Islamist Extremism in Bangladesh (CRS Report for Congress)
Bruce Vaughn, Specialist in Southeast and South Asian Affairs Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade
There is concern among observers that the secular underpinnings of moderate Bangladesh are being undermined by a culture of political violence and the rise of Islamist extremists. A further deterioration of Bangladesh’s democracy and political stability may create additional space within which Islamist militants may be increasingly free to operate. Such a development may have destabilizing implications for Bangladesh, South Asia, and the Islamic world. They also have the potential to undermine U.S. interests. See CRS Report RL33646, Bangladesh: Background and U.S. Relations, by Bruce Vaughn, for additional information.
Some analysts believe the as yet unscheduled 2007 election in Bangladesh will at least in part be a referendum on the Bangladesh National Party’s (BNP) government and the opposition Awami League’s (AL) competing visions for Bangladesh. The roughly even political split between the BNP and the AL has given small Islamist parties a political voice isproportionate with their overall electoral support in the country. The BNP, by ruling in coalition with Islamist parties, has demonstrated its willingness to work with radical Islamists, while the AL has traditionally been critical of their activities. The Islamists’ position within the government has also given them a new source of litimacy.1 The AL’s signing of a Memorandum of Understanding with the fundamentalist Khelaphat-e-Majlis party in December 2006 further indicates the rising power of small Islamist parties.2 The United States and Britain are concerned over the rise of Islamist influence and militancy in Bangladesh. The U.S. Department of State Country Reports on Terrorism released in April 2006 observed that Bangladesh experienced an increase in terrorist activity. This included the emergence of the Jamaat ul-Mujahideen (JMB), a group that promotes a fundamentalist vision for Bangladesh. While pointing to “limited success” by the government, the report explained that “endemic corruption ... porous borders,” and “the government’s serious institutional, resource, and political constraints” all “undermine the government’s broader counter terrorism posture.”3 Former U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh William Milam is reported to have stated, “I fear that Bangladesh might revert to its pre-1991 condition in which even the peaceful transfer of power after credible elections was not possible,” adding, “This impasse has serious implications not only for Bangladesh but also for the South Asian region and the Islamic world.”4 Britain’s High Commissioner Anwar Choudhury, who was himself almost assassinated by extremists in 2004, is reported to have stated that there is “serous potential” for radical Islam to take hold in Bangladesh and that this would “change the geopolitics of our engagement with Islam and our efforts in countering terrorism.”
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