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     Volume 7 Issue 50 | December 26, 2008 |

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Freeing Bangladesh from Extremism

Hana Shams Ahmed

A Google search on The Daily Star's website for 'Sector Commander's Forum' (SCF) gives 87 results. Ever since its formation late last year, this group has been making media appearances (very well covered by the news reports, features and op-eds in DS) with two major demands -- a trial of the 1971 war criminals and the barring of the known war criminals from taking part in the upcoming national elections. Very reasonable demands. After all isn't it contradictory for a person who opposed the formation of the nation to sit in the parliament of that same nation?

Unfortunately demands from the SCF and other progressive, secular groups and members of the civil society have fallen on deaf ears. Now Jamaat's men fund the Rajshahi Islami Bank Medical College Hospital (IBMCH) where they organise free eye camps for 200 freedom fighters on our Victory Day. A vice-president of Jatiya Muktijoddha Parishad (JMP) also said that they receive 'donations' from Jamaat for the 'welfare' of freedom fighters. In its election manifesto the party has said that it would 'strengthen the liberation war ministry and the Freedom Fighters Welfare Trust and increase allowances for the freedom fighters' families'. I sometimes get exasperated trying to explain to my four-year-old son that it is not possible to erase crayon marks with an eraser. Now who is going to explain to Jamaat that it is not possible to erase the rape and murder they helped to mastermind 37 years ago with such insincere acts of philanthropy towards the comrades of those rape and murder victims.

Extremists call for the complete scrapping of a policy to give more
rights to women.

The Pakistanis tried to obliterate Bangla because it was said to be 'the language of the Hindus', but we fought for our identity, we are still proud of fighting the communal forces out of our beloved country. So why now are we taking a step in the wrong direction? Why now should we let ourselves be led away from our beliefs by a group of people who use religion to advance their political ambitions?

In the 1991 elections Jamaat won 18 seats in Parliament (BNP won), in the 1996 elections they won 3 seats in Parliament (AL won) and in 2001 they again won 17 seats (BNP-led four-party coalition won the elections). So when my friend calls me up and says we should be happy if Jamaat wins 15 seats at this year's election it makes me think how this party has such a stronghold over the country's politics. It's still a mystery as to why other political parties have so little faith in their own strength that they need to form coalitions with religious groups. Even Awami League, which wins the most votes from minority groups, had a brief romance with a religious political outfit Khelafat-e-Majlish just before emergency was declared, terming it a “tactical electoral ploy”.

But religious political groups are not the only threat to secular values. There are the three terrorist groups -- Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), Harkatul Jihad Al Islami (HUJI) which recently floated Islamic Democratic Party (IDP) but were thankfully denied registration by the EC and the 'non-violent' Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) Bangladesh.

In 2005 JMB carried out a near-simultaneous series of blasts in 63 of 64 districts across Bangladesh, planting 458 locally made bombs, and handed out leaflets which said, “We are the soldiers of Allah. We've taken up arms for the implementation of Allah's law the way the Prophet, Sahabis [companions of the Prophet] and heroic Mujahideen have done for centuries. . . . It is time to implement Islamic law in Bangladesh”. The group was also responsible for unleashing a reign of terror all over Bangladesh that year by blowing up court houses, press clubs and schools, summary executions of innocent villagers and sending out letters with bomb threats. Harkat-ul-Jihad gained notoriety for terrorising the nation since the early nineties. It had attempted to kill Awami League President Sheikh Hasina, and stands accused of carrying out the August 21 grenade attack on an AL rally in 2004. The JMB/HUJI threats seem to be looming large once again before the election only three days away. The Special Security Forces (SSF) has stated that both Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia are targets for terrorist attacks. The activities of the HT are a little less easier to follow. With headquarters in Britain and operating in more than 100 countries its members are teachers in universities some of whom were arrested this year for distributing leaflets asking for everyone to join in their campaign to “take oath for establishing the rule of Khilafat by dethroning the present ruler” (the caretaker government) and to “unite Muslims and revive their lost glory”.

Jugnu Mohsin Managing Editor and Publisher of The Friday Times, Lahore writes the story of 21-year-old Ajmal 'Qasai', the sole surviving terrorist of the Mumbai attacks (dubbed India's 9/11). Ajmal's story is not unique. It is a story of many poor Pakistanis who have taken to jihad and radical Islam as a way of claiming an identity and a livelihood in a state that has failed to provide both. Amir Qasai, Ajmal's father, like many other fathers was poor and could not educate his sons or marry off his daughter. A similar story no doubt to the many young men in the poverty-stricken villages all over Bangladesh, recruited by these groups for their 'cause'.

