West pushing Bangladesh to Wahhabism
The death toll has been rising in the world’s worst garment industry tragedy. I’ve been
thinking about the last time I was in Bangladesh, a nation that is
now the world’s second-largest clothing producer after China and
one also in the news for deadly Islamist protests.
Back then, I witnessed something that had seemed emblematic of the neo-colonial status of Bangladesh. After a harrowing journey to the countryside where the poverty was sub-Sub-Saharan, I found myself on the top of an office building in the capital, Dacca. Garish U.S. pop music was blaring out of the nightclub’s speakers and the lounge area was packed with U.S. military servicemen, mostly U.S. Navy. As a private went to get a Long Island Iced Tea, two giggling Bangladeshi teenagers swiped the military walkie-talkie he left on the sofa and ran off to the bathroom. Later they regaled me with the story that they had screamed “All soldiers back to base!” into the communication device, before dismantling it, piece by piece. They may have liked the U.S. dollar injection into the local economy but they didn’t like the presence of U.S. servicemen. Americans have never really ever left Bangladesh whether their presence be through crippling Bretton Woods institutions based in Washington, multinational garment brands or covert killing.
I was in Bangladesh in the 1990s, when the demonstrations in the cities of this nation of around 150 million were held by the Communist Party and trade unions, desperately looking for social justice. Putting faces to appalling statistical human development indicators was easy. To me, the slums of Mumbai looked rich after Dacca. As for the fact that Bangladesh now beats India in some development indicators – as the Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has noted – that fact only emphasises how badly India is run: not how well Bangladesh is doing. You can tell things are bad in Bangladesh because The Economist magazine and the World Bank have until very recently been lauding governance there.
Things have changed in Bangladesh. For a start, the Communist Party headquarters in Dacca has just been torched as a quarter of a million Bangladeshis, around the country, marched against secularism and around fifty were killed in the ensuing rioting. It used to be just the government that torched the Communist Party headquarters.
The sighs of the oppressed are getting louder and there is plenty to be angry about. It is also in the interest of unpopular Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to frighten her electorate about the advance of Islamism in Bangladesh, ahead of scheduled general elections in the next nine months. She will want to exaggerate the rise of Islamism in the country to renew support for her party - even though it was she who struck a Machiavellian deal with the Salafist bin Laden-style Khelafat-e-Majlish Party back in 2006.
The rioters from the Islamist Hefazat-e Islam coalition advocate the execution of internet bloggers, the cancellation of women's development programs and the destruction of public statues. It is all far away from the dreams of Bangladesh’s founders. References to secularism in the Bangladeshi constitution were deleted a couple of years after the 1975 CIA-backed assassination of the nation’s founder, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The present prime minister is his eldest daughter and she has presided over a secular system that maintains extreme poverty to attract the sort of international investment that leads to ever-worse garment factory massacres and economic degradation. It is not a happy situation.
Bangladesh’s main opposition – the Bangladesh Nationalist Party – has now allied with the largest Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, and they have both got into bed with statue-demolishing Hefazat-e Islam. But who is financing all the Wahhabi Takfiri ideology? Predictably, it is the backers of rebels in Syria. Not only that but some money can reputedly be traced to Britain’s biggest ever export agreement - Margaret Thatcher’s UK-Saudi Al-Yamamah arms deal. Slush funds from the BAE deal have found their way into the hands of “Al Qaeda”sympathisers in Bangladesh. It was Tony Blair who shut down the inquiry into all the money laundering. Meanwhile, there’s no sign of the U.S. Department of Justice re-opening their BAE case (it fined the weapons-seller $400m in 2010), to follow the trail of cash to Islamists in Bangladesh.
Instead, as if he wants to promote anti-U.S. sentiment in Bangladesh, President Obama is thinking of moving the HQ for the U.S. Seventh Fleet from Japan to Chittagong, Bangladesh’s largest seaport. One year ago, former U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton signed a strategic partnership deal with Sheikh Hasina. Speculation has been rising that the Seventh Fleet’s 70 ships, 300 aircraft and 40,000 Navy and Marine Corps personnel are set to move to Bangladesh’s second largest city as part of President Obama’s anti-China policy. U.S. Vice Admiral Scott H Swift, Commander of the U.S. Seventh Fleet was in Dacca, one month ago for talks with senior Bangladeshi military officers. The base is also seen to be “ideal” for any U.S. bombing of Iran.
Relocating the base will obviously be good for proud urban Bangladeshi teenagers – they’ll be vandalizing mislaid U.S. military equipment at Chittagong’s nightclubs. More seriously, it will lead to Saudi-backed clerics at Chittagong’s madrassas foaming at the mouth and explaining to the poor of Bangladesh that America is Satan and salvation lies only with Wahhabism. There is fertile ground here, as economic crises in the U.S. and Europe have forced a decline in demand for clothing from the sweatshops of Bangladesh, leading to soaring unemployment. Some estimate sixty million will be out of work by 2015.
But Ayman al-Zawahiri shouldn’t be booking his tickets for Bangladesh just yet. Even though President Obama, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia do their best to catalyse support for creeds like those of Osama bin Laden’s, the future need not look so bleak. Islamism has yet to take hold of significant sections of the urban and rural poor as it did in other countries where the U.S. has sponsored Al Qaeda-linked groups. There are flickers of light, too. Aminul Islam of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation was tortured and killed after successfully negotiating workers’ rights with the owners of Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Nautica, Kenneth Cole and Timberland. But there will be many others to take his place and who will take inspiration from him.
The way to curb Saudi-backed Islamism in Bangladesh is to improve the material lives of Bangladeshis. Ironically, the most courageous economic decision of recent times was made by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, herself: when she ordered the World Bank out of her country over the massive Padma Bridge infrastructure project. The multi-billion dollar deal with the China Railway Engineering Corporation is estimated to one day be worth an extra 1% of GDP growth a year. Next, Sheikh Hasina should default on outstanding IMF loans. The Fund approved one of its largest loans ever offered to a member country this time last year - in return for gruesome structural adjustment.
Any attempts by the democratically-elected Bangladeshi government to take control of Bangladesh will lead to vicious Western media vituperation. You can expect a lot of Western propaganda against the country in the run-up to the next general election, including mainstream media corruption exposés. As to the future of Bangladesh, only a wholesale recalibrating of democratic systems and manufacturing ownership as well as a carefully tuned national unity government look set to be the long-term answer to the threat of a Bangladeshi “caliphate”.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.