Dhaka - On 28 January 2009, Bangladesh's newly elected Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, stated that militancy was a major problem in Muslim-majority Bangladesh and resolved, along with her party – the liberal democratic Awami League, to address the issue.
However, a government resolution will not be enough. To address this national issue, Hasina must be prepared to put minor political and religious differences aside and organise a united effort by the main political parties in Bangladesh.
Sporadic incidents of violence, as a result of increased militancy, put Bangladesh in the international eye when Hasina was first in power from 1996 to 2001. The largest of the groups claiming responsibility for this violence is the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (Bangladesh Mujahideen Party, or JMB), which orchestrated the August 2004 grenade attack on Sheikh Hasina in Dhaka and the spate of bombings in 2005.
JMB's aim is to replace the current state of Bangladesh with an Islamic state based on a strict interpretation of shari'a, religious principles that govern all aspects of life.
Following her first stint as prime minister, Hasina took up the mantle of abolishing militancy with gusto. In her parliamentary address, 22 days after she was sworn in a second time, she directed all ministries, as well as enforcement and intelligence agencies, to identify militant financers and eradicate the sources of illegal arms and ammunition.
But more efforts are needed. The party may not face any problems passing legislation against militant activities, but with only 55 percent of the popular vote it must also give meaningful attention to opposition views.
To start the ball rolling, Hasina needs to engage in dialogue with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the main opposition in parliament, that has in principle also rejected militancy, but ignores the reality by claiming that it does not exist in the country. She can openly seek cooperation and invite BNP to participate in dialogue on the issue.
Pulling militancy out by its roots not only requires making hard administrative decisions, such as those Hasina has already begun, but also building consensus among politicians and civil society to free the country from the militant menace. To do this, she should have discussions with concerned citizens and groups who are affected by militancy and are working on the issue, while also using the media effectively to make people aware of the negative societal impact.
In addition, it is necessary for the ruling Awami League to create an environment in which the general public is not swayed by militant ideologies. Hardliners have gained ground among the impoverished population in rural areas, where government infrastructure and basic services are not adequate, by supporting mosques, hospitals and religious educational institutions.
Hasina's next challenge will be to find a way to extend basic services to all Bangladeshis in order to prevent them from falling into extremists' hands. With an ever-increasing rate of poverty and underdevelopment, she must create opportunities for work and employment – particularly in rural areas, subsidise the agriculture sector, begin income generating projects for the marginalised and poor, and make general education available to all.
She has denounced the claim that radicalism in Bangladesh stems from religion. In her first question-answer session with parliament at the end of January, she claimed, "Whenever action is taken against militants, it is described as an attack on Islam. The militants have no religion and operate beyond boundaries".
Hasina has also asked authorities to take the necessary steps to form a South Asian Anti-Terrorism Taskforce, in line with her party's election manifesto for curbing cross-border terrorism. The aim of such an organisation would be to track down militants and bring them to justice through stronger cooperation between police forces and governments in South Asia.
This dedication must continue despite inevitable setbacks. Already, India's Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee, during his recent 12-hour visit to Dhaka, expressed interest in working bilaterally to track terrorists, but shied away from committing to regional measures that would include other South Asian countries.
Hasina has the uphill task of restoring confidence at home and abroad, demonstrating that her government stands for all citizens in the fight against militancy. Her massive victory over parties running on rigidly-interpreted religious platforms demonstrates Bangladeshis' desires to eradicate the roots of radicalism and move forward in a spirit of democratic change. And thinking beyond minor political interests and religious differences will bring her the support she needs to root out militancy from the country.
* Chinmoy Mutsuddi is a journalist in Bangladesh. This article is part of a series on lesser-known Muslim societies written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).
Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 17 February 2009, www.commongroundnews.org
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