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Last Updated: Friday, 25 February, 2005, 02:22 GMT
Bangladesh and Islamic militants

By Roland Buerk
BBC News, Dhaka

Violence in Bangladesh
Violence has been increasing in Bangladesh
Bangladesh's government has recently banned two fringe Islamic political organisations, accusing them of being behind a recent spate of bomb explosions.

They acted after some of at least 20 suspects arrested after blasts last week at offices of Grameen and Brac, two local aid agencies, confessed to links with Jamatul Mujahideen and Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh.

It is a major change in policy.

Until just days ago the government was insisting to reporters that Islamic militants were a figment of their imaginations.

The opposition Awami League has long claimed there is a problem.

At a recent meeting of its youth wing, the talk was of the Taleban and a fight for survival against fundamentalists.

No government would like to see their government destabilised by these kinds of incidents
Morshed Khan
Bangladesh foreign minister

The activists packed into a hot room chanting political slogans were convinced the country was under threat and that no one who wanted Bangladesh to remain secular and moderate was safe.

"I am very afraid," said Jahangir Kabir Nanak, the organisation's chairman.

"When I came this morning from my house, my son blocked me. He said, 'Please don't go, don't go. You may get killed. You may die'."

Spate of attacks

There have been several attacks on senior opposition figures.

On 27 January Shah AMS Kibria, a former finance minister, was assassinated in his constituency of Habiganj.

Last August the leader of the opposition, Sheikh Hasina, was lucky to survive.

Sheikh Hasina
Former PM Sheikh Hasina had a narrow escape last year

Grenades were thrown as she addressed a huge party rally in the centre of the capital. Twenty-two people were killed.

Other targets of bombings in the past five years have included cinemas, the British High Commissioner, religious shrines and journalists.

No one has been brought to justice.

The Awami League alleges that is because extremist groups are being protected by powerful sympathisers.

They point the finger at elements within Jamaat-e-Islami and Islami Oikya Jote, two Islamic parties that are junior members of the ruling coalition.

The claim is rubbished by the government.

"Does it make sense?" says Morshed Khan MP, Bangladesh's foreign minister.

"No government would like to see their government destabilised by these kinds of incidents.

"It is a senseless comment and an irresponsible comment."

Islamic shift

All the indications are that militants in Bangladesh are few in number.

The vast majority of people are moderate and show no signs of wanting the Islamic revolution some extreme groups say they are fighting for.

I want to spread Islam, to convert the Hindus into Muslims
Mohammed Zackaria
Madrassa student

But a change is underway in the relationship between faith and politics in Bangladesh.

The country was founded in 1971 out of a secular, nationalist movement that called for independence from Pakistan.

The mainstream Islamic parties, which deny any links with militants, backed the losing side and for decades were discredited.

Now they are enjoying increasing support.

At the last elections in 2001 Jamaat-e-Islami and Islami Oikya Jote won 20 seats between them.

One reason could be the record of the two largest secular parties.

The Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party have dominated since democracy was restored in 1991.

But the lives of millions of impoverished Bangladeshis have not improved dramatically.

Schooling faith

The religious parties, already in power as part of the coalition, say they could do better if they were in charge.

Islami Oikya Jote is already running schools for those excluded by their poverty from government secondary schools.

Madrassas, or Islamic schools, have been opened across the country.

In 1970 there were 1,500 registered with the government. Today there are nearly 8,000.

Bangladesh clerics
There is growing support for Islamists

Tens of thousands more have been set up unofficially and are outside official control.

Madrassas offer a free education; even food and accommodation are provided.

Students in madrassas get up before dawn to start lessons.

Although English, maths and science have been introduced at primary level the curriculum is still dominated by the Koran and the languages of the Middle East.

For the older students it is the only thing they learn.

Fifteen-year-old Mohammed Zackaria is typical.

His father sells shirts in the market in the town of Narayanganj and the family has just enough money to survive each day.

His ambition now is to become a cleric.

"I want to spread Islam, to convert Hindus into Muslims," he says as he sits outside the family's single-room house.

"I want to persuade those who don't go to the mosque to go."

Islamic madrassa
Islamic madrassa schools are on the increase

Opponents of madrassas claim that some could be exploiting the zeal of students to recruit them to extremist groups.

The leader of Islami Oikya Jote denies it.

"If we're teaching the Koran we have to explain jihad (holy war) in theory," says Mufti Fazlul Huq Amini.

"But there is no practical training, weapons training does not exist in any madrassa in Bangladesh, as far as I know, and I oppose it.

"This is not the right time for jihad and we don't need it. We've always said we can progress through democracy," he says.

Bangladesh does have the potential for instability.

It has a huge population of desperately poor, frustrated by the slow pace of change.

The violence is perhaps one symptom of the need for the government to deliver.


SEE ALSO:
Bombs hit Bangladesh NGO offices
17 Feb 05 |  South Asia
Clashes erupt across Bangladesh
22 Aug 04 |  South Asia
Bangladesh's unsolved bombings
21 Aug 04 |  South Asia
In pictures: Bangladesh blasts
21 Aug 04 |  In Pictures
Country profile: Bangladesh
14 Aug 04 |  Country profiles


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