Bangladesh on the brink
The international community must support Dhaka in its standoff with gangs of violent Islamic radicals.


Activists of Hefajat-e Islam pray during a protest in front of the national mosque in Dhaka May 5, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • The international community must support Dhaka in its standoff with gangs of violent Islamic radicals.

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  • Last week's riot is only the most recent skirmish in an ongoing war for the future of Bangladesh.

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  • With 160 million people, Bangladesh houses the world's fourth largest Islamic population.

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  • Bangladesh's well-wishers, and the West in particular, should help the government to prevail.

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Nobody can accuse Bangladesh's radical Muslims of mincing their words. On Sunday, a swarm of tens of thousands descended in a fury on Dhaka to demand death for bloggers accused of defaming the prophet Muhammad. "One point, one demand, atheist bloggers must be hanged!" the mobs chanted. Two days of rioting and arson later, at least 22 people lay dead as security forces battled to restore law and order in the nation's capital.

This flare-up is only the most recent skirmish in an ongoing war for the future of Bangladesh. On one side stands democratically elected Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, whose four-year-old government stands out in the Muslim world for fighting back against a rising tide of radicalism that threatens secular Muslims, religious minorities and women from Egypt to Afghanistan to Indonesia.

Ranged against Ms. Hasina is an array of fanatical groups that seek to replace the country's tradition of pluralism with a puritanical brand of Islam that orders every aspect of society and the state. Among them, Jamaat-e-Islami, South Asia's version of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Hefazat-e-Islam (Protectorate of Islam), a network of madrassas behind the anti-blogger protests.

The stakes could scarcely be higher. With 160 million people, about 90% of them Muslim, Bangladesh houses the world's fourth largest Islamic population after Indonesia, India and Pakistan. After its secession from Pakistan in 1971, Bangladesh earned a reputation for relative religious moderation and a focus on economic development. Indeed, in the popular imagination, the country seems to exist a world away from the terrorism and sectarian conflict of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But the relative calm of Bangladesh and the regions bordering it in eastern India ought not to be taken for granted. Between them Bangladesh and the Indian states of West Bengal and Assam house about 160 million Muslims, more than the combined populations of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria.

While the vast majority of these mostly Bengali speaking Muslims are peaceful, the community hasn't been entirely impervious to the siren call of fundamentalism. In the past year alone, Jamaat-e-Islami and Hefazat-e-Islam activists rioted in Bangladesh, Muslim protestors temporarily shuttered the U.S. consulate in Calcutta protesting the anti-Islam film "Innocence of Muslims," and violence erupted between non-Muslims and Muslims in Burma and the Indian state of Assam.

For India, dealing with a radical Islam problem simultaneously on its eastern and western borders would add to the already daunting challenges it faces with an assertive China and an ongoing Maoist insurgency in large swathes of central and eastern India. In recent years, Ms. Hasina's government has effectively cracked down on the terrorist group Harakat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, which used Bangladesh as a staging ground for attacks in India. But the potential for renewed violence, particularly in the run-up to national elections in both India and Bangladesh within the next year, should not be overlooked.

Ms. Hasina's overall record of governance has been patchy. She has squabbled publicly with her most famous compatriot, microcredit pioneer and Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, over his control of Grameen Bank, and with the World Bank over a bridge project linked to corruption allegations. But in terms of taking the fight to her country's Islamists, the prime minister's conduct has been exemplary.

After sweeping to power with a two-thirds majority in 2009, Ms. Hasina partially restored the country's founding commitment to a secular state by removing a phrase from the constitution's preamble that suggested "absolute faith and trust in Allah." Islam, practiced by about 90% of Bangladeshis, remains the state religion.

She also established the International Crimes Tribunal, a domestic court charged with bringing to justice some of the most egregious human rights violators from Bangladesh's 1971 war of independence. At the time, the Pakistani army and its local collaborators, including the Jamaat-e-Islami, killed some 3 million Bangladeshis and raped 200,000 women in a failed attempt to prevent the breakaway of what was then known as East Pakistan.

Senior Jamaat-e-Islami leader Delwar Hossain Sayeedi was convicted of murder, abduction, rape and torture, and sentenced to death. In response, Jamaat activists went on a rampage in February and March, killing more than 60 people.

But the war crimes trials remain broadly popular in the country. To a large extent the violent Islamist backlash underscores the fact that Ms. Hasina successfully rallied her country's moderate majority behind a secular vision of Bangladeshis united by language, culture and history, instead of divided by faith. This vision was captured most vividly by the so-called Shahbag movement, a spontaneous gathering in Dhaka of thousands of artists, students and ordinary people who rallied to demand the death penalty for another Jamaat-e-Islami mass murderer let off with a life sentence by the court in February.

By contrast, the goons from Hefazat-e-Islam represent an idea of Bangladesh imported from the deserts of Saudi Arabia. Their 13-point charter of demands includes banning women from the work force by ending "free mixing" of the sexes, a harsh new blasphemy law similar to Pakistan's, the declaration of the beleaguered Ahmadi sect as non-Muslim, and, since no detail is too small for Islamists, an end to "candle lighting in the name of personal freedom and free speech."

In sum, Bangladesh's government is far from perfect, but it deserves credit for attempting to pull off something all too rare in the Muslim world: a war of ideas against Islamists. The country's well-wishers, and the West in particular, should help the government to prevail. The alternative, for Bangladesh and the region, would make the country's current problems look like a cakewalk in comparison.

Mr. Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a columnist for Follow him on Twitter @dhume01


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