Even nominal secularists are encouraging Islamic radicalism. The ruling National Awami Party, which is historically linked to the nation’s founding, formally backs the country’s secular heritage. But in practice the government takes a more equivocal position. Last July, explained the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars’ Michael Kugelman and researcher Atif Ahmad: despite formal government condemnation of terrorism, “troubling developments over the last few months raise doubts about how committed the government is to combating radicalization within society. Indeed, they suggest that the state may be hindering more than helping efforts to tackle extremism—which means that a decrease in attacks on religious minorities and other vulnerable members of society so far in 2017 could be short-lived.”
Kugelman and Ahmad are not the only pessimists. In writing for Quartz India, Sumit Ganguly contended: “the present regime, in denial about religious extremism, finds this trend to violence enables the regime to further aggrandize its political power.” Indeed, “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-e-Islami.”
This is a short-sighted strategy. In Bangladesh, as elsewhere, religious liberty is the famed canary in a coal mine. Increasing intolerance shown religious minorities represents something much deeper, which threatens even the secularists who currently dominate government. The rise of intolerant fundamentalism is corrupting the political process, undermining development of sustainable democracy. Those now in power ultimately will be victims too.
Bangladesh’s developments also could impact the West, especially the United States. While Washington is little able to shape internal Bangladeshi politics, the fundamentalist surge threatens to fuel support for terrorism not only domestically, but beyond the Bengali nation’s borders. Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Middle East already pose serious challenges to U.S. policy. Another failing extremist state in the region would significantly add to Washington’s woes.
The only solution is for the authorities to rigorously defend freedom while resisting intolerance. Asad Noor represents far more than just himself or even bloggers. He represents the vision of Bangladeshis freely making a common home for one another despite their differences. If he loses, so will his country, and people far beyond Bangladesh’s borders.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.
Image: A Rohingya refugee boy looks from inside a makeshift mosque before the Friday prayers at Balukhali camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh December 8, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj