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BLOOMINGTON: A specter is haunting Bangladesh – the specter of unbridled, violent religious extremism with attacks on intellectuals, journalists, bloggers and religious minorities. The Islamic State and other forms of fundamentalism are on the rise in the country of 156 million. Unfortunately, neither of the two major political parties, the professedly secular Awami League, AL, and the more religiously inclined, right-of-center Bangladesh Nationalist Party, BNP, has demonstrated any interest in containing these developments. This mostly poverty-stricken nation has, thanks to massive infusions of foreign assistance as well as the dramatic growth of non-governmental organizations, made significant dents on child mortality and maternal health. Despite these laudable achievements, its record in guaranteeing the rights of religious, ethnic and other minorities is abysmal.
Worse still, the present regime, in denial about religious extremism, finds this trend to be politically expedient. The ostensible need for sweeping powers to curb such religious violence enables the regime to further aggrandize its political power. If extremist movements are not curbed, Bangladesh could well become an epicenter for Islamic radicalism. Given its proximity to other substantial Muslim populations in both South and Southeast Asia, the emergence of such religious extremism could have profound destabilizing consequences well beyond the reaches of the country.
Both Southeast and South Asia have had brushes with religious zealotry, and growth of bigotry and violence in Bangladesh could have major spillover effects. In the region, especially in the adjoining states of West Bengal and Assam in India, the tides of religious extremism could encourage Muslim and Hindu radicals alike. Muslim zealots may feel encouraged to press their parochial agendas. In turn, their Hindu counterparts could highlight their rise and promote their own violent programs. Unfortunately, it appears that despite professedly secular and democratic credentials, the current Bangladeshi regime of Sheikh Hasina Wajed is at least tacitly allowing such zealotry to flourish. In considerable part, willingness to dally with these extremists stems from an attempt to marginalize the organized religious party, the Jamaat-i-Islami, which is politically tainted owing to the association of several of members with the 1971 genocide. Indeed in early May, the government sent a Jamaat leader, Motiur Rahman Nizami, to the gallows for alleged involvement in the killing of fellow Bengalis during the civil war.