- The Washington Times - Friday, January 14, 2005

SYLHET, Bangladesh — One recent afternoon, Farjana Siddika, 34, opened her office mail and found she was marked for death.

“We are going to kill all the atheists, and you are on the list,” the typed letter read. “You cannot live with a Hindu on the holy soil of Sylhet. You must make amends or face the consequences.”

“At first I thought it was a hoax,” said the literature professor, whose marriage to a Hindu is a rarity in this country of 140 million Muslims, and whose liberal views are equally rare at the technical college where she teaches.

“But when my family heard about it, they went into a panic.”

No wonder. Sylhet, a northern Bangladeshi city known better for tea gardens than religious extremism, was terrorized by dozens of death threats last year and seven grenade blasts that killed five persons and injured more than 100.

“This bomb culture is completely new to Sylhet,” said Mayor Badaruddin Kamran, who was the target of a blast in August that killed a close friend.

The attacks are not limited to academics and politicians: Three movie theaters have been bombed and Sylhet’s holiest shrine, the tomb of Hazrat Shah Jalal, a Seventh Century Sufi saint, was hit twice by grenade attacks. Islamist radicals believe praying at shrines — a common practice in most of the Muslim world — amounts to idolatry. No one has been charged in either attack.

The attacks mirror a pattern of unchecked violence across Bangladesh, raising concern that religious radicals nurtured by Islamic charities linked to al Qaeda and protected by the government are undermining long-held traditions of tolerance.

“If there is a country in the world today in danger of completely breaking down, it’s Bangladesh,” said Gowher Rizvi, a Bangladeshi who heads the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard University.

The violence made world news last summer when Sheikh Hasina Wajed, a former prime minister, was nearly assassinated in a grenade attack that killed 20 persons in Dhaka, the capital.

In May, the British High Commissioner Anwar Choudhury was hurt and three Bangladeshis were killed in a blast at the Shah Jalal shrine in Sylhet.

Salauddin Quader Chowdhury, Prime Minister Khaleda Zia’s parliamentary affairs adviser, discounted talk of rising Islamist extremism. “I don’t think I’d take it too seriously,” said Mr. Chowdhury, who is a member of the Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh’s leading Islamist party. “These cases may be politically motivated to harm the image of the government.”

Others say Mrs. Zia’s Bangladesh National Party is allowing militants to tip the balance against Mrs. Wajed’s rival Awami League. “By unleashing fundamentalist forces in the country, they will be able to contain the Awami League,” Mr. Rizvi said.

Mrs. Zia’s ruling coalition includes two Islamist parties and her government includes men accused of war crimes during the 1971 war for independence from Pakistan. It is estimated that Pakistani soldiers and their allies in breakaway Bangladesh killed as many as 1 million people during the fight to separate what was then East Pakistan.

Politics in Bangladesh is captive to the rivalry of Mrs. Wajed and Mrs. Zia.

Mrs. Hasina’s father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, led Bangladesh from its birth until 1975, when he was killed by army officers. Mrs. Zia’s late husband, Gen. Ziaur Rahman, ruled after Mujibur Rahman’s death until he too was slain in 1981.

This blood feud divides the army, the civil service and the press, leaving education and public health to thousands of aid groups and charities. Corruption is pervasive.

Following 15 years of army rule, there have been three successful national elections.

Despite her Islamist partners, Mrs. Zia is pushing to reserve a third of the seats in parliament for women, and wants to reform the country’s divorce laws. She defeated Mrs. Wajed in the 2001 elections by promising law and order.

But violence has only grown. On Oct. 29, a mob of 1,000 people razed a mosque of the embattled Ahmadiyya Muslim sect during Ramadan prayers. Islamist radicals consider the Ahmadiyya heretics.

Some analysts fear the conditions that allow a mob to tear down a mosque could draw foreign militants to Bangladesh. Local and foreign press describe the lawless southeast as a potential haven for Islamic militants. Riduan Isamuddin, known as Hambali, the reputed ringleader of the 2002 Bali bombings in Indonesia, was en route to Bangladesh when he was captured in Thailand in 2003, regional officials said.

The newspaper Prothom Alo detailed a network of training camps in Bangladesh run by the terrorist group Harkat-ul-Jehad Islami. The camps are connected to local mosques and madrassas — Islamic boarding schools — funded by charities with reputed ties to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network.

Bangladesh has 6,900 government-regulated secondary-level madrassas that teach modern subjects alongside the Koran, a rarity in Muslim countries. But an additional 6,500 secondary-level madrassas and 18,000 elementary madrassas are funded by unregulated private donors, often charities that espouse a more intolerant strain of Islam than is usual in Bangladesh.

The U.S. government has named at least two major supporters of madrassas in Bangladesh — the Pakistan-based Rabita Trust and the al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, which Saudi Arabia dissolved last year — as conduits for al Qaeda.

Mr. Chowdhury downplayed such funding. “You’re looking for accountability from a madrassa that gets $600 from a lousy foundation in the Gulf?” he asked. “Look, Bangladesh is a country where most of the people live on less than 2,000 calories a day. If someone offers money, we’ll take it.”

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