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Bangladesh on the Brink: Between Terrorism and Democracy

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The Pulse

Bangladesh on the Brink: Between Terrorism and Democracy

The rising tide of Islamist violence in Bangladesh could be a bellwether for South Asia. How should the world respond?

Bangladesh on the Brink: Between Terrorism and Democracy

Children wave flags during the Shahbag protests of 2013.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Rashidujjaman

There’s a rising tide of political violence in Bangladesh — one that has gone mostly unnoticed by scholars and analysts. Yet the country presents both a potential threat, as violence by fundamentalist Islamist groups rises, and a prospective model for a democratic, majority-Islamic state. As a battleground over the role of Islam and politics, Bangladesh will be a crucial proving ground for those who see Islam as an inspiration for development, democracy, and peaceful social relations—and those with a fundamentalist vision for society who want to export terrorism to neighboring India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. As a potential bellwether for South Asia more broadly, Bangladesh deserves a second look.

The third largest Muslim country in the world, Bangladesh has a national identity stemming from a heritage of moderate Sunni Islam and a historical tradition of tolerance and pluralism. With a per capita income of just $1,080, Bangladesh is ranked among the poorest countries in the world, yet it has sustained a democratic tradition since independence (although interspersed with several military coups). Bangladesh’s blend of moderate Islam with a secular-oriented, democratic state could serve as a model for the region.

Yet Bangladesh is also threatened by a rising tide of radical Islamist violence that has its roots in both the struggle for independence and a more recent wave of radicalized violence. For a relatively small diplomatic investment, the international community could help to deny radical Islamist groups a safe haven in South Asia and preserve a moderate Islamic democracy, by encouraging a negotiated settlement between the main political parties, working with the government of Bangladesh to root out terrorist organizations before they are able to metastasize, and providing protection for progressive media voices that are increasingly being targeted by terrorists.

The political violence has a complicated history: since Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan in 1971, two political parties have dominated the political arena–the secular-leaning Awami League and their arch-rivals, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), a center-right party allied with Jamaat-e-Islami, the largest Islamist party. The two have alternated as the parliamentary majority since independence, interspersed with military-led coups as the competition between the two has generated increased levels of corruption and violence. A recent editorial noted “Too often…Bangladesh has seen political instability due to the game of one-upmanship between the two leading political parties, with election and Parliament boycotts and incessant agitations becoming all too common.”

After winning elections in 2009, the Awami-led government set up the controversial International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) to try the leaders of pro-Pakistan paramilitaries that committed atrocities during the 1971 war with Pakistan. Not coincidentally, many of those militants subsequently became leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami. The sentencing of these leaders has brought a firestorm of contention and polarized the political scene even further.

When the ICT sentenced Abdul Quader Mollah to life imprisonment in February 2013 on charges of rape and mass murder, thousands of protesters, lead by secular-humanist oriented bloggers known as “atheist bloggers,” participated in massive daily demonstrations in Dhaka to express anger over what they viewed as the leniency of the Tribunal sentencing. This protest movement became known as the Shahbag protests.

A group known as Hefazat-e-Islami, an alliance of teachers and students associated with radical madrasas and with Jamaat-e-Islami, launched a counter-protest, vandalizing vehicles and clashing with police in cities throughout the country. The demonstrators called on the government to implement Hefazat’s 13-point agenda, including outlawing blasphemy and implementing restrictions on women’s rights.

These tensions came to a head in the 2014 elections, which Human Rights Watch called “the most violent in the country’s history.” The Awami government refused to turn power over to a politically neutral caretaker government ahead of the elections, a tradition in Bangladeshi politics meant to minimize electoral corruption. In response, the BNP and Jamaat announced that they would boycott the election and launched a hartal or violent strike, where protestors blocked traffic, threw petrol bombs at buses and cars, and clashed with police. Protestors also targeted minority Hindu and Christian communities, traditionally seen as constituents of the Awami League. These tensions ratcheted up in 2015, with the BNP launching hartals in January to mark the anniversary of the 2014 elections.

