Sajeeb Wazed and Carl Ciovacco's piece in the Harvard Internationational Review, Nov. 19, 2008 on "Stemming the Rise of Islamic Extremism in Bangladesh" deserves much praise for articulating ways and means to combating the so-called Islamic extremism in Bangladesh. With the Awami League's overwhelming victory over the BNP-Jamat right wing coalition, one can only hope that many of the suggestions made by these authors will be implemented to stem that rise.
Religious extremism of any kind -- Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Baha'i, Sikh and Jain - is bad. It is worse when such is allowed in politics. It should not be allowed to dictate public policy under any government. Such a combination can be deadly explosive, resulting in deaths and sufferings of many innocent people.
Unfortunately, we had witnessed a good dose of such a Molotov cocktail in many countries in the last two decades. We are all too familiar with monumental crimes of the brutal military regime in Burma that epitomizes religious extremism to enslaving millions of Burmese Muslims, esp. the Rohingya people of Arakan. Forgotten in this context is the fact that religious extremism can be equally deadly in some secular countries. If you believe in casualty numbers, in contrast to commonly held assumptions, some of the worst violators have been countries like the USA and India -- two of the largest democracies in the world. Both of these countries also profess secularism in one form or another.
President Bush's actions have resulted in the unnecessary deaths of more than a million civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, let alone strangulation of a million people in Gaza in the hands of his trusted Jewish ally - first the openly murderous regime of Ariel Sharon and then the Olmert Government of Israel, which just before the change of government in the White House had killed more than a thousand civilians in what one can only describe a cold-blooded murderous orgy.
Many of the first groups of soldiers and volunteers sent for fighting for the USA in the aftermath of 9/11 in Afghanistan were also motivated by their deep Christian fundamentalism, i.e., extremism, with a hideous anti-Muslim agenda. How can we explain such a phenomenon in the USA, a country that is a liberal, secular democracy? We don't have to go too far back in history to understand that the nation has slowly but steadily been embracing Christian fundamentalism for quite some time, since at least the days of Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. No wonder that millions of American voters today identify themselves as evangelists. Without their support, President George W. Bush could not have been elected in 2000, and surely not reelected in 2004.
Thus, 9/11 was not the triggering event that all on a sudden forced America to embrace Christian extremism, but it only acted as a catalyst to further the evangelist cause to seal the fate of the nation with a fellow evangelist Christian, who had claimed direct communication with the Christian God. So, it's not difficult to understand how the Bush Administration analyzed every global event from its narrow religious chauvinism and manipulated such events to accelerate Jesus's second coming on earth. Israel's savagery against the Lebanese Muslims and Palestinians was given an unquestioning endorsement. Hamas's election victory in a free democratic election was unwelcome and every hurdle was put to both unseat the government there and punish the entire Gaza population for their decision to vote in its favor. If the Iraqi experiment had succeeded we would surely have seen a continuation of the Bush Doctrine for years to come.
How about secular, illiberal Indian democracy where Hindu extremism has been responsible not only for the Partition of India in 1947 but also the murder of its most famous icon - Mahatma Gandhi? Not surprisingly, thus, that it was under the watch of the secular government of Congress that the historical Babri Mosque was demolished in India. How can also one explain the daily killings of Bangladeshi peasants around the border with India? How can one explain India's strangulation of Kashmiri people, who are denied their fundamental rights to choose on whether or not to opt out of the Union? How can we explain Narendra Modi's victory in Gujarat after the Godhara incident, which resulted in murder of so many Muslims? The simple answer is Hindu fundamentalism or extremism is on the rise in secular India.
Now the billion dollar question is: did the population orient the direction of the government to sanction religious extremism or vice-versa? Government in a democracy – liberal or illiberal – emerges, after all, from its own people and as such for the crimes of the government its people cannot shy away from their own responsibilities. As they are, so are their governments. Period!
In spite of its imperfect score on secularism, deaths resulting from extremist activities of religious bigots in Bangladesh are miniscule compared to many nations that try to self-promote themselves as secular havens.
As pointed out by the authors of the HIR article, Bangladesh had a very secular origin, and its people have been more secular than its neighboring India. While opportunist politicians have used religion to beg vote of the majority (by the way, this trend is not limited to impoverished, poor countries), religious extremism has hardly played a major role in the politics of Bangladesh. Even a religion-based Jamat-i-Islami (JI) party had never gotten votes that could be construed problematic for the soul of Bangladesh. In the previous governments either of the major parties had at one time or another tried to align itself with the JI so as to run the country. As the most recently concluded, albeit the most fair, election has demonstrated once again, the people's support of the JI and religion- based political parties is not something that should be a matter of grave concern. Our people are not stupid, but our politicians are who think that they have been able to fool the people. Voters, even if they may not all have long memories, do have short memories. That is good enough to unseat any unpopular government, and force both the government and the opposition to take them seriously.
Whether we like to admit or not, oddly, secularism has not always been the necessary protection or answer to stem religious extremism. In this age of ours, religious extremism is not a local phenomenon and is fast becoming a global phenomenon requiring cooperation between governments and NGOs to arrest this tide. What happens in next-door India cannot simply be hidden under the rug. We need a comprehensive approach to understand why and how it evolves, and then find solutions that are meaningful. A band-aid type measure will not work to fight extremism.