Bangladesh is not a place with much going for it. About a third of the country floods each monsoon season. Only 30% of the population has access to electricity. Corruption is rampant. The government is heavily dependent on aid from the U.S. and Japan. Much of the labor force is exported to Malaysia and the Arabian Peninsula states. Radical Islamism has been a problem for about the past six years.
The one thing Bangladesh does have going for it is democracy. The country has been democratic for the past 14 years, though hardly a commercial for elected government. The leading opposition party, the Awami League, and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which dominates the ruling coalition government, differ little on most domestic policy questions but are violently polarized over historical grudges: The parties are led by women who are, respectively, the daughter of a leader in the movement for independence from Pakistan (achieved in 1971) and the widow of a man alleged to be complicit in the 1975 assassination of said leader (which paved the way for 15 years of military rule). Though the 2001 election was called generally free and fair by outside observers, 140 people were killed in violence surrounding the campaign season.
Since spreading democracy in the Muslim world is a critical component of the Bush Administration’s strategy against Islamist terrorism, it is instructive to look at how a barely-functional democracy like Bangladesh, with its 83% Muslim population, handles violent radicalism.
Last week 434 bombs went off across Bangladesh, each found with a leaflet from the banned terrorist organization Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen advocating Islamic law for Bangladesh, along with denunciations of the U.S. and Britain. Two people were killed — a rickshaw-puller and a ten-year-old boy — and more than 100 were injured; the casualty count stayed relatively low because most of the bombs, fortunately, contained no metal shrapnel and were little more than glorified firecrackers.
Many Bangladeshis are furious at the BNP for the widespread security failure; that two hardline Muslim parties are part of the ruling coalition doesn’t help matters. The AL and other opposition parties called for a one-day strike in protest, and the country was more or less shut down on Saturday. The protests were, by Bangladeshi standards, relatively peaceful; no one was killed and only a few dozen, at most, were injured in clashes with police.
Democracy, obviously, is no panacea against violence, but it can be a safety valve; the ability to take one’s grievances to the electorate greatly narrows the appeal of radicalism. A poll in June showed 39% of Israelis opposed to the Gaza disengagement. Last week, only a small percentage actively resisted the dismantling of settlements; most anti-disengagement Israelis accepted their democratic loss as fair (and some actually served as soldiers executing the disengagement policy). And because democracy is the only system where the views of those unwilling or unable to physically fight for them make a difference to the direction of public policy, it is the most effective way to marshal a moderate majority. That the millions of Bangladeshis who oppose Islamism have a legitimately elected opposition to rally around is a luxury that ought not be taken for granted. A major anti-terror crackdown, or an AL victory in the next election, seems inevitable.
The odds are that Iraq, and Afghanistan, will have to deal with Islamist violence for quite some time. Even if the democracies we leave behind are as troubled as Bangladesh’s — and the odds are still good that they won’t be — they will be better equipped to fight our common Islamist enemy than they would be without democracy. And leaving behind regimes that can fight terror is almost as important as defeating those that sponsor it.