Democracy fluid in Bangladesh

By Mustafa Malik

SYLHET, Bangladesh – Paralyzing general strikes, known here as hartal, remain a common and effective tool of democratic politics in Bangladesh. A local opposition politician has been kidnapped from a highway, which the opposition says was arranged by the ruling Awami League party. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), to which the abducted M. Ilyas Ali belonged, called for continual hartal, demanding his release. Ali has yet to be traced, but the hartal was a complete success.

For four days, transportation, businesses and even many government offices remained closed throughout the country. Here in Sylhet town, surrounded by scores of tea gardens, about the only automobiles seen on the streets were occasional police jeeps and “