These decades-old tensions are exacerbated by a rising tide of violent Islamic extremism, inspired—if not directly funded—by regional terrorist organizations. In August 2005 more than 300 bombs exploded simultaneously across the country, killing two and wounding more than 50. The group Jamatul Mujahideen Bangladesh, which has been linked to al-Qaeda, claimed responsibility. In February 2015 Avijit Roy, a highly regarded atheist blogger, was hacked to death on the streets of Dhaka. An Islamist group, Ansarullah Bangla Team, took credit for Roy’s killing and three subsequent attacks against other well-known atheist bloggers, including one just last week.

The international community ignores the rapidly rising political violence in Bangladesh at its own risk. The violence represents a dispute not just over election results or trial outcomes, but over the very meaning of Bangladeshi nationalism. The moderate, secular-oriented elements of society and conservative Islamists are battling it out over conceptions of the role of religion in politics and society, but progressive voices are increasingly being drowned out by the spectacular violence of fundamentalist forces. These violent elements represent a small proportion of the population but tend to have an outsized influence on politics.

If the international community abandons Bangladesh to this rising tide of violence, the country could even serve as a staging ground for groups that are interested in targeting India or Afghanistan. Indeed, the recent arrests of several men accused of recruiting for ISIS, as well as the increasing militancy of groups like Hefazat that are supported by radical madrasas, has raised fears that local fundamentalist groups may link up to regional terrorist organizations—in fact, 12 suspected members of Al Qaeda were arrested in Dhaka in July.

But Bangladesh also had a chance to serve as an important model for a democratic Islamic state. With a brand of Sunni Islam that is deeply influenced by the mystical practices of Sufi Islam and Hindu traditions, and a history of nationalism that recognizes secularism as one of its core tenets, Bangladesh could serve as a positive force and a powerful model across the Islamic world. A positive outcome in Bangladesh does not require a military presence or even a major investment by the international community. Rather, by taking relatively inexpensive diplomatic measures, policymakers could help to turn the tide in Bangladesh.

First, policymakers should put pressure on the leaders of the two political parties to reach a negotiated settlement to hold free and fair elections. Yes, the political arena is deeply polarized, but with a combination of political pressure and incentives in the form of development aid, the parties could reach some form of agreement.  The BNP’s recent decision to end its demands for the Awami League to immediately turn over power to a caretaker government indicates that there may be a fresh window for negotiations to take place. The EU, U.S., and others can also assist by providing elections monitors and support for anti-corruption measures to assure both sides that the vote will be fair.

The international community should also put pressure on Bangladesh’s politicians to reign in human rights violations committed by state security forces. Human Rights Watch reports that the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), an elite security force, has engaged in extra-judicial killings, disappearances, and torture, against government opponents. Bringing the RAB to heel will build confidence in the government’s anti-corruption efforts and help to tamp down the retaliatory cycle of political violence. The political dysfunction and state-sanctioned human rights violations have eroded support for the democratic process and eaten away at the legitimacy of the state. Peaceful elections and a reigned-in RAB will do much to reverse the cynical view that democracy is dead, which in turn drives political violence and radicalization.

Policymakers should also assist the Bangladeshi government in its efforts to crack down on terrorist organizations. The recent attacks on bloggers have provoked outrage across the political spectrum and provided the government with an opportunity to increase their efforts against banned groups like Jamatul Mujahideen. But this crackdown has had the unfortunate side effect of making terrorist groups more difficult to track: many groups are keeping a lower-profile, operating through smaller splinter cells and engaging in individual, lone wolf-type attacks. The international community can build the government’s capacity to deal with these more sophisticated attacks by providing intelligence and counter-terrorism training to the government, and encouraging them to continue to root out banned terrorist groups.

The international community can also assist the government in providing security to moderate voices like the “atheist bloggers” whose voices have been silenced by attacks. The four bloggers murdered in the spring of 2015 were said to be on a “hitlist” of 84 atheist and left-leaning bloggers circulated amongst Islamist groups, raising fears that others may be targeted. These fears could have a stifling effect on moderate pundits’ ability to participate in the debate about the appropriate role of religion in politics and society, surrendering the field to more radical voices. The government should actively work to provide security for the moderate voices that have been threatened, thus facilitating an ongoing conversation about the role of religion in politics and society.

Alexandra Stark is pursuing a PhD in International Relations at Georgetown University, and is a Research Assistant for the World Faiths Development Dialogue in Washington, D.C. She holds an MSc from the London School of Economics. Her work has been published in CBS News, The Guardian, Tom Rick’s Foreign Policy blog, and other venues.