Its Tipping Point as Fundos Bomb Country
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.
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.
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
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
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