WASHINGTON DC, Aug 22, 2005 | ISSN: 1684-2057 | www.satribune.com

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BD Nears Its Tipping Point as Fundos Bomb Country

By Anand Giridharadas

MUMBAI, India, August 22: Hundreds of bomb blasts across Bangladesh on Wednesday, August 17, triggered fresh concerns that one of the world's poorest countries is nearing a tipping point in the advance of militant Islamic fundamentalism into the mainstream of the nation's social and political life.

Around midday on Wednesday, more than 300 crude bombs exploded nationwide, officials said, targeting symbols of public life: government buildings, courthouses and press clubs for journalists. The attacks were fastidiously planned, with hundreds of strikes condensed into a half-hour and spread across 63 of the country's 64 districts.

But the attacks, attributed to Islamic militant groups, also appeared to be deliberately mild, killing 2 people and wounding about 100. That blend of adept execution and willful restraint is prompting some analysts to suggest that the culprits are not fringe actors seeking to maximize violence but Islamist fundamentalists making a political show of force.

A leaflet found at one bomb site, attributed to Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen, a banned militant group, argued for the use of Sharia, or Islamic law: "It is time to implement Islamic law in Bangladesh. There is no future with manmade law." On Thursday, the police told news agencies that they had detained dozens of suspected militants, including members of Jamaat.

As the world's third-largest Muslim-majority nation with a population that is 90 percent Muslim, Bangladesh casts itself as a moderate Muslim democracy. But it appears to be witnessing the rise and mainstreaming of an Islamist political movement, analysts say.

"There are warning signs and indicators that things could go in those directions," a Western diplomat posted in the capital, Dhaka, said in a telephone interview, granted on a condition of anonymity imposed by his government. "We're certainly not at the point where Afghanistan was a couple of years ago. Could we be 10 years from now? It's certainly possible. There is no one here who would say that's absurd."

The Bush administration has shown growing concern over that possibility. In June, it sent Nicholas Burns, under secretary of state for political affairs, to Dhaka. Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, said Burns told him before the Dhaka visit that he planned to send a "very tough message" to Bangladesh's prime minister, Begum Khaleda Zia, on rising extremism.

Analysts contend that a conservative strain of Islam is on the rise in Bangladesh, a flood-prone South Asian nation of 138 million people, more than half of whom live in poverty.

Madrassas, or religious schools, are fast proliferating. Women are ever more likely to wear head scarves and to spurn jeans out of fear. Members of the governing coalition are accused by critics of, at best, tolerating and, at worst, conniving with Islamist extremist groups.

Those trends have been punctuated by a growing number of bomb and grenade attacks against supposed allies of a conservative brand of Islam: the Awami League, an opposition party; journalists; and nongovernmental organizations.

But Wednesday's attacks stood out in two ways. First, they signaled the potency and sophistication of the militant groups. Second, they suggested, in their restraint, a desire to make gains through politics rather than by violence.

"Whoever are these shadowy actors, they obviously have a capacity - it is probably a rehearsal," said Hossain Zillur Rahman, a political sociologist at the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies in Dhaka. "People are not very clear to what extent this is part of that political game, or whether this is the arrival of a new actor on the scene."

The "political game" refers to speculation that militant groups in Bangladesh have the tacit support of mainstream political parties

Zia, the prime minister, condemned the attackers as "enemies of the country, people, peace, humanity and democracy." But her government, which came to power by articulating a muscular, hard-line foreign policy that was tougher on India than her predecessor's, has alliances with conservative Muslim parties that have links, security experts contend, to extremist groups. As in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the evidence of tangible links is nearly impossible to come by, but suspicion that some extremists operate with official support is commonplace.

"It's sort of a warning shot that these fundamentalists have fired, warning this government with which they have a political alliance that if the government doesn't really implement Islamic law, they will be able to execute a major act of terrorism across Bangladesh," said Chellaney, the professor. "They have become so empowered in the last few years that they feel emboldened to demand Sharia"

Analysts of South Asian geopolitics contend that Bangladesh may be following a pattern seen in Afghanistan: mounting extremism in domestic politics, amplified by the arrival of foreigners who provide money and inspiration.

With US military forces hunting extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, pledging to stamp out fundamentalism in his country, Muslim extremists in South Asia are "moving, searching for new pastures," said AN Ram, a retired 36-year veteran of India's diplomatic corps. "There is pressure on these elements in Afghanistan, pressure in Pakistan. Here is a country where they can operate freely, with little pressure."

Ram added: "Unless something is done now, and very soon, events may overtake us and the state of Bangladesh may become hopelessly embroiled in the vicious circle for fundamentalism, terrorism and the dangers they pose to all of us."

Wednesday's attacks continue the unrest in South Asia that is blamed for the region's failure to follow East and Southeast Asia in moving beyond political instability and refocusing on building deeper political and economic links.

Sri Lanka's Foreign Minister was murdered this week. Nepal is in the grips of a Maoist rebellion that prompted its monarch to impose emergency rule this year. Afghanistan and Pakistan are flash points of the Bush administration's war on terror, with Pakistan recently accused of having provided shelter to the suicide bombers in the July 7 London attacks. Meanwhile, Myanmar's junta grows ever more isolated from the international community.
- Courtesy International Herald Tribune

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