Bangladesh: Poverty and lack of opportunities make it fertile for extremist ideology

 A Bangladeshi youth looks on from a slum house near the Buriganga river in Dhaka.
A Bangladeshi youth looks on from a slum house near the Buriganga river in Dhaka.PHOTO: AFP

Bangladeshis are generally said to think of themselves as Bengalis first, and Muslims next. Lately, some in the Sunni-Muslim nation of 160 million have been thinking differently.

Like other societies noted for their tolerance, the rise of fundamentalism and extremist ideology within the broader faith has also had some effect on Bangladesh, once described as a "basket case" for its poverty and squalor.

This poverty, and lack of opportunity at home, has contributed to disgruntlement, making it fertile for extremist ideology.

It also has led thousands to seek work in the Gulf and in South-east Asian nations such as Malaysia and Singapore. This has exposed them to multiple influences, not always positive.

In the 1990s, Malaysians used to complain about Bangladeshis Lotharios stealing the affections of Malay women with their silver tongues and propensity for music. These days, some of them have clearly turned more dangerous to wider society.

While the world is now aware of their activities in Singapore, it waits to hear from Kuala Lumpur, which surely must be doing its own monitoring of such groups. Likewise, from jurisdictions like Dubai in the UAE and Kuwait, which too must be keeping a weather eye on potential terror outfits.

To understand what shapes extremist thinking in a Bangladeshi, witness this:

In their own neighbourhood, the Bangladeshi has seen religious nationalism rise. This is particularly so in Myanmar, where Rohingya Muslims of Bengali origin continue to suffer disenfranchisement under the dominant Buddhist majority.

This has enraged many in Bangladesh, who share a sense of kinship with the Rohingyas.

Remnants of Pakistani influence in the nation, through the hardline Jamaat e Islami party, have also pushed religion into the nation's body politic.

Last year, Bangladesh executed several leading Jamaat members convicted of genocidal actions in favour of Pakistan during the Liberation struggle of 1971.

Even in India, a nation admired around the world for its tolerant ways, sections of society and government have been signalling a lurch to Hindu nationalism.

All this has fuelled extremist thought in Bangladesh and it began manifesting last year in a significant way.

Three months ago, the US State Department issued a travel alert on Bangladesh after several terror attacks on foreigners in the country. These included the murders of bloggers known for secular views as well as the killings of a Japanese agricultural worker and an Italian social worker who was killed within the diplomatic area.

One of the bloggers who was murdered was a Bangladeshi-American known for his secular views. He was hacked to death while he walked in the open with his wife next to him. Three other bloggers have suffered attacks, one fatally.

The murder of the foreigners was claimed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). However, Bangladeshi officials at the time ruled out the influence of ISIS in the country. Instead, they blamed the domestic political opposition. While they have good reason to do that, this is only part of the story.

Bangladesh is divided by the bitter rivalry between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed of the Awami League Party and her rival, the widowed Khaleda Zia of Bangladesh Nationalist Party.

Both parties make ample use of strong-arm methods in their politics. In August 2005, some 300 bombs went off across the country, wounding more than 50 but killing just two. Subsequently, there has been sporadic violence in the nation.

However, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, prodded by India, has been unsparing of extremism since her current tenure began six years ago this January.

But the tolerance of thugs in both camps for their political use also means that a few extremist elements have also succeeded in finding a sinecure in their midst. Such men are aided and abetted by regional terrorist outfits, some of them based in Pakistan and increasingly under pressure from strong state action there.

Last year, Hefazat-e-Islami, a group of students and teachers with close links to the Jamaat fought on the streets with police and destroyed cars in several cities. They wanted restrictions on women's rights and tough new laws on blasphemy.

That said, Bangladesh continues to be largely a nation that hews to a moderate interpretation of the faith. Indeed, the situation would have been worse if the nation had not made impressive strides toward attaining the UN's Millennium Development Goals.

A booming garment manufacturing industry, swelled by orders fleeing China and more expensive manufacturing locations, has also helped keep militancy in check by proving employment opportunity to thousands of women.

The empowerment that thus ensued has helped stem extremist thought from spreading too deeply - mothers, after all, are the biggest influence on the young.