known for religious harmony and tolerance.
In fact Maulana Abdur Rauf, leader of Al-Jamiatul Islamia, who
was arrested on September 19, in Faridpur with 17 accomplices,
told the police that about 500 Bangladeshis went to Afghanistan,
of them 33 died.
September 19 arrest, the government was vigorous in denying
the presence of religious extremists on its soil. The BNP led
Four-Party Alliance had banned issues of some international
newspaper, including the Wall Street Journal, Time magazine
and the Far Eastern Economic Review, for breaking this news
to the rest of the world. The reports, though extremely sloppy
and in some cases malicious, tried to portray Bangladesh as
a hotbed of religious extremism. One went too far in exaggeration--
the article published in the US weekly Time, quoting an unnamed
foreign embassy staff in Dhaka, alleged that the country was
playing host to Al Quiada's second in command Ayman Al-Zawahiri.
The time the magazine had referred to, Al-Zawahiri was seen
in a town in Afghanistan. Time didn't apologise for it.
publicised event in this saga happened last year. After being
refused by Bangladesh mission in London, Zaiba Naz Malik and
Bruno Sorrentino, two British journalists from Channel 4, concealed
their identity and applied for the visa to the Bangladesh Embassy
in Rome. Once they were inside the country, however, they made
no secret of what they were doing. Police arrested them, along
with their two Bangladeshi fixers, accusing them of trying to
vilify the country by portraying it as a fundamentalist state.
The two were later released, after both journalists, according
to their lawyer Ajmalul Hossain, “Submitted statements expressing
regret for the situation arising since their arrival in Bangladesh.”
The government, however, did not release Selim Samad and Pricilla
Raj, who had been assisting them as translators. It was a High
Court order that ensured their release.
the extent to which the government rejected the presence of
religious extremists here.
stand got a jolt last December when several powerful bombs went
off in four-movie theatres in Mymensingh. Investigation began,
but it did not deter the prime minister from guessing the identity
of the perpetrators: she blamed those “Who are making anti-Bangladesh
campaign at home and abroad.” No one expected a price for the
right guess--it was the leader of the opposition who told a
European audience, only a few days ago, in Brussels, that sympathisers
of Al-Qaiada were ruling Bangladesh. That has been Sheikh Hasina
and her party, Awami League's (AL) staunch line of thinking
since the first such incident ripped off a cultural function
Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in power, AL, then in the
helm, was quick to discover the perpetrators-- even before the
primary investigation had begun, it blamed the religious zealots,
“under the shelter of the opposition” for the incident. BNP,
then the main opposition, was quick to condemn the incident,
and bizarrely, it fed several conspiracy theories, amongst them,
one accusing the AL of planting bombs in public places to reap
during its five-year tenure, the AL had done nothing to nab
those they believed were behind the blasts. “How come the Awami
League didn't crack down on these Jihadi outfits during its
term in office,” asks Mahmadul Islam, a student of Political
Science at Dhaka University. AL's inability, Islam thinks, can
be explained in one way. “Though the party wasn't sure about
the perpetrators, the AL wanted to use these blasts as a tool
to win the next general election.”
bomb blasts' investigation has so far failed to make significant
breakthrough, many here believe the presence of religious extremists
in the country; but they think, unlike its Asian counterparts,
it is a home grown phenomenon. “We don't have Al-Qaiada in Bangladesh,”
says Afsan Chowdhury, an independent media analyst and former
correspondent of the BBC. But Chowdhury believes, “We have people
who think and work like them.” In fact Jane's Intelligence Review
(JIR) in its May 2002 issue says, “Osama Bin Laden's February
23, 1998 fatwa urging Jihad against the USA was co-signed by
two Egyptian clerics, a Pakistani and Fazlur Rahaman, leader
of the Jihad Movement in Bangladesh.” The Movement is not believed
to be a separate organisation, the report continues, “But a
common name for several Islamic groups in Bangladesh, of which
a Harkat Ul Jihad Islami Bangladesh (HUJIB) is considered the
biggest and most important.”
the headlines of local and international dailies when the group
was charged with planting two bombs at a meeting that was to
be attended by the then prime minister Sheikh Hasina in her
home district Gopalganj. “The mission of HUJIB, led by Shauqat
Osman, is to establish Islamic rule in Bangladesh," says
a US State Department report. It has an estimated cadre strength
of more than several thousand members and it operates and trains
in at least six camps,” says the State Department, which has
already listed HUJIB as a terrorist organisation.
little has been known about the group and its elusive commander
Shauqat Osman, who is also known as Sheikh Farid. According
to reports on the western media, HUJIB was formed in 1992 in
Afghanistan to fight the Soviets. Ironically the US administration
actively supported the Mujahidins, fighting the Russians in
Afghanistan, with arms and military logistics. “Originally,
it (HUJIB) consisted of Bangladeshis who had fought as volunteers
in the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan,” JIR says.
country is in no way a fertile ground for religious intolerance.
“Bangladesh is far from becoming another Pakistan, and the rise
of extremism should be seen in the context of the country's
turbulent politics since breaking away from Pakistan in 1971.
Bangladesh was formed in opposition to the notion that all Muslim
areas of former British India should unite in one country. Bangladesh
is the only state in the subcontinent with one language group
and very few ethnic and religious minorities,” Jane's Intelligence
country's biggest religious party, the Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh
was banned immediately after independence for actively supporting
the Pakistani occupation forces by forming several armed militia
groups during the liberation war; the ban was lifted later on,
and it was allowed to operate as a political party. During the
eighties, under a military dictatorship, Jamaat's appeal to
establish Islamic law and good governance received a lukewarm
response from general people.
it was during that period Jamaat managed to get a significant
number of recruits by luring them into the path of Islamic revolution.
In 1991, in the first general election, the party had managed
to get 18 seats in the national parliament. But once they were
in democratic politics, the leadership begun to lose its charm
offensive. Jamaat's coalition with the AL, then seen as a moderate
left and a staunch secular, irked many of its radical supporters.
The AL ditched
Jamaat before the general election, but it couldn't stop several
disgruntled mid and lower ranking Jamaatis to openly voice their
opposition against the party leadership. “There is a huge gap
between the ideology Jamaat wants to establish and the way they
are doing it,” says Mahmudul Islam. “No one in the Jamaat leadership
has sent their children to Maadrassahs (Religious schools),”
he continues. “On the other hand,” Mahmud believes, “they led
a lifestyle that is an antithesis to everything true Islam stands
for.” Extremists groups have quickly filled up the ideological
vacuum; these parties cannot be called Jamaat's natural offshoots,
but they definitely constitute an ultimate by-product of its
ideological failure. “It has happened before; in the sixties,
the failure of a relatively moderate Communist Party had given
birth to several Marxist extremist factions,” Mahmud says.
the extremists, as elsewhere in the world, have been receiving
an otherwise unusual assistance from an unwitting foreign administration.
“George W Bush's foreign policy and his so-called war on terrorism
have been helping the mullahs to allure a nation, already angered
by the US occupation of Iraq and its regular assistance to the
Israelis,” says Mahmud.
situation is chaotic. BNP doesn't believe the terrorists exist,
because the Awami League is pointing fingers at Jamaat, which
is the BNP's main political partner in the coalition government.
The AL is creating a hoopla out of all this because they want
to undermine the government. The US, on the other hand, is busy
with its own war, driven more by oil than anything else. Religious
fanatics are microscopic minorities here, true. But then, so
were the Talibans before they took over power in Afghanistan…”