|12/04/2008: Bangladesh Hearing - Testimony of Ali Riaz|
WRITTEN TESTIMONY OF
Professor, Politics and Government
Illinois State University, USA
UNITED STATES COMMISSION
ON INTERNATIONAL RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
PUBLIC HEARING ON BANGLADESH
4 DECEMBER 2008
Honorable members of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, and Ladies and Gentlemen:
I would like to thank you for providing me with this opportunity to share my thoughts with you on the current situation in Bangladesh.
On 12 January 2007 as the military-backed caretaker government took power in Bangladesh concerns were voiced over the likely consequences of the military's political intervention. Many analysts expressed apprehension that this may be the beginning of a long ‘military rule' akin to the 1975-90 period. It was feared that in the long-term, the intervention of the military in politics might prove terminal to Bangladeshi democracy. The Economist, in April 2007, for example, speculated that either the army might remain in politics by forming its own party, or worse, it might ‘not bother with such niceties and declare outright martial law' (‘No going back', The Economist, 19 April 2007). On the other hand, the caretaker government's promises of sweeping reforms to the political system and building institutions necessary for sustainable democracy were welcomed by a large segment of the country's citizens. The vast scale of the corruption that has plagued Bangladeshi politics over the last decade and a half, the acrimonious relationship between the two political parties which made the parliament dysfunctional, the proliferation of Islamist militancy that shook the nation in August 2005, and the violence that preceded the declaration of emergency made citizens worried about the future direction of the country. Indeed, the attitude of many was captured by the Economist which described developments as ‘not uniformly bad' and praised the army for having intervened ‘sensibly' in a ‘failing democracy' (‘Not uniformly bad', The Economist, 8 February 2007).
Much has happened since then. The country is now heading for an election. In general, the euphoria of change and hope for a corruption-free politics has almost disappeared. Despite some achievements of the caretaker government, the great expectations of the Bangladeshis (and observers) who saw this as an unprecedented opportunity to bring about qualitative changes in Bangladeshi politics have remained unfulfilled. Due to the absence of major, substantive institutional and structural changes in administration and politics, the return of acrimonious, opaque, dynastic and corrupt political practices, considered impossible after 11 January 2007, now looms large. As the country is about to accomplish two crucial elements of formal democracy, an election participated in by all political parties and a peaceful transfer of power to an elected civilian government, the nation deserves heartfelt congratulations. But, a note of caution should also be sounded in that the problems that prompted the events of 11 January 2007 have not been addressed adequately and thus their recurrence in the future is not unlikely.
Against this backdrop, I would like to address three issues: Has the absence of an elected civilian regime in the past two years benefited the Islamists? Is Bangladesh out of danger from Islamist militancy? What are the challenges the next government and the international community face in regard to the growing strengths of the Islamists in general and particularly the militants?.
Did the Islamists gain strength?
It is often argued that periods of military rule or military-backed civilian rule, in Pakistan and Bangladesh, have been attended by a growing process of Islamization. In order to bolster their legitimacy, primarily due to the absence of democratic legality, successive military governments have looked to Islamist forces. The history of Bangladesh, between 1975 and 1990, testifies to this trend. But it is also true that the Islamists in Bangladesh gained political legitimacy and have emerged as the ‘Kingmaker' during the period of elected civilian governance between 1991 and 2006. The democratic hiatus of the past two years has not been different in this regard; Islamists have remained a very critical force.
But the remarkable difference is the political environment within which the Islamists have maintained their influence, particularly after being a coalition partner of the previous regime which was engaged in unbridled corruption for five years. The relentless campaign against two former Prime Ministers (Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina) and the two major political parties (the Bangladesh Nationalist Party - BNP, and the Awami League - AL) provided an enormous advantage to the Islamists, particularly the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI). The central leaders of the JI were largely spared in the regime's anti-corruption drive. The arrest of JI chief Matiur Rahman Nizami on charges of corruption almost a year after the drive began did not result in his imprisonment for any significant length of time. He was the first among the high-profile political leaders who secured bail from the court. This was followed by the drama surrounding the government's effort to arrest the JI Secretary General Ali Ahsan Mujahid. Although an arrest warrant was issued and police reported him as ‘absconding', he attended a meeting with the chief adviser for official talks representing the JI.
Even before these events, the JI leaders had demonstrated that they can make controversial statements with impunity. In December 2007, the leaders of the JI openly belittled the freedom fighters of the Bangladesh movement for independence. Despite demands from the civil society, the government has not moved to file cases against the JI leaders for their roles in 1971 when they sided with Pakistan against the Bangladeshi freedom war.
The JI was not the only Islamist party that took advantage of the situation; other Islamists went further and organized street agitations without any serious repercussions. The row over the publication of a cartoon in a Bengali daily in September 2007 is a case in point. The activists of the Hizb-ut Tahrir, an Islamist group which calls for the establishment of a global Caliphate and is banned in several parts of the world, went on the rampage in Dhaka. No member of the HT was prosecuted while the cartoonist was arrested and the government forced the newspaper editor to apologize. The government had dealt with street agitation organized by a section of University students in August 2007 with a firm hand, but the activists of the Hizbut Tahrir enjoyed considerable latitude.
The most humiliating defeat of the government in the face of Islamist opposition was on the National Women Development Policy early in 2008. The policy insisted on the equal rights of women in inheritance and equal pay. A few Islamist parties began staging demonstrations immediately after the chief adviser announced the policy on March 8. By late-March the government was forced to appoint a 20-member committee comprised of ulema to identify inconsistencies between Islamic laws and the policy and recommend changes. On 18 April 2008 the ulema committee submitted its report to the government strongly opposing equal rights for women, recommending deletion of six sections of the policy and amending 15 others which, they argued, "clashed" with the provisions of the Quran and Sunnah. The JI supported the view that the policy was contrary to Islamic law and called upon the government to scrap it. The government finally gave in and made no effort to implement these polices. As a matter of fact, the members of the caretaker government have never mentioned the policy since then.
Since October of this year, two events have dramatically demonstrated that the Islamists are flexing their muscles. In both instances, they targeted sculptures erected in public places. The first incident occurred on 16 October. Islamists objected to a sculpture of five bauls (a group of mystic minstrels), symbolizing the exuberance of Bengali culture, which had been commissioned by the Dhaka City Corporation as part of a city beautification program and was then still under construction. The Islamists issued a 24-hour ultimatum calling for its removal, and then attempted to take down the monument which is located near the International Airport in Dhaka, arguing that it was un-Islamic and objectionable in its siting near the hajj camp (pilgrimage camp, where pilgrims report before they travel to Makkah for the annual hajj). After the removal of the sculpture, the committee demanded that a Hajj Minar be constructed at the roundabout where the five statues used to be, and Fazlul Huq Aminee declared that all sculptures built during the AL regime (1996-2001) would soon be demolished. The most disturbing aspect of this event was the Islamists' claim that the Army Chief of Staff having been informed of their displeasure, expressed his agreement, and that the sculptures were removed at his initiative. The second incident took place on the night of 29 November. Activists of the Ulama Anjuman-e Al-Bayiniat, a small radical Islamist group, attempted to take down a sculpture located in downtown Dhaka. They claimed that they had warned the government to remove all sculptures of the country.
These events and the patterns of behavior of the Islamists in the past two years indicate that the absence of political activities has not weakened their organizations or diminished their strength. The BNP-led 4-party alliance which includes the JI and the Islami Oikya Jote (IOJ) remains intact and little remorse has been shown by the party leaders for the misdeeds during their rule.
The caretaker government's preoccupation with the two major political parties in its move to reform the political landscape has enabled Islamists of various shades escape similar convictions. The anti-corruption drive and the reform initiatives have brought an end to the political careers of some the BNP and the AL leaders, whilst the JI and other Islamists have been remarkably unscathed. If the BNP and its allies are unwilling to learn from their past mistakes and continue to pursue their policies of 2001-2006, there is no reason to hope for a different political scenario than that seen prior to 11 January 2007.
