CHITTAGONG, Bangladesh — Once known for sweatshops and cyclones, Bangladesh has emerged in recent years as a fragile democracy with an expanding economy. But one winter afternoon, a well-known politician got a taste of the violence that threatens its future.
Asaduzzaman Noor, a member of parliament, was traveling in a convoy in the northern part of the country when he was suddenly trapped. Wave after wave of attackers allied with the country’s largest Islamist party poured into the road, waving handmade spears and axes, he later recounted. Noor managed to escape, but five men were hacked to death.
The December attack was a frightening illustration of the violence that has flared in the world’s ninth-most-populous nation and led to worries that Bangladesh could wind up like Pakistan, where Islamist extremists threaten the state. Last year, Bangladesh suffered its worst political violence since its independence in 1971, with more than 500 dead.
The violence has disrupted the key garment industry and tarnished the image of a country that, while still poor, has made remarkable gains in life expectancy, literacy and gender equality. Bangladesh also stands out as one of the few Muslim-majority democracies.
“It is a moderate and generally secular and tolerant — though sometimes this is getting stretched at the moment — alternative to violent extremism in a very troubled part of the world,” said Dan Mozena, the U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh.
The unrest was sparked by events including an ongoing war crimes trial and a disputed election in January. But it has played out against a backdrop of rising religious tensions.
Although Bangladesh’s legal code is secular, more citizens are embracing a conservative version of Islam, with some pushing for sharia law, analysts say. Most people reject violence, but there has been a surge of high-profile attacks by extremists, some linked to Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist party associated with the political opposition.
Now, many secularists feel under siege. Noor — a popular actor-turned-politician who recently became cultural affairs minister — believes he was targeted in the attack near the town of Nilphamari because of his secular outlook.
“The key difference is that we want a Bangladesh for all Bangladeshis, and they want a Muslim Bangladesh,” Noor said.
Religious conservatives, including those in the opposition, see the conflict differently. They say the government is using the pretext of cracking down on extremists to go after its rivals.
After the attack on Noor, three of the alleged perpetrators turned up dead. The families of two of them told human rights workers that they had been taken away by government security forces.
In recent weeks, an exhausted calm has settled over the capital city of Dhaka, where brightly painted bicycle rickshaws compete for space on clogged roads with the polished sedans of garment-industry magnates. Behind the wrought-iron fence of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s low-slung white offices, winter flowers have burst into bloom, and there is a firm desire to return to business as usual, even though the current situation is anything but.
Until this year, Hasina, 66, has alternated power four times with another strong female leader, Khaleda Zia, 68, the head of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which is allied with Jamaat-e-Islami. The two women rarely speak, and the news media have dubbed them “the Battling Begums,” the term for a high-ranking Muslim woman. Except for a brief period of military rule, a shaky democracy has held since 1991.
This year’s election was different.
The two women could not agree on how the January vote should be run, and Zia called for her supporters to launch strikes that blocked highways and turned violent. Rival party members fought with sticks, government forces harassed protesters and suspected militants firebombed commuter buses and auto-rickshaws.
Hasina won the election in a landslide, but there was sparse turnout and a boycott by Zia’s party. Mozena and other diplomats have unsuccessfully pressured the government to hold a fresh election.
Gowher Rizvi, Hasina’s international affairs adviser, acknowledged that the vote “raised controversy” but was vague about whether a new election would be held.
“Is this a five-year mandate? I don’t know,” said Rizvi, who was previously vice provost at the University of Virginia and a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
Shamsher Mubin Chowdhury, a diplomat and former foreign secretary aligned with the BNP, said Hasina has used the threat of rising extremism as an excuse to imprison opponents and harass journalists and human rights activists. The United States has also raised concerns about violence by both parties and disappearances allegedly carried out by the security forces. Human Rights Watch alleges that government security forces have been involved in at least 20 politically motivated killings in recent weeks.
Last week, Zia and some associates were charged with embezzling charitable funds, which she says is politically motivated.
