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What Bangladesh – and US retailers – must do to prevent man-made tragedies

Two man-made tragedies have shaken Bangladesh recently: riots over Islamist demands for blasphemy laws and the garment factory collapse. Bangladesh's response to both will show how well it can meet citizens' needs. US retailers must also take responsibility for factory conditions.

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While forced seclusion of women seems a very remote prospect, passage of anti-blasphemy legislation is a more realistic possibility. Before Bangladesh goes down that path, it might wish to look at the track record of such laws in the nation from which it achieved its independence – Pakistan.

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Officially designated an “Islamic Republic” by its constitution, Pakistan has some of the world’s strictest laws against defamation of the prophet, offense to the Quran, and other insults to religion in general, and to Islam in particular. While all recognized faiths are theoretically protected by at least some of the anti-blasphemy provisions, prosecutions and punishments have been largely directed against Pakistan's small (perhaps 4 percent) population of Christians and Ahmadiyya.

Of the hundreds of cases brought in Pakistan, it is unclear how many (if any at all) have involved genuine instances of blasphemy. By far the most common scenario is for a person involved in a property dispute to accuse his enemy of blasphemy. Few of these cases result in conviction, but many result in deaths by vigilante mobs.

In 2011 alone, Governor of Punjab Salman Taseer (a Muslim) and Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti (a Christian) were assassinated for their willingness to criticize Pakistan's blasphemy laws.

While rioters launch bloody protests against a phantom problem, Bangladesh faces a very real problem that would merit nationwide protest: the corruption and lack of government enforcement that lay behind the April 24 collapse of the Rana Plaza factory complex. The death toll exceeds 1,100, and more bodies are still being pulled from the rubble.

Unsafe working conditions are routine in Bangladeshi factories, particularly in the textile industry – a sector that accounts for some three-quarters of the nation’s exports. Many of the workers at Rana Plaza made barely $37 a month, stitching garments that wind up on racks in Europe and the United States.

Was corruption a cause of the collapse? The engineer who advised the building’s owner warned of unsafe conditions, but only long after he guided the construction of an illegal three-story rooftop addition to the factory. The engineer, the local mayor (who is accused of greasing the regulatory wheels), and the owner himself have been arrested. 

If corruption did indeed lie at the root of the disaster, it was bipartisan: The owner was a major contributor to the governing Awami National Party, while the mayor belongs to the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party.

That kind of corruption is something worthy of protest – both in Dhaka, and everyplace that people wear garments made in Bangladesh.


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