Is Islamist Militancy Over?
One of the defining features of Bangladesh politics during the last elected government (2001-2006) was the dramatic proliferation of Islamist militant groups. It is important to note that these organizations did not emerge during this period. Instead these organizations, particularly the fountainhead of the militant groups, the Harkat-ul Jihad al Islami Bangladesh (HuJIB) emerged in the late 1990s. But the Awami League regime (1996-2001) paid little attention to the growing strengths of the militant groups, failed to take note of these developments or understand their long-term implications, and did not act decisively. The government disregarded the early signs of the emerging network and intelligence reports have not been given due consideration. The militants, on the other hand, intensified their activities, primarily because of their opposition to the ruling party which they considered a secular party. The victory of the 4-party alliance, comprising the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) and the Islami Oikya Jote (IOJ), in the general elections of 2001 provided a hospitable environment for these groups.
A combination of factors such as political expediency, desire for short-term gains, infiltration of Islamists within the civil administration, inefficiency of bureaucracy, lack of intelligence capabilities, a favorable political environment and funding from some dubious charitable organizations helped them thrive. The state's meek or non-response at the initial stage weakened its ability to halt their proliferation. Nevertheless, under intense international pressure the reluctant coalition government led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Jammat-i-Islami (JI) (2001-2006) took some steps in 2005, when three militant organizations including the HuJIB were banned. In late 2006 the government began arresting and trying key militant leaders. On 29 March 2007, not long after the country witnessed a change in government, six militant leaders were executed after all legal processes had been exhausted by them.
Although the arrests, the executions, an intense security campaign and growing public awareness dealt a serious blow to the militant groups; developments over the past year and a half demonstrate that they have not disappeared. Instead, militants have regrouped and seem to be steadily gaining strength. One of the first signs of the regrouping of the militants came in April 2007 when advocate Hyder Hossain, the public prosecutor and chief counsel of the case which resulted in the death sentence meted out to the six key leaders of the Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh, was assassinated. Sporadic incidents of attacks occurred from the middle of 2007. For example, on 1 May 2007, a previously unknown group called Jadid al-Qaeda Bangladesh detonated three near-simultaneous bombs in three divisional railway stations in Dhaka, Chittagong and Sylhet. On 25 November 2007, five militants of the banned JMB made a bid to escape from Comilla Jail, reportedly with help from the outside and from some jail employees. In February 2008, the Rapid Action Battalion seized 46 live grenades from Satkhira, after the arrest of Mufti Moinuddin alias Abu Zandal, a key accomplice of the HuJIB leader Mufti Abdul Hannan. There were several other instances when grenades were recovered from various parts of the country. On 13 April a bomb exploded in a shop in Brahmanbaria and five arrested later confessed they have received training from the HuJIB at a local madrassah. Among the arrested militants was a retired army private.
On 17 November 2008, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) seized 70kg of explosives, 40kg of nitric acid, 150 cases of improvised grenades, and a large quantity of bomb-making materials and equipment in several houses in the capital Dhaka. This came following the confessional statement of a full time member the military wing of the Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). Arrested militants have confided to the RAB officials that the JMB is recruiting new members and that the fugitives are now holding secret meetings under a new leadership. The regrouping efforts are primarily taking place in the northern region of the country (The Daily Star, 28 October 2008). These and other similar incidents reveal that the networks of these militant organizations have remained intact, that financial support for maintaining the networks has not dried up, and that the flow of weapons has not been disrupted.
The efforts of law enforcing agencies to seize weapons are commendable; these confiscations will delay the next rounds of attacks, and save many lives. But unfortunately these efforts are not sufficient to mitigate militancy; identifying the sources of weapons of the militants and breaking these networks is imperative to defeat the militants.
