The Talibanization of Bangladesh

Dr. Abdulla Al-Madani

Published on April 01, 2006


What has been a matter of constant denial by the Dhaka government has now come to be proved. The reference here is to the spate of bombings of August 17, which clearly confirmed the existence of Al-Qaeda-like minded terrorist groups in Bangladesh.

On the morning of August 17, around 500 bombs blasted simultaneously in 60 cities and town across the country, targeting government buildings, court houses, public parks, shopping centres, and busy streets. Fingers of accusation are pointed to Jamaat-ul- Mujahideen of Bangladesh (JMB), an outlawed Islamic extremist group, especially with thousands of leaflets in Bengali and Arabic being found at the bombing sites carrying the name of the group. Only those who believe in conspiracy theories and accordingly hold Western, Zionist, or Indian intelligences responsible of any destructive operation have said otherwise.

In these two-page leaflets, the JMB demands the setting up of Islamic laws, describes democracy as an anti-Islamic concept that has been introduced by Kafirs (non-believers) and Mushriks (pagans), threatens to restore to Qital (all-out killing), and prescribes severe punishment for the American and British leaders.

Since the mid-1990s, there have been many reports warning of Bangladesh’s gradual slide towards becoming a new hub of Islamic extremists. This became more obvious after Bangladesh National Party (BNP) came to power in 2001 through an alliance with the Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI), a mainstream political party that maintains strong ideological ties with a party bearing the same name in Pakistan and that is sympathetic to Al-Qaeda and the deposed Afghan Taliban. The JEI and other Islamic parties have employed their partnership with BNP and position in the ruling coalition government to actively support and give shelter to Muslim extremist groups and individuals, including those who entered Bangladesh illegally from Arab and Asian countries. After all, and regardless of their names and banners, they share one ultimate goal: the replacement of Bangladesh’s current democratic multi-party system with a Sharia-based government.

Such covert protection of extremist groups has helped the latter become capable of establishing themselves well and of launching bomb attacks on public rallies and movie theatres, persecuting the minority Ahmadiya Muslim community, or assassinating non-Muslim citizens, liberal intellectuals, secular journalists, and members of the opposition Awami League (AL).

Prime Minister Begum Khalida Zia’s government has remained silent and indifferent, something that can only be explained by Mrs. Zia’s intention to appease her Islamist partners and ensure their support for a longer stay in power. It could also be her satisfaction with Islamic militant groups targeting in particular AL’s members and leaders, including her arch-rival former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajid. The latter survived a bomb attack last year, in which 22 killed and 300 wounded.

In fact, the Zia government has established a tradition of denying international and Western reports concerning Bangladesh, only to reverse its stand and acknowledge such reports under pressure and the fear of international sanctions. For example, it first dismissed the presence in Bangladesh of organizations funding extremist Islamic schools and groups, but under Washington’s pressure it acknowledged that, shutting down the seventy branches of Saudi Arabia-based Al-Haramain foundation. Similarly, it denied reports talking about child labour in the country and the export of Bangladesh children to the Gulf to work as camel jockeys, but due to international pressure it admitted existence of such practices and promised to resolve them. Faced with the threat of aid curtailment from the European Union, it also admitted the presence in Bangladesh of some extremist organizations, whose members have been accused by human rights groups of targeting unveiled women and minority communities. To appease foreign donors, it banned the JMB in February and arrested some of its cadres, but not the group’s head Moulana Abdur Rahman and its operational chief Siddiqur Rahman (better known as Bangla Bhai), who had earlier been described by Dhaka as a figment of the media’s imagination.

What happened recently should be a wake-up call for Mrs. Zia’s government and party. It was good of her to finally recognize that the country was awash with terrorists and extremists and to launch a campaign against them. But this is surly not enough to meet the threat caused by the Islamic militants’ agenda of destroying the modern nation-state of Bangladesh and establishing a Taliban-like theological state. What is needed is a sincere effort by Zia to end the ongoing meaningless hostility between her and Sheikh Hasina and to form a national unity government comprising of the country’s two main parties, BNP and AL. This would be the least she could do for the sake of protecting an entity and a system, for which Bangladeshis had sacrificed millions of lives in 1971.

Dr. Abdulla Al-Madani is an Academic researcher and lecturer in Asian affairs. He can be communicated through