Appeasement of extremism undermines democracy

Abdul Gaffar Choudhury
Published : 30 May 2015, 06:16 AM
Updated : 30 May 2015, 06:16 AM

According to western media, ISIS is a greater threat to the West than was the previous Soviet bloc. James Rubin, former assistant secretary of the State under President Bill Clinton, in his column of Sunday Times on 24 May 2015 wrote, "Thirteen years ago, the then vice president Dick Cheney falsely justified the Iraq War by claiming that Saddam Hussain was sponsoring global terrorism. Unfortunately, today ISIS-controlled Iraq, really and truly, is the home address for a terrorist group potentially even more dangerous than the Al Qaeda of Osama Bin Laden." This is indeed the case in reality. ISIS is an off-shoot of the Talibans but more powerful than them. Now the Taliban control almost one-third of Afghanistan but ISIS has captured half of Syria and a large chunk of Iraq. After the fall of Mosul and Ramadi, Baghdad is only 60 miles away from the advancing ISIS troops. UK envoys in Baghdad are already planning a safe exit from the city.

This victory of ISIS has worldwide impact even in our subcontinent. Pakistan is already under the influence of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. India and Bangladesh are still struggling against the rise of these jihadists. In Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina's government has just overcome a stormy period of fighting Islamic extremists. The government's main political opponent BNP's strength has been curbed but the Jamaat and other extremist groups are still strong and only killing time, creating a period of lull, waiting for an opportune moment to strike again.

Democracy has a great weakness. It cannot take a strong stand against its enemies. In Bangladesh and in India, a strong vote bank under the influence of extremists has already been established, so much so that democratic leaders are afraid to disturb them for fear of losing their votes and henceforth losing power. In India, not only the Modi government but the previous Congress government as well did not try to improve the conditions of ordinary Muslims. They pursued a policy of appeasement towards the fundamentalist Islamist groups.

In British India also, as we recall, the Congress under Gandhi and Nehru did not give proper importance to the nationalist Muslims, those who opposed the division of India. The Congress leaders apparently they were opposing Jinnah and his Muslim League, though in reality they were pursuing a policy of appeasement towards them. The result was the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan. In today's India, neither the Congress nor the BJP has tried to improve the conditions of the Muslim minority along with other deprived sections of the population, such as the Dalits. They have always favoured the upper strata of the communal section of the Muslims. Today ordinary Muslims are still suffering but the aforementioned privileged sections are expanding their power and influence.

Under the patronisation of this privileged class, extremism is rapidly spreading from West Bengal to Delhi. Day by day it is becoming very difficult for the Indian government, for the Congress and the BJP, to tackle the issue. Only to get the electoral support of non-Bengali Muslims in West Bengal has the present chief minister Mamata Banerjee pursued a policy which has clearly helped extremist Jamaatis from Bangladesh to infiltrate West Bengal and build a stronghold in the state to fight a Bangladesh's secular government across the border. In Bangladesh also, some political observers think that Hasina's secular government has adopted a dual policy towards Islamic fundamentalists. On the one hand, it is going all-out against the Jamaat, the known terrorist political outfit, successfully; and on the other it is holding out an olive branch to other, even more extremist groups like the Hefazat-e-Islam.

After the recent city corporation elections, the Awami League supported newly elected mayor of Chittagong, Nasiruddin called on the Hefazat leader and sought his blessings. With this move, Mayor Nasir may think he has overcome the strong opposition of extremist groups to him and his party and that this will help him strengthen his vote bank and his mayoral position. In reality, it all sends out a wrong message to the secularist pro-Liberation sections of society and also to the extremist groups. The secular sections will be confused and will lose their faith in the mayor whereas the extremist forces will consider him weak and can meet their political purposes through his vulnerability. A weak democracy cannot sustain itself. It ultimately surrenders to the power of extremism.

We can draw examples from last century's Germany and Italy. In both countries, weak democratic governments thought they could survive by appeasing rising fascism. This policy paved the way for the rise of Hitler and Mussolini, the two fascist dictators, in the two countries. This is why Jawaharlal Nehru noted, after taking over as India's first Prime Minister, that only a strong democracy could ensure the survival of political pluralism. This is also true of today's Bangladesh. So long democracy has been very weak here. Its enemies, the anti-Liberation groups, have attacked and undermined the democratic system several times. For the first time now, the Hasina government has taken a strong position to save democracy and for that it is being criticised by our so-called civil society. They have been advising the government not to adopt a strong position but to retreat to the old and weak democratic style and again be vulnerable to onslaughts from different anti-people groups, particularly religious extremists.

This time Sheikh Hasina did not heed the advice of these so-called wise men, and ignored their accusations about her government's dictatorial behaviour. No doubt this stand has for now defeated the reactionary and extremist forces of the country. But this government's inherent weakness lies in its suspected appeasement policy towards extremism. Mayor Nasir's visit to Haathazari and the hesitant move to arrest the killers of the bloggers remain proof of the two-set mind of the present government. This attitude will weaken it in dealing with the evil forces which want to turn Bangladesh a killing field.

The government is afraid that the extremists will label them as atheists and infidels, and that people will buy the outlandish idea. The government should not live in this cave of fear but come out to tell the nation emphatically that it is not against Islam but is fighting the sinister forces out to destroy democracy under the cover of Islam. If the leading lights of the government claim Bangladesh as a secular state, they should stand strongly to save secularism in the country.

They should remove all confusion and doubt from people's minds about their commitment to the principles of democracy. Otherwise the victory of ISIS in Iraq and Syria and the Taliban victory in Afghanistan and Pakistan will strengthen the extremist forces in Bangladesh too and all their measures against these evil forces may eventually fall flat. Appeasement policies have not succeeded in the Middle East, despite military intervention by the mighty western powers. That should be a lesson for Bangladesh, indeed for the subcontinent as a whole. We must strike the iron while it is hot.

Abdul Gaffar Chowdhury is a columnist.