The connections between the external militant organizations and Bangladeshi groups are no longer one-way; instead members of some of the Bangladeshi militant groups have been found to have been engaged in activities in India. For example, the HuJiB is reported to have developed close connections with militants in Pakistan and India. HuJiB operatives arrested in India in 2006 and 2008 have confessed that they received training and funds from Jaish-i-Muhammad and Lasker-i-Tayeba of Pakistan (Daily Prothom Alo, 16 May 2008).
Militants in Bangladesh have been trained to engage in subversive activities in India, as three operatives arrested there informed the Delhi police. These confessional statements indicate that militant leaders from Pakistan had travelled to Bangladesh to recruit, organize training and disburse funds. One of the arrested JMB leaders told a reporter while attending a court proceeding that about 200 JMB members have fled to Pakistan and Afghanistan since 2005 (Daily Prothom Alo, 9 May 2008).
During the last civilian regime led by the BNP, the line between the underground and the state was blurred in an unprecedented way. This state patronage explains the half-hearted crackdown on militant activities. But there are signs that the militants are now trying to institutionalize the relationship between the mainstream and the underground. The most telling indication of this is their decision to launch a political party to operate within mainstream politics. On 29 September 2008, leaders of the HuJIB floated a new party called the Islamic Democratic Party (IDP), with, its leaders claimed, government permission. It was also stated that intelligence agencies had cleared them of having any relationship with terrorist organizations. Organizers of the party further claimed that Dr. Richard L Benkin, a Chicago-based "Independent Scholar" has helped to set up the new party. Dr. Benkin has confirmed the veracity of the claim.
The present interim government of Bangladesh has recognized the importance of dealing with militancy as a matter of concern, but it seems to be remaining one step behind the militants. One can argue that the steps taken hitherto to combat militancy have been inadequate, and that some necessary steps have not been taken yet. For example, the total number of individuals arrested for their alleged involvement with militant activities is less than eight hundred - a number too small to organize the synchronized bomb blasts of 17 August 2005, let alone other operations. Those who had joined the Afghan war have played key roles in organizing these groups; yet not all have been traced and questioned, let alone apprehended.
The government has probed very little, if at all, into the suspected training sites used by militants. The possible political connection between certain members of the BNP and the militants has not been examined at length. There is enough evidence to show that the connections between the Jammat-i-Islami (JI) are more than accidental, and that these relationships are neither limited to individuals, nor to one or two units of the party.
Official records and press reports show that during the 4-party coalition government (2001-2006) a number of militant leaders were arrested, but released by the local authorities. To my knowledge no investigations, either public or administrative, have been conducted to identify the individuals concerned and the reasons behind the leniency displayed toward the militants.
What needs be done?
By January 2009, Bangladesh will have an elected civilian government, save dramatic political developments or an unforeseen situation. The newly elected government will have many challenges, on political and economic fronts. The fate of the anticorruption drive and the reform measures initiated by the caretaker government will be decided by the upcoming election. It will also decide the future trajectories of Islamism in Bangladesh. The domestic political environment of the past two decades allowed the Islamists to consolidate their position; consequently it opened the way for transnational Islamic groups to operate with state support. If the situation remains unchanged, the scope for militant activities will be further widened.
The importance and influence of the Islamists in general, particularly those which represent Islam as a transnational political ideology, will depend on the domestic political environment as much as global political developments. If global politics encourages the strengthening of the sense of Muslim victimhood, due to the role of western countries, particularly the United States, their appeal to the common masses in Bangladesh is likely to become stronger. Events of recent years have no doubt alerted western policy makers to a number of issues that have a seeming ability to unite Muslims of diverse backgrounds and from disparate regions, and which nurture a collective sense of discrimination and aggrievement. Top of the agenda is the thorny issue of Israel/Palestine and the lopsided support of the United States to the former.
