‘Bangladesh’s thriving economy of fundamentalism a cause of concern’

    By Ranjana Narayan, IANS,

    New Delhi : In Bangladesh’s uncertain politics, the deepening roots of fundamentalism is a worrying factor with Islamists increasingly controlling many money-spinning ventures like superspeciality hospitals, banks and pharma companies, with the ultimate aim of capturing state power, says a Bangladeshi expert who has extensively researched on the subject.

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    Professor Abul Barkat of University of Dhaka, who has coined the phrase “economics of fundamentalism” , says the estimated net profit earned by fundamentalist organisations in Bangladesh in 2012 stood at a whoppping $280 million. While Bangladesh’s economy is growing at 5-6 percent a year, the economy of fundamentalism has been growing at a higher rate – 7.5 to 9 percent, he says.

    “The net profit earned by the institutions run by fundamentalist organisations has increased. They are into the financial sector like banking, leasing, insurance. They have set up pharmaceutical firms, healthcare, educational institutions, trade financing. From three-wheeler rickshaws to ocean liners – they have a stake in everything profitable,” Barkat, professor in the economics department, told IANS in an interview here.

    During the last 40 years (1975-2012) , the total net profit earned by such fundamentalist-backed or owned ventures would be about $6.5 billion, says Barkat in his paper “Economic Powerbase of Islamic Fundamentalists in Bangladesh: Formation, Evolution and Strength”, which he read in New Delhi at a recent roundtable on Bangladesh.

    This deep-rooted fundamentalism leads to creation of a “state within state” that is aimed ultimately at capturing state power, says the soft-spoken Barkat who is also the chief adviser to the Human Development Research Centre in Dhaka.

    In the education sector, communalism has struck deep roots. “Every third student in Bangladesh is a madrassa student – taking the total number to eight million. Some 73 percent of all madrassas or 55,000 are Qawmi (Deobandi) Madrassas, with a large number of them breeding grounds of religious fundamentalism,” says Barkat in his paper.

    The students of these Deobandi madrassas are from the poorer sections of society. After passing out, they don’t find employment and end up joining fundamentalist organisations.

    The extent of money power with the fundamentalists can be gauged from the fact that the founder of the Islamic Bank of Bangladesh, Mir Qasem Ali, a top leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI), has signed a $25 million contract with a US lobbying firm to convince the world that he is not a war criminal but a philanthropist, says Barkat.

    Ali is director of the NGO Rabita al-Alam al-Islami and chairman of Diganta Media Corporation that owns a TV channel and a newspaper. He is facing trial for alleged war crimes committed during the 1971 war of independence.

    According to the expert there are 125 fundamentalist organisations in Bangladesh, “including village-level groups called ‘Allahar dol’ or Allah’s team.

    Islamist groups like the Jamaat and the Hefazat-e-Islam are targeting “man-made laws” and want the introduction of Sharia laws in Bangladesh.

    What is the reason behind the spread of fundamentalist organisations in Bangladesh? “When people lose faith in the leadership, they get attracted to such religion-based fundamentalist organisations,” said Barkat.

    He feels political parties in Bangladesh, mainly the Awami League, lack the organisational base to counter the fundamentalist groups.

    Speakers from the Jamaat and Hefazat give fiery speeches during hartals, which are covered by the TV channels. With both the Islamist groups taking to violence, including lobbing cocktail bombs and using knives, there is fear among the people in openly countering such extremist parties, he said.

    Barkat says an external audit of all the economic ventures run by fundamentalist organisations would help uncover the real extent of the money trail, including its external linkages.

    The shining ray of hope he sees in countering the threat of fundamentalism is the basic secular nature of the people of Bangladesh, says he.

    (Ranjana Narayan can be contacted at [email protected])