Asia’s tinderbox: the challenge of political Islam

At a recent seminar in London, Bangladeshi economist

Professor Abul Barkat discussed his country’s parallel fundamentalist economy and urged Britain and the global community to support Bangladesh in countering religious extremism. Subhash Chopra reports.

 

The murderous attacks on bloggers-which have claimed the lives of three secularist free thinkers this year and seven since 2013-along with the killing of an Italian aid worker and a Japanese national, and a bomb blast targeting Shia minority worshippers, which left one boy dead and over 90 people injured, have highlighted the relentless danger facing Bangladesh since the liberation war in 1971. The outrage sparked in cyber space by these killings has attracted worldwide concern, though the situation on the ground remains as dangerous as ever. In the words of Professor Abul Barkat, a political economist at Dhaka University, the country remains a ‘tinderbox’ and a sitting target for Islamist radicals who roam the streets, freely preaching their doctrine of violence in the name of Islam, the religion of peace. The word ‘jihad’, which the Islamists keep invoking from pulpits of mosques and political and madrasa platforms, does not occur even once in Islam’s Holy Book, the Koran, says Professor Barkat, yet the drumbeat of jihad keeps growing louder and louder.

Speaking at a recent IISS seminar in London, Professor Barkat squarely named and blamed Jamat-e-Islami, Bangladesh, which he called ‘the headquarters’ of a triangular set-up forever plotting the overthrow of the constitutionally established government of the country. The other two pillars of this structure, according to him, are the 123 radical groups and 231 NGOs funded nationally and from abroad. The three wings of this radical power bloc act as a loose conglomerate and constitute a ‘state within a state’ and ‘government within a government’.

The fundamentalist parallel economy, the finances of which come from enterprises owned and run by religious forces, clocked a net estimated profit of nearly $320 million in 2014. The biggest share of that profit (27 per cent) comes from financial institutions, followed by NGOs (19 per cent), with trading, health, education, and real estate business contributing around 10 per cent each, besides other smaller contributors.

More strikingly, the growth rate of this fundamentalist economy is of the order of 9 to 10.5 per cent, against the national GDP growth of about 6 to 7 per cent. The cumulative profit of this economy over the last four decades is estimated to top $6.5 billion, supporting 500,000 full-time cadres, capturing strategic posts and votes, and even allegedly running armed training camps.

The trajectory of fundamentalism in Bangladesh is pretty well known. Starting with the division of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan in 1947, leading to the transformation of East Pakistan into independent Bangladesh after a bitter war that is said to have cost three million lives, the role of Jamat-e-Islami elements is well chronicled. They steadfastly opposed Bangladesh’s independence and remain unrepentant to this day. The assassination of Bangladesh founder Sheikh Mujib-ur Rahman, the change to the national constitution from a secular polity to making Islam the state religion under General Zia-ur Rahman, and the ding-dong succession to power by the General’s widow Begum Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Mujib’s daughter Begum Sheikh Hasina Wazed, the current prime minister, continues to divide the country, with little sign of any rapprochement between the two blocs.

RIVALRY: There is scant chance of compromise between Bangladesh's current leader Sheikh Hasina (r) and former PM Khaleda Zia (l)
RIVALRY: There is scant chance of compromise between Bangladesh’s current leader Sheikh Hasina (r) and former PM Khaleda Zia (l)

Asked about any chance of peace or compromise between the two Begums, Professor Barkat’s blunt response was ‘No.’ His considered opinion is that Bangladesh will have to find some other route to peace and progress: an ominous prognosis for a country racked by instability of extreme proportions. Yet that is the stark reality readily conceded by analysts and observers, both insiders and outsiders.

Professor Barkat’s analysis is echoed by a more recent report in the UK’s Guardian newspaper quoting prime minister Hasina’s appeal to the British government in particular, and the international community at large, to take action against Western-based jihadis who are stoking religious extremism in Bangladesh. The recent arrest in Dhaka of a British-based alleged mastermind, Tohidur Rahman, behind the brutal killing of two bloggers this year is being specifically held out as a warning against the rising ability of the Islamists to strike at will. It could be a case of lone wolf, yet the reality is that there are too many wolves roaming about and destabilising Bangladesh, preaching al-Qaeda, Islamic State or global Caliphate, or Khelafat ideology in the name of Islam.

The enormity of the challenge facing Bangladesh is brought into sharp focus by the stark statistic of madrasas or faith schools at primary and secondary school level over the last 40 years. Every third student in Bangladesh is a madrasa student, affecting 8 million children, with 73 per cent of all madrasas, totalling 55,000, under the ‘kaumi’ or privately run religious umbrella. While the number of state primary schools has merely doubled over the four decades, the number of privately run faith-dominated schools known, as ‘Dakhil madrasas’, has shot up 13 times. Likewise, expenditure per head in government schools is around 3,000 Takas ($38.5), while the spending per head in faith schools is around 5,000 Takas ($64). Thus both ‘qualitatively’ and quantitatively, the faith merchants are catching the young early, warns Professor Barkat.

Nevertheless, he believes that Bangladesh’s secular Sufi heritage of over 450 years, which he calls the ‘DNA of Bangladesh’, will prevail, with a bit of help from abroad and political and administrative steps at home. Among the list of internal priority actions, he calls for a thorough audit of Jamat-linked financial transactions, confiscation of assets of extremists and the weeding out of extremists within the government.

However, the balance sheet of the 44 years since the birth of Bangladesh, he concedes, is not very inspiring. His insistence, like that of many of his compatriots, on punishment for those involved in ‘war crimes’ during the liberation war is not likely to promote peace, direly needed for the country’s progress and development. Excessive insistence on punishment, especially the death penalty, becomes too often counter-productive. Perhaps it is time to think the unthinkable and offer an olive branch to the former misguided ‘enemies’ of the state in return for remorse and apology. A long jail-term should be the limit, even for the more recalcitrant. The quality of mercy, sanctioned by all religious, humanistic and Sufi traditions, may yet be more profitable and practical, and lead to peace and reconciliation. The country must move on.

More immediately, the international community must extend a helping hand to Bangladesh, not only with anti-terror strategic cooperation but also with generous financial aid to convert religious madrasas into mainstream, state-run secular schools to wean young minds away from jihadi influences. Equally, the country needs be helped with development programmes to reduce poverty and unemployment, the recruiting ground of jihadists of multifarious affiliations. The time to help Bangladesh is here and now—before the jihadists strike the tinderbox.

Subhash Chopra is a journalist and author of Partition, Jihad and Peace.

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