If the new regime has the political will to stem the tide of militancy, two immediate actions will be necessary on its part: first, to address the inadequacies in existing laws that are allowing the militants to emerge unscathed through the legal process; secondly, to identify and apprehend the patrons of the militant groups. Patrons of the militants - individuals and organizations, domestic and foreign - have escaped justice altogether. This was one of the main topics of discussion immediately after the series of bombings, but over time it disappeared even from public discourse. Let me reiterate the point I made elsewhere, "The importance of identifying, apprehending and trying the patrons of militancy cannot be overstated. Efforts to dismantle the networks of militants without bringing the patrons - political and financial - to book are bound to fail" (Islamist Militancy in Bangladesh: A Complex Web, London/NY: Routledge, 2008).
The international community has a significant role to play as well. The Islamists in Bangladesh present the classic dilemma to western policy-makers: should western governments engage in a dialogue with the Islamists? If they do, who should be the partners in the dialogue? What should be the goal of these engagements? While it is necessary to be cognizant of the Islamists' presence in the political arena, the policies of western nations should not undermine the secularist forces representing the majority of the population. More importantly, the local traditional Islamic traits which encourage pietist practices and the separation of faith and politics should be highlighted and strengthened.
While the menace of Islamist militancy in Bangladesh may appear to be a domestic issue, in essence it is not. The phenomenon has not grown exclusively from domestic politics; neither can domestic policies alone stem the tide. Both regional and international forces will have to play important roles if they are sincere in helping Bangladesh in its quest for a sustainable democratic political system and in seeking to prevent further instability in South Asia. The threat to global security from militant groups in the region around Bangladesh, Islamists (such as the HuJIB, the ARNO) and non-Islamists (such as the ULFA, the NSCN), may not be direct or imminent, but instability in a region peppered with insurgencies cannot be a welcome development to the international community. They can only ignore this at their own peril.
The policies of the international community must be comprehensive and two-pronged. What we mean by comprehensive is that it cannot be only military. Often the sources of security threats are embedded in the socio-political-economic environment. It is crucial that the international community examines the causes of and conditions for the appeal of radical forces. The most positive aspect to date is that the appeal of radicalism is limited and these groups have very little popular support. But this should not make any one complacent. If this problem remains unaddressed, these groups will reach out to ever larger segments of the society. This is particularly of concern because of the fractious nature of mainstream domestic politics and the connections between mainstream parties and clandestine groups. The international community in their bilateral and multilateral dealings with Bangladesh must be made aware of the complex nature of the phenomenon.
The international community cannot be oblivious to issues such as education, balanced social and economic development, and human rights and demand that radicalism and extremism be addressed vigorously. Sustained economic growth and reduction of economic disparity are perhaps the best antidotes to radicalism. Often poverty and disparity serve as the cause behind the appeals of the militants. The recruitment strategies used by these militant groups provide a clue as to which segments of the society are more vulnerable to their call. The international community should extend support to the Bangladeshi authorities in addressing these issues. It is a welcome development that the international community does not view Bangladesh through the 1970s prism which portrays the country as an aid-dependent nation; the country has come of age and deserves to be treated accordingly. Considering it as a partner, rather than a recipient of handouts, is important.
As for the counter-terrorism strategy, the international community must take into consideration the regional and extra-regional dynamics of Islamist militancy in Bangladesh. Therefore, it is necessary that the international community, particularly the United States, influence regional and extra-regional actors to be more constructive in fighting militancy there. As a small country with few resources and no clout in global politics, Bangladesh is not equipped to influence India and Pakistan to desist from using the country as a proxy battleground. Without the help of these two countries, and a coordinated effort from the international community, there is little hope of making headway. As long as the channels of weapons supply remain intact, the flow of arms to the country will continue.
Finally, in a globalized world where information flows instantaneously, global politics is bound to have an impact on Bangladesh as anywhere else. The actions of the western nations, particularly their only super power the United States, will influence the perception of the Bangladeshis towards the global political system. US policies in general, and particularly towards Muslim communities, shape the worldview of the Bangladeshis as much as local politics does. This aspect should not be ignored by the US policy-makers.
Thank you again for this opportunity to speak to you about Bangladesh at a very critical time of the history of the nation.