Published: January 23, 2005
Before dawn one morning this past November in Bagmara, a village in northwestern Bangladesh, six puffy-eyed men gathered beneath a cracked-mud stairwell to describe a man they consider their leader, a former schoolteacher called Bangla Bhai. The quiet was broken now and then by donkey carts clattering past, as village women, seated on the backs of the carts, were taken to the market. The women wore makeshift burkas — black, white, canary yellow — and kept their heads down, and this, the men explained, was Bangla Bhai’s doing.
Last spring, Bangla Bhai, whose followers probably number around 10,000, decided to try an Islamist revolution in several provinces of Bangladesh that border on India. His name means “Bangladeshi brother.” (At one point he said his real name was Azizur Rahman and more recently claimed it was Siddiqul Islam.) He has said that he acquired this nom de guerre while waging jihad in Afghanistan and that he was now going to bring about the Talibanization of his part of Bangladesh. Men were to grow beards, women to wear burkas. This was all rather new to the area, which was religiously diverse. But Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh, as Bangla Bhai’s group is called (the name means Awakened Muslim Masses of Bangladesh), was determined and violent and seemed to have enough lightly armed adherents to make its rule stick.
Because he swore his main enemy was a somewhat derelict but still dangerous group of leftist marauders known as the Purbo Banglar Communist Party, Bangla Bhai gained the support of the local police — until the central government, worried that Bangla Bhai’s band might be getting out of control, ordered his arrest in late May.
“There used to be chaos and confusion here,” Siddiq-ul-Rahman, one of Bangla Bhai’s senior lieutenants, said through an interpreter that morning in Bagmara. The sun was coming up and a crowd was gathering. Siddiq-ul-Rahman boasted that police officers attend Bangla Bhai’s meetings armed and in uniform. The Bangladeshi government’s arrest warrant doesn’t seem to have made much difference, although for now Bangla Bhai refrains from public appearances. The government is far away in Dhaka, and is in any case divided on precisely this question of how much Islam and politics should mix. Meanwhile, Bangla Bhai and the type of religious violence he practices are filling the power vacuum.
Bangladeshi politics have never strayed far from violence. During the war for independence from Pakistan, in 1971, three million people died in nine months. Thuggery has been a consistent feature of political life since then and is increasingly so today. This has made it difficult to get an accurate picture of phenomena like Bangla Bhai. Under the current government, which has been in power since 2001 and includes two avowedly Islamist parties, journalists are frequently imprisoned. Last year, three were killed while reporting on corruption and the rise of militant Islam. Moreover, 80 percent of Bangladeshis live in villages that can be hard to reach and are under the tight control of local politicians. Foreign journalists in Bangladesh are followed by intelligence agents; people that reporters interview are questioned afterward.
Nonetheless, it is possible to travel through Bangladesh and observe the increased political and religious repression in everyday life, and to verify the simple remark by one journalist there: “We are losing our freedom.” The global war on terror is aimed at making the rise of regimes like that of the Taliban impossible, but in Bangladesh, the trend could be going the other way.
In Bangladesh, “Islam is becoming the legitimizing political discourse,” according to C. Christine Fair, a South Asia specialist at the United States Institute of Peace, a nonpartisan, federally financed policy group in Washington. “Once you don that religious mantle, who can criticize you? We see this in Pakistan as well, where very few people are brave enough to take the Islamists on. Now this is happening in Bangladesh.” The region, Fair added, has become a haven where jihadis can move easily and have access to a friendly infrastructure that allows them to regroup and train.
Another close observer of Bangladeshi politics, Ali Dayan Hasan of Human Rights Watch, told me recently: “The practical effect of politics along religious lines is that you start to accept a religious identity and reject every other. It’s absolutely crucial to understand that this is happening in Bangladesh right now.”
