- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Bangladesh has used a “silent social revolution” to boost women’s rights and avoid the religious extremism that has plagued other Muslim countries, Foreign Minister M. Morshed Khan said in an interview yesterday.

On a visit to Washington this week, Mr. Khan said that free and subsidized schooling for girls, expanded job opportunities for young women and political power — the country’s prime minister and opposition-party leader are both women — have been critical to the country’s stability.

“It is our policy to bring women into the mainstream, into the work force,” Mr. Khan said in a luncheon interview with editors and reporters at The Washington Times.

“It amounts to a silent social revolution for us,” he said. “We could not send our women back to the kitchen now if we wanted, because without economic opportunity, they become a target for extremists. Extremism flourishes in poverty.”

Bangladesh pioneered the use of “microcredit” loans, many to female entrepreneurs.

The Geneva-based World Economic Forum last week ranked Bangladesh 39th out of 58 countries surveyed in reducing sex inequality in politics and the workplace.

But Bangladesh ranked first among the seven Muslim-majority countries in the survey and ahead of a number of much-richer rivals, including Italy, Brazil and South Korea. The country ranked 18th among the survey countries in the level of participation of women in the labor force.

With more than 140 million people, Bangladesh is the world’s third-largest Muslim-majority nation behind Indonesia and Pakistan. Yet it has seen little of the homegrown Islamist violence that has plagued other states in the Muslim world.

The now-retracted Newsweek story on U.S. military interrogators desecrating the Koran sparked just a few minor demonstrations in Bangladesh, not the deadly riots that hit Afghanistan and other Islamic states.

“Certainly, we would condemn any act against the Koran, but on the other hand, you can’t just go around killing and rioting in response,” the foreign minister said.

Mr. Khan, who met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley and senior lawmakers on Capitol Hill, acknowledged that the United States has an image problem in Bangladesh in the wake of the Iraq war.

“We need to work on this issue, but the United States is still considered a good friend of Bangladesh,” he said.

The opposition Awami League and some private analysts have criticized the government of Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, saying the government has understated the threat from Islamic militants and has failed to prevent a series of violent attacks on opposition politicians.

Just last week, a top Awami League lawyer in the capital, Dhaka, was shot to death, prompting a daylong anti-government strike and demands for a new election ahead of next year’s scheduled vote.

Mr. Khan rejected the idea that Islam and democracy are incompatible, saying democracy and elections are “just a means to the end” of delivering prosperity and peace to the people.

“I ask what is ‘Muslim democracy,’ and no dictionary can define it for me,” he said. “Democracy is democracy.”

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