In India and in Pakistan, as well as in Bangladesh the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor has been a major cause for disillusionment and frustration amongst the burgeoning majority (i.e. the poor). Any government that comes to power must address this issue. I think about Dhaka 15 years ago when Eid shopping meant going to New Market and Gawsia. There were all kinds of people shopping at the same place; no one felt out of place and no one had to dress a certain way to shop there. Now there are guards in front of the fancy malls, there is an unspoken understanding of who can enter them and who should be shopping at their rightful place in New Market. The buzzword is that we are trying to become 'Singapore'. Singapore is a great place, hardly any poverty. Unfortunately Bangladesh is only pining to become one percent Singapore. And the rest?

While a rise in the number of people joining extremist groups shows a clear sign of the disillusionment faced by the poor and the governments' failure to address the issues, successive governments have also failed to address violence and prejudicial attitude towards religious minorities. It's not just extreme terrorist activities that expose the existence of a communal mindset. While in India the BJP-supported 'cleansing' acts of Muslim, Christian and Sikh minorities destroyed its image of a secular democracy, in Bangladesh the slide in the number of Hindus should be a case for concern for the government which comes to power in the New Year. According to a study by Professor Abul Barkat, of Dhaka University's Department of Economics, the Hindu population has dropped from 18% in 1961 to 9% in 2001. The total Hindu population in 2001 was 11.4 million, half the expected 22.8 million it should be as per growth estimates. Already there are reports in the media that certain religious bigots have been distributing leaflets asking people not to “go against Islam” and refrain from voting for Hindu candidates. The past BNP government already has a revolting record of minority oppression. Land-grabbing, looting, raping and killing of Hindus in 2001 was very similar to a parallel scenario by the BJP government supported persecution of Muslims and Christians in India. In 2005, the same BNP government failed to provide protection to the Ahmadiya minorities from religious zealots working under the banner of the Khatme Nabuwat Movement. The government failed to revoke its ban on Ahmadiya literature, or to prosecute the vandals who attacked the mosques. BNP and Jamaat have always maintained their strong opposition towards the historic CHT Peace Treaty that promised to give rights to the most marginalised indigenous people of the country. Under the caretaker government the only two large political parties representing the rights of the Pahari people of CHT UPDF (United Peoples Democratic Front) and PCJSS (Parbotto Chottogram Jonoshonghoti Samity) have been denied registration by the EC.

The first casualties of communalism are usually freedom of speech and women. Bigots have always felt threatened by the two. Little wonder then that Taslima Nasreen may never be able to come back to Bangladesh, that Humayan Azad's books incited such rage amongst fundamentalist groups. It is no wonder then that Mufti Mohammad Nuruddin, the acting khatib of Baitul Mukarram National Mosque who headed the committee which 'reviewed' the National Women Development Policy said, “A woman cannot enjoy rights equal to a man's because a woman is not equal to a man by birth” and asked for the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) to be withdrawn. It is also little wonder that the caretaker government worked with amazing speed at the complaint of the bigots and ordered the airport and civil aviation authorities to take down the sculptures of the bauls after 50 lakh takas had already spent on it.

Secularism does not mean going against religion. Nor is it anti-Islamic in the least, as many bigots will try to have us believe. Secularism means that the government of a country should not carry out its duties or frame policies based on any religious texts. Inherent in the idea of secularism is the plurality of religion and tolerance. The military dictators, who ruled the country after the murder of the founding father, initiated the idea of religion-based politics to achieve their own personal gain. Economic motives for violence have always been around and minorities have always had to bear the brunt of this violence. Any party that comes to power in the election that is to take place three days from now must unequivocally embrace the idea of secularism, that is religious plurality and tolerance. Secular sentiments need to exist at the very grass-root level, where Christian and Muslim families will live as good neighbours in a small village in Noakhali, where a Muslim voter will vote for a Hindu candidate because he believes the candidate is worthy to represent his village and not have to fear that the worst hell awaits him because he voted a 'non-believer' to power. Khushwant Singh, in his book 'The End of India' coins a motto that he believes should be a guide for modern India, “Work is worship, but worship is not work”. With the rising communal sentiment in Bangladesh leading to nothing but violence and insecurity, this motto should give any party that comes to power in 2009, something to think about.


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