This was not supposed to be the fate of Bangladesh, which fought its way to independence 34 years ago. While its population of 141 million is 83 percent Muslim, the nation was founded on the principle of secularism, which in Bangladesh essentially means religious tolerance. After the guiding figure of independence, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was assassinated in 1975, military leaders, seeking legitimacy, allowed a return of Islam to politics. With the return of fair elections in 1991, power became precariously divided among four parties: the right-leaning Bangladesh National Party (B.N.P.), the mildly leftist Awami League, the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami and the conservative Jatiya. The two leading parties are led by women: the B.N.P. by the current prime minister, Khaleda Zia, widow of the party’s murdered founder; the Awami League by Zia’s predecessor as prime minister, Sheikh Hasina Wazed, herself the daughter of the assassinated founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
Zia and Sheikh Hasina, as she is known, have a legendary antipathy toward each other. Each of their parties regularly accuses the other of illegal acts. When Sheikh Hasina very narrowly escaped assassination last August, B.N.P. activists all but accused her of staging the attack in order to acquire political advantage. Zia’s government has been unable to identify the assassins — who lobbed grenades into a party rally, killing at least 20 and wounding hundreds — and Sheikh Hasina has refused even to discuss the investigation with the prime minister, saying: “With whom should I meet? With the killers?”
The political breach between those two parties is being filled primarily by Jamaat-e-Islami, which agitated against independence in 1971 and remains close to Pakistan. The group was banned after independence for its role in the war but has slowly worked its way back to political legitimacy. The party itself has not changed much — it was always socially conservative and unafraid of violence. The political context, however, has changed enough to give it greater power. Since 2001, Jamaat-e-Islami has been a crucial part of a governing coalition dominated by the B.N.P. The two parties have ties dating to the late 1970’s, but it is only since 2001 that a politically aggressive form of Islam has found, for the first time since independence, a strong place at the top of Bangladeshi politics.
It has found a corresponding position at the bottom of Bangladeshi politics as well, in the social scrum that produces figures like Bangla Bhai. (Opposition politicians have linked Bangla Bhai to Jamaat-e-Islami, a tie that Jamaat and Bangla Bhai have both denied.) The border provinces have, since independence, harbored a proliferation of armed groups that either Bangladesh, India, Myanmar or Pakistan, or some region or faction in one of those countries, has been willing to support for its own political reasons. By the early 1990’s Islamist groups began appearing, mainly at the periphery of the jihad centered on Afghanistan. The most important of these has been the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (Huji), which has been associated with Fazlul Rahman, who signed Osama bin Laden’s famous declaration in 1998 endorsing international, coordinated jihad — the document that introduced Al Qaeda to the larger world. But Bangla Bhai’s group and others have since emerged and are making their bids for power.
“Bangladesh is becoming increasingly important to groups like Al Qaeda because it’s been off everyone’s radar screen,” says Zachary Abuza, the author of “Militant Islam in Southeast Asia” and a professor of political science at Simmons College in Boston. “Al Qaeda is going to have to figure out where they can regroup, where they have the physical capability to assemble and train, and Bangladesh is one of these key places.”
Six years ago, Huji chose its first prominent target: Shamsur Rahman, who is Bangladesh’s leading poet. Recently, at his home in Dhaka, Rahman began telling me the story of the attack as he pulled a sheaf of papers from a pigeonhole in his writing desk, on which sat a bottle of black-currant soda and a copy of Dante’s “Inferno.” Above the desk hung an ink sketch of the Nobel Prize-winning Bengali poet, Rabindranath Tagore, as well as a yellowing photograph of Rahman’s father.
Rahman, who is 75, is birdlike and wears his hair in a fluffy white pageboy. Most of his poems are love poems, but some address the rise of militant Islam in his country. “I am not against religion,” he said, smiling wryly. “I am against fanaticism.” He reached for his mug of hot water. It was the holy month of Ramadan, and Rahman’s family had just broken the day’s fast.
Downstairs, four policemen were eating a meal prepared by Rahman’s daughter-in-law Tia. Rahman has lived under police protection since Jan. 18, 1999, when three young men appeared at his house and asked for a poem. Tia refused to let them in. The poet was resting, she said. But the men begged for just a minute of his time, so Tia obliged. Immediately one of the men ran upstairs and tried to chop Rahman’s neck with an ax. “He tried to cut my head off, but my wife took me in her arms and my daughter-in-law too,” Rahman recounted. The two women fended off the blows until the neighbors, hearing their screams, rushed into the house and caught the attackers.
