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Observers Dismiss Threat of Rising Islamic Fundamentalism In Bangladesh

Bangladeshi police baton-charge Islamists during clashes in Dhaka on May 5. Opposition groups claim hundreds of Hefazat supporters have disappeared since.
Bangladeshi police baton-charge Islamists during clashes in Dhaka on May 5. Opposition groups claim hundreds of Hefazat supporters have disappeared since.
The Hefazat-e Islam movement in Bangladesh has strong support from the country's religious-school system, the teachers and students at some 25,000 madrasahs.

But political observers in the capital, Dhaka, say the Islamist umbrella group does not have wide support across the country, despite a population that is 90 percent Muslim.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's government sees Hefazat as being less militant than the largest Islamist political party in Bangladesh, Jamaat-e Islami. Nevertheless, despite theological differences, Jamaat-e Islami has thrown its support behind Hefazat's campaign for stricter Islamic laws.

Hefazat is a loose coalition of 13 Islamist groups that made international headlines on May 5-6 when their Dhaka rally turned into a riot and security forces were deployed to disperse the demonstrators.

Local media report that at least 27 people were killed, including two police officers and one paramilitary soldier. Opposition groups claim hundreds of Hefazat supporters have disappeared since the crackdown.

Zahurul Alam, a Dhaka-based correspondent for Voice Of America, says the recent violence is just a thread within a larger tapestry of political unrest in the coup-prone country.

"As far as I understand from the ground about the Islamists, the Hefazat-e Islam or Jamaat-e Islami, their support is very, very low. I don't think these people matter at all in the whole democratic process," Alam says. "The main problem right now is not the rise of Islamism or radical Islamism or Talibanism. It is a question of the next election -- how it will be [carried out.] That is the main political issue in Bangladesh right now."

All About The Next Elections

The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) called a two-day nationwide strike beginning on May 7 to protest what they claim was a "mass killing" of Hefazat workers and supporters.

But Alam notes that despite an alliance with some Islamists, the BNP's main goal is to prevent the governing Awami League from overseeing general elections in late 2013.

The BNP and other opposition parties have been holding demonstrations on that issue for months. They say free and fair elections cannot be conducted in Bangladesh without a caretaker government.

Hefazat-e Islam activists rally in Dhaka on May 5.
Hefazat-e Islam activists rally in Dhaka on May 5.

For two decades, general elections in Bangladesh have been conducted under a caretaker government system agreed upon in 1990 by the country's majority political parties. That system was formalized by parliament in a 1996 constitutional amendment.

That caretaker system originally was meant to foster democratic transition after a decade of rule by Hussain Muhammad Ershda, an army general who seized power in a 1981 coup.

But the Awami League won a landslide election victory at the last elections in 2008. In 2011, it used its parliamentary majority to unilaterally abolish the caretaker system.

Narrow Political Base

By comparison, Hefazat's agenda is detailed in a 13-point charter that demands the death penalty for blasphemy against Islam, including the execution of Internet bloggers and others who insult the Prophet Muhammad.

Hefazat has angered women's rights advocates with calls for women's development programs to be canceled.

It is demanding laws against what Islamists deem to be "shameless behavior and dresses," as well a ban on the mixing of men and women in public. Hefazat also wants rules against erecting statues in public places.

Prime Minister Hasina has rejected those demands -- prompting Hefazat to organize the May 5 rally that turned into a riot.

Political experts say Hefazat's narrow political base is revealed by how it filled out the ranks of its Dhaka rally by bussing thousands of madrasah students into the capital.

Kamal Hossein, a former justice minister who is now an attorney at the Supreme Court in Dhaka, told VOA that most Bangladeshis rejected the idea of mixing Islam with politics.

"I believe honestly that there is complete consensus in the country on noncommunal democracy and not getting communalism revived again -- not seeing religion mixed up with politics," Hossein said.

"Pakistan is having enough difficulties with it for people to just look across [and see how they are faring]. And I have spoken to people from Pakistan and they say, 'You are so fortunate to have been able to have noncommunal politics.'"

But Hossein warned that poor governance, corruption, and a lack of accountability have created an opening for extremist voices in Bangladesh. As an example, he pointed to mass demonstrations over the recent collapse of a garment factory in Dhaka that killed more than 700 people.

"This dissatisfaction with what should be a strong democracy is what opens up the possibility for others to come and say, 'We have the answer.' Of course, they don't have the answer," he said.

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