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     Volume 4 Issue 32 | February 4, 2005 |

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A State in a State of Denial

Aasha Mehreen Amin

If there is one thing consistent about our government, no matter what the ruling party is, it is to be in a state of denial. This is why the New York Times (NYT) Magazine's unflattering story "The Next Islamic Revolution?" has provoked such self-righteous outrage from the government so much so, that it completely refuses to acknowledge even a shred of authenticity in the report. Bangladesh's Permanent Representative to the UN, Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, has sent a rejoinder to the offending publication saying that the story was "baseless, partial and misleading".

The government has even hinted at a customary witch-hunt to find the local sources that aided the foreign journalist who wrote the story. Director General of the foreign ministry, Zahirul Haq, has said that the report is one-sided and could very well be written with ulterior political motives. Haq further added, "to suggest that Bangladesh is becoming a Taliban country is humorous at best and is the result of ill motives". Haq rejected all the allegations put forward in the story, saying, "the people of Bangladesh are committed to democracy and Bangladesh has achieved great progress in social indicators highly appreciated in the international forum." One can only wonder what 'social indicators' are so encouraging as to dilute the significance of the continuous spate of unsolved murders and incidents of violence that take up the headlines everyday.

True, it may be a little premature to say that Bangladesh has become the latest hot spot for a Taliban revolution. The majority of the population does not subscribe to a militant form of Islam, one that is intolerant of other religions or one that advocates extreme violence to make a point. On the contrary, most Muslims of this country observe their religion and are at the same time tolerant to people of other faiths. It is also true that the NYT Magazine story deliberately avoided comments from moderate Muslims in the country who make up the majority of Bangladeshis.

But to claim that the threat of religious bigots, whatever the political motive they may be nurturing, do not pose as a serious threat to the secular principles on which this nation was formed, is ludicrous in its stupidity and dangerous in its intransigence. It is a bit like the mother of a psychopath refusing to admit that her son has been a 'bad boy' even after he has been caught red-handed slicing up his victim.

Take Bangla Bhai. Leader of Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB), a militant organisation that wants to establish a Taliban-like rule in the country, Bangla Bhai has successfully established a reign of terror over villages in the northeastern region. Reports of torture and cold-blooded murders by this group continue to pour in with chilling progression. Last year, the Prime Minister gave orders for his arrest but this terrorist who changes his name at the drop of a hat, still manages to be out of the grips of the law enforcers. Plus, it is more than obvious that Bangla Bhai has enjoyed the support of ruling party members as well as the police. Which is why he still has full control and power over his lackeys who are continuing his work of terror and intimidation. Under the guise of religious uprightness-- something that in this country cannot be questioned or challenged.

It is rather funny that while the RAB's (Rapid Action Battalion) weeding out criminals with their 'caught-in-the crossfire' methods, continues with hyper-efficiency, they have made no headway in catching Bangla Bhai. According to news reports, the JMJB has killed at least 15 people and tortured and maimed many others. JMJB cadres have also been circulating leaflets calling for Muslims to prepare for jihad against 'infidels'. Recently the State Minister for Home, Lutfozzaman Babar told reporters that Bangla Bhai would be arrested as soon as he is found, but when talking to the BBC radio he said that the government did not 'officially' know of Bangla Bhai's existence. Babar said that the only news of Bangla Bhai (who also goes by the name Azizur Rahman and sometimes as Siddiqul Islam) the government had was from the newspapers.

The local police high ups have also played this game of denying his existence and then saying he would be arrested if found.

The government's ambivalence regarding this mercenary is mystifying. It is not clear whether it is because of his 'cleansing' of leftwing extremists or his attacks on AL leaders or his proclaimed zeal to establish Islamic rule of law, that has made the ruling coalition look the other way while he continues his criminal activities. His motives might be far from religious but the fact is that he is using the banner of religion to continue his terrorist activities.

There are, indeed, innumerable other reasons for the Western Media to be paranoid about a rise in Talibanism in this otherwise obscure, poor, overpopulated region. Many of the terrorists' targets-- a Pahela Boishakh celebration at Ramna Botomul, an Udichi function in Jessore, cinema halls in Mymensingh, the British High Commissioner, Dr Humayan Azad, jatra performances-- all represent opposing values from those prescribed by religious fanatics. Intelligence operatives have expressed their opinion that many of these terrorist attacks were the work of religious extremists but the investigations never progressed due to pressure from the authorities.

The attacks on Hindus and Ahmadiyyas are on face value, examples of religious bigotry. Of course there may be political ramifications to all these acts but the indifference of the government as regards investigation of these crimes (don't forget their agreeing to ban Ahmadiyya books) does indicate a tacit tolerance for this kind of religious extremism.

Nothing could be more dangerous for this country. We know of instances of women not being allowed to vote because a local religious leader thought it to be un-Islamic, of women being denied the right to work to earn a living, of women being forced to wear burkas and men being forced to keep beards. From time to time evangelical tirades advocating a repressive, medieval form of religious rule abound in places of worship. True they are sporadic events and are not representative of the social structure of the entire country. But they are happening.

No matter how small the area where such incidents take place, no matter how few the numbers being intimidated (compared to the general populace), these are incidents that, if allowed to continue, will take on uncontrollable proportions. Unless the government makes honest efforts to eradicate these elements of fanaticism, unless it punishes terrorists like Bangla Bhai, it has no business making indignant remarks about 'politically motivated stories by the western media to destroy the image of the country'.

If you want to say Bangladesh is not a hotbed of a Talibanesque revolution then prove it. Nipping fanaticism in the bud would be a most prudent start.

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