Rahman gestured toward the women standing in the doorway. Tia looked exhausted. The hair around her face was damp from cooking. Rahman’s wife, Zahora, not more than four feet tall, held her diminutive hands in front of her and smiled. (She understands English but cannot speak it.) Rahman pointed out the shiny scar on her arm. Zahora patted her husband and took his empty mug to the kitchen. “They wanted my head, not a poem,” he said.
The attack led to the arrest of 44 members of Huji. Two men, a Pakistani and a South African, claimed they had been sent to Bangladesh by Osama bin Laden with more than $300,000, which they distributed among 421 madrassas, or private religious schools. According to Gowher Rizvi, director of the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard and a lecturer in public policy, bin Laden’s reputed donation is “a pittance” compared with the millions that Saudi charities have contributed to many of Bangladesh’s estimated 64,000 madrassas, most of which serve only a single village or two. Money of this kind is especially important because Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries in the world. Out of 177 countries on the United Nations’ Human Development Index, Bangladesh is ranked 138, just above Sudan. The recent tsunami that devastated its neighbors hardly touched it — a rare bit of good luck for the country, as most catastrophes seem somehow to claim their victims in Bangladesh.
In Bangla Bhai’s patch of northwestern Bangladesh, poverty is so pervasive that, for many children in the region, privately subsidized madrassas are the only educational option. For the past several years especially, money from Persian Gulf states has strengthened them even more. Most follow a form of the Deobandi Islam taught in the 1950’s by the intellectual and activist Maulana Abul Ala Maududi, who was born in India in 1903 and defined Muslim politics in opposition to Indian nationalism. While Maududi’s original agenda was reformist, the Deobandi model is now better known from the madrassas of Pakistan, where it gave rise to the Taliban in Afghanistan. Whether Maududi intended it or not, his teachings have become synonymous with radical Islam.
In November, in a shop in the Bagmara bazaar not far from where Bangla Bhai used to hold his meetings, two young men sat waiting to tell their stories about the cruelty and repression of Bangla Bhai’s movement. Everyone here wanted to talk about this, they said, but were afraid of the consequences. Several days earlier, Bangla Bhai’s cadres had beaten a university student caught smoking cigarettes, another banned act.
“We weren’t allowed to sell these,” said one of the men, a 20-year-old shopkeeper, holding up a pack of Player’s Gold Leaf he kept on a low shelf.
His friend, a thickset man in a white kurta — a long-sleeved shirt extending below the waist — sat on a carton next to the counter, with a blue mobile phone in his hand. He played with the phone distractedly as he described the announcements Bangla Bhai’s men had made, beginning last summer, over the loudspeaker, demanding that people come watch public punishments. He told me that over the past months he himself had seen more than 50 men hanged upside down by their feet from bamboo scaffolding and beaten with hammers, iron rods and the field-hockey sticks that are commonly used in Bangladesh as weapons. He winced for a second recalling these tortures, and then his fleshy face lost all expression.
“In this place people live in fear,” the shopkeeper said. “They still punish people. If anyone is not keeping Ramadan, even if it’s a sick man and he’s eating in a restaurant, they treat them badly.”
The thickset man scanned the street over his shoulder and added, shaking his head, “They wanted the regime of the Taliban here.”
Taskforce against Torture, a Bangladeshi human rights organization founded three years ago, has recorded more than 500 cases of people being intimidated and tortured by Bangla Bhai and his men. One of them is Abdul Quddus Rajon, a postmaster from Shafiqpur, a village near Bagmara. He is 42 and comes from a wealthy family of moderate Muslims. Rajon was abducted early last May when two men in green headbands showed up at the post office on a motorbike. They forced him onto the bike and demanded his brother’s phone number. Abdul Kayyam Badshah, Rajon’s brother and the leader of a banned Communist Party, was wanted by the government and being pursued by Bangla Bhai’s men. Rajon refused to give them the number, so they took his mobile phone and drove him to one of Bangla Bhai’s camps.
Rajon told me when I met him that he was held with 15 other men in two rooms. “For four days they tortured me,” he recounted. Every morning, his captors, who Rajon said were not more than teenagers, took him to a cell and beat him.
