Riots in Bangladesh may benefit Islamists

As Bangladesh's two main political parties fought in the streets this weekend, radical groups are making inroads.

A hail of bullets and rocks swept over Bangladesh's cities this past weekend, spawning a deadly political crisis that threatens upcoming elections in January. Although averted for now, as of Sunday night, there are still pitfalls that may prove a boon for the country's Islamist parties, observers say.

On Friday, the ruling Bangladesh National Party (BNP), which took office in 2001 in a coalition with Islamist parties, officially ended its five-year term. Bangladesh's Constitution stipulates that a transitional, nonparty caretaker government must assume the reins to help steer the country toward elections in January.

For several days this weekend, political leaders from the ruling BNP and the opposition Awami League bickered over who would head the interim government. Meanwhile, party activists sparred in violent clashes that left 18 dead and hundreds wounded. But on Sunday evening the current president, Iajuddin Ahmed, was sworn in as the head of the interim administration.

For now a crisis seems to have been avoided, but observers cautioned against jumping to optimistic conclusions. The days leading to January's elections may be fraught with violence that could benefit Islamist parties in the world's third largest Muslim country.

So continues a longstanding tradition of political violence in Bangladesh. It is a crisis the country can ill afford, given the disturbing expansion in recent years of Islamist political power and a culture of intolerance.

"The violence we see on the streets of Bangladesh is basically creating space for the extremists to exploit," says Samina Ahmed, South Asia project director of the International Crisis Group. "They might have sworn in the president, but we have to wait and see how the opposition will react to this." Ms. Ahmed adds that lingering disagreements about the elections could spark further violence between the two parties.

Bangladesh remains a moderate Muslim democracy, though political frustration is at an all time high in the country – one of the world's poorest and most densely populated nations. The country's inherently liberal traditions have always acted as a bulwark against strict interpretations of Islam.

But in a story that has been repeated from the West Bank to Somalia, Islamist groups like Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh's largest religious party, have stepped in where the government has failed, providing basic services such as water and sanitation to millions of citizens who would otherwise be ignored.

Moments of reconciliation are rare and usually fleeting in Bangladesh's long history of political violence. The country was originally born out of bloodshed when it fought for independence from Pakistan in 1971. Ever since, a bitter rivalry between the country's main political parties, the BNP and the Awami League, has arrested the political landscape and spawned a culture of conflict.

But the rise of Islamist politics and extremism is a relatively new and disturbing chapter in the country's political evolution – one that highlights just how much the democratic parties have, through their rivalry, ground the democratic process to a halt.

When out of power, both parties boycott parliament and call for crippling nationwide strikes. The Awami League, for example, has refused to attend parliament for most of this year; the BNP did the same when the Awami League was in power before 2001.

From this bruising conflict, Islamist political parties have emerged as efficient, competent governors.

"The overwhelming factor is organization," says Ajai Sahni, director of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi. "[The Islamists] do provide a very large range of social security to very large parts of the population, which allows [them] to consolidate strong support."

That efficiency, coupled with political acrimony, paid political dividends for Jamaat-e-Islami in 2001. The ruling BNP, desperate for a partner to challenge the Awami League in elections, struck a deal with the religious party and formed a coalition government. The BNP won the elections and Jamaat-e-Islami took 18 seats in parliament, a small but solid footing.

Jamaat-e-Islami's power to project an Islamist agenda has grown considerably now that it controls several powerful ministries, as well as a host of welfare organizations, schools, and madrassahs. The party also owns a staggering array of businesses in banking, real estate, and other services.

Jamaat's leaders insist their party is committed to democracy and that their aim is to introduce an Islamic state through the ballot box. But many observers say their rise has contributed to an environment of intolerance and, by extension, militancy.

The culmination of that uptick was the synchronized explosion of nearly 500 bombs throughout Bangladesh in August 2005. The attack was followed months later by Bangladesh's first-ever suicide bombings, which killed several lawyers and judges. An Islamic militant group claimed responsibility for the attacks, and subsequent arrests revealed that several suspects were former members of Jamaat-e-Islami's student wing, according to local news reports. Jamaat-e-Islami has consistently denied any such links.

Many are worried that the hatred between the BNP and the Awami League runs so deep that each would rather ally itself with Islamist parties than with the other – despite the potential damage to the nation's political discourse and the parties themselves.

But while the main parties squabble for short term gains, spawning violence like the kind seen this weekend, Jamaat-e-Islami is painstakingly realizing its vision.

"This party believes in changing the people's future," says Mr. Kamruzzaman. "We do not think that the country will change over night. We believe if we go slow, people at the end of the day will support us."

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