Some of Dhaka’s liberal elite say they are troubled by the administration’s autocratic turn, but they are willing to tolerate it if the enemy is radical Islam.
“There is a sense of relief that this prevented the religious extremists from getting any nearer to power,” said one, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he does not want to be seen as condoning repression.
While both main parties say they support the current secular system, the election deepened another fault line in Bangladesh — between those who want a secular government rooted in Bengali culture and language and those who want an Islamist state. That split has existed since the secularist side won independence for Bangladesh in a bloody war with Pakistan in 1971.
In 2009, Hasina inflamed tensions by resurrecting a long dormant plan to hold war-crimes trials of about a dozen leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami and the opposition BNP — now elderly men — who had sided with Pakistan during the war and have been accused of murder and other atrocities. The BNP has traditionally been closer to religious conservatives.
In February 2013, when one man was convicted and initially given only a life sentence — he was later hanged — hundreds of young Bangladeshis protested in one of Dhaka’s public squares. The demonstration turned into a celebration of Bangladesh’s secular identity, with protesters waving torches, dancing and singing the Bengali songs written by their beloved Nobel Prize-winning poet, Rabindranath Tagore.
One of the organizers of the protest, an outspoken blogger, was later killed. Several radical Islamists were arrested and charged in his death.
Then, in May, hundreds of thousands of supporters of a little-known Islamist group, Hefazat-e-Islam (Protectors of Islam), massed in counter-protest, waving a 13-point list of demands that included instituting sharia law and banning men and women from mixing in public. An estimated 58 people were later killed in clashes between the Islamist group’s backers and security forces, Human Rights Watch said.
For most of its history, Bangladesh has espoused a moderate form of Islam. But in recent years, experts say, religious conservatism has been on the rise, particularly in rural areas. More mosques have opened, as have shops selling head-to-toe black abaya robes for women. The number of state-affiliated madrassas has increased by 56 percent from 1995 to 2011, according to government statistics, to about 9,300 schools. There are thousands more private institutions.
Experts say that the rise in conservatism reflects the influence of foreign-
financed Islamic charities and the more austere version of Islam brought home by migrant workers in Persian Gulf countries.
“It’s changed the culture of the country,” said Ali Riaz, an Illinois State University political scientist and author of a book on South Asian madrassas.
Violent Islamist activity has also increased, experts say, culminating in a coordinated attack in 2005 where 500 bombs exploded in a single day. Hasina’s government has made some inroads in fighting terrorism since then, but opposition politicians and analysts say they fear extremism could rise if the political uncertainty continues and ultra-conservative Muslims feel left out of the political system.
“The problem is that if the instability continues and the two principal parties can’t get their acts together, it could open the door for Islamic fundamentalism and radicalism to get a foothold and have more influence and more power,” said Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), who met with the two “Battling Begums” in the fall in an attempt to broker an election deal.
In the last year, state-run schools, polling places and medical clinics have been torched in some of the Jamaat strongholds near the port city of Chittagong, and minority Hindu communities have been threatened.
On a recent day north of Chittagong, dozens of students sat in the main courtyard of Hefazat’s main madrassa, listening to a lecture, as others made preparations for a meeting the next day that would bring 100,000 supporters to the school. In the kitchen, workers prepared huge vats of rice and, in the courtyard, 100 cows were waiting to be slaughtered for the event’s feast.
Hefazat’s leader, Shah Ahmad Shafi, 94, said in an interview that the group was not a militant or even a political organization and was not allied with Jamaat.
The group protested in Dhaka last spring because of the Hasina government’s attempts to regulate the curriculum in private madrassas, Shafi said. The group also wanted to counter what it sees as a dangerous trend, with “atheist” bloggers and others criticizing Islam, he said.
“The country is getting too liberal. There are undisciplined lifestyles,” the scholar said.
The group has not been able to get permission from the government to hold any further protests, he said.
“We’re not allowed to have a procession,” he said. “Is this the sign of democracy?”
Azad Majumder contributed to this report.