Bangla Bhai’s men demanded 100,000 taka for his release, about $1,600. Rajon eventually agreed to pay. Before his release, he said, his captors tried to intimidate him into becoming more observant. “They took me in front of a mosque and told me to promise I would keep my beard and pray five times a day, and to never tell anything about Bangla Bhai’s camp,” he said. “They wore beards and long kurtas like religious men, but that was the only way in which they were religious.” He pulled up the cuffs of his khakis to reveal deep black gashes in his shins.
“Eleven days later,” he said, “they caught my brother.” At noon on May 19, Rajon was awakened by a loudspeaker. Bangla Bhai’s men were announcing that his brother’s trial would start the next day and he would be sentenced to death. “I tried to contact the state minister and the superintendent of police by telephone,” Rajon said. “Because if Badshah was accused, he should be tried according to the laws of the land. But they wouldn’t talk to me.” (According to The Daily Star, Bangladesh’s leading English-language newspaper, the local government has been accused of colluding with Bangla Bhai.)
The next morning, Badshah was found hanged by his feet from a tree near a police station. He had been beaten to death. Rajon first heard about it through whispering in the village. “A policeman was wandering around asking people if they were glad my brother was dead,” he said. In the village and the surrounding districts, Bangla Bhai’s spate of killings and torture continued for another month. One man was dismembered. Another, according to local journalists and villagers who told me they heard him, had a microphone held to his mouth while he was tortured so that the entire village could listen to his screams.
Communists are just one target of Islamic militants in Bangladesh. Most attacks have been carried out against either members of religious minorities — Hindus, Christians and Buddhists — or moderate Muslims considered out of step with the doctrines espoused at the militant madrassas. International groups like Human Rights Watch cannot gather information freely enough to be certain of the scope of the problem. Yet anecdotal evidence is abundant. In Bangladesh, as part of the militant Islamists’ agenda, religious minorities are coming under a new wave of attacks. One of the most vulnerable communities is that of the Ahmadiyya, a sect of some 100,000 Muslims who believe that Muhammad was not the last prophet. (The Ahmadiyya are the subject of a Human Rights Watch report to be published next month.) In Pakistan, the Ahmadiyya have been declared infidels and many have been killed. In Bangladesh, religious hardliners have burned mosques and books and pressured the government to declare the sect non-Muslim. Last year, the government agreed to ban Ahmadiyya literature; earlier this month, however, Bangladesh’s high court stayed the ban pending further consideration by the court.
But those who oppose the Ahmadiyya are not giving up. At a recent rally in Dhaka, 10,000 protesters gathered outside an Ahmadiyya mosque as one Islamic leader intoned from a parade float, “Bangladesh’s Muslims cast their vote to elect the current government, and the current government is not paying any heed.” Police officers in riot gear tightened their formation protecting the mosque. “Beware, we will throw you out of office if you do not meet our demands,” he said. “No one will be able to stop the forward march of the soldiers of Islam in Bangladesh.”
The Ahmadiyya are hardly the only group at risk. “For the Hindus, the last couple of years have been disastrous,” says Ali Dayan Hasan of Human Rights Watch. “There are substantial elements within the society and government itself that are advancing the idea that Hindus need to be expelled.” On the ground, attacks against Hindus include beatings and rapes.
“Minority communities in the country are feeling less safe,” said Govind Acharya, Amnesty International’s country specialist for Bangladesh. “The Hindus, the Ahmadiyya and the tribals in the Chittagong Hill Tracts are all leaving. This demographic shift is the most problematic for the identity and the future of the country.”
The permissiveness of at least some within the Bangladeshi government and the police in allowing violent groups like Bangla Bhai’s to pursue their agendas has only increased the political legitimacy of such groups. Mohammad Selimullah, the leader of a militant Islamist group based across Bangladesh’s eastern border in Myanmar, was arrested in Chittagong early in 2001, and he admitted in court that more than 500 jihadis had been training under him in Bangladesh. On his computer, intelligence sources found photographs to be sent to donors showing Islamic soldiers at rest and at attention, armed with AK-47’s and wearing shiny new boots. Selimullah said that his group received weapons from supporters in Libya and Saudi Arabia, among others.
Last spring in Chittagong, 10 truckloads of weapons — the largest arms seizure in Bangladesh’s history — were captured by the police as they were being unloaded from trawlers. The tip-off most likely came from Indian intelligence, which monitors the arms being sent to Islamist separatist groups in India’s northeast. Haroon Habib, a leading journalist in the region, has written that a leader of the government’s local Islamist coalition was helping to hide the weapons.
Several months later, under increased pressure from the European Union and the United States to crack down on terror, Bangladeshi security forces raided two camps in the Ukhia area belonging to Huji. Local journalists say that both camps, which were not far from Chittagong, have now been destroyed, but no one can get close enough to be sure. What is certain is that the attack didn’t drive the militants out of the region. Four months ago, five more members of Huji were arrested in Chittagong.
In this environment, Bangladesh’s radical leaders have ratcheted up their ambitions. Responding to the American invasion of Afghanistan, supporters of the Islamic Oikya Jote (I.O.J.), the most radical party in the governing coalition and a junior partner to the Jamaat-e-Islami, chanted in the streets of Chittagong and Dhaka, “Amra sobai hobo Taliban, Bangla hobe Afghanistan,” which roughly translates to “We will be the Taliban, and Bangladesh will be Afghanistan.”
The I.O.J. is considered a legitimate voice within Bangladeshi politics. The I.O.J.’s chairman, Mufti Fazlul Haque Amini, who has served as a member of Parliament for the past three years, says he believes that secular law has failed Bangladesh and that it’s time to implement Sharia, the legal code of Islam. During our two hourlong meetings, the mufti — a welcoming and relatively open man with a salt-and-pepper beard and teeth dyed red from chewing betel — asked if he could take photographs and pass them along to the local press to show his constituents that he is so powerful the Western press now comes to him.
The mufti presides over his father-in-law’s mosque and madrassa, Jamiat-Qurania-Arabia, in Dhaka, where the traffic caused by 600,000 bicycle rickshaws, more than in any other city in the world, is so intense that it can take hours to travel fewer than 10 miles from Louis Kahn’s ethereal Parliament — a relic of a more hopeful period in Bangladesh’s democracy — to the warren of lanes in the old part of town where the mufti is based. At the mosque, he almost overfills the armchair in which he stations himself. He admits that as an Islamic state, Bangladesh still has far to go.
“As we are Muslim, naturally we want Bangladesh to be an Islamic state and under Islamic law,” the mufti said. Amini is the author of books in Arabic, Bangla and Urdu. (He learned Urdu while completing graduate work in a madrassa in Karachi, Pakistan.) He recently completed a multivolume set of laws and edicts, or fatwas. The mufti is renowned for his fatwas, which, he said, he issues almost every day when people come to him with questions about the application of religious law. The mufti has also issued fatwas against the secular press when they investigate the rise of militant Islam in Bangladesh. When he advocates punishment for those who offend Islam, he said, he does not intend to preach violence. The young men of Huji who attacked the poet Shamsur Rahman were studying in one of his madrassas in Chittagong.
The mufti said that the only reason he is not a government minister is that the current regime snubbed him out of fear as to how his appointment would look. The West would see both him and Bangladesh as too extremist. The mufti has been named in Indian intelligence documents as a member of the central committee of Huji (itself linked to Al Qaeda), an association he would, of course, deny. He is also rumored to have close friends among the Afghan Taliban, which he denies, while adding that it’s better not to discuss the Afghan Taliban, as they are so frequently misunderstood. Besides, he says as the corner of his mouth twitches into a smile, the Taliban are running all over his madrassa, as the word “talib” means only student.
Outside his office, the sound of boys’ voices reciting the Koran rises and falls. Fifteen hundred students study at the madrassa, and the mufti’s party, the I.O.J., sponsors madrassas all over the nation; how many, he claimed not to know. Financing, the mufti said, comes mostly from Bangladesh itself, but some money also arrives from friends throughout the Arab world.
Of all his political influence, the mufti is most proud of his fatwas, which, he said, give him a means to speak out against those who violate Islam. “Whoever speaks against Islam, I issue a fatwa against them to the government,” he said. “But the government says nothing.” He shook his head, frustrated. That’s next on his agenda: to pressure the government to recognize his religious injunctions. “It’s possible,” he said, “now more than ever.”
Eliza Griswold is a writer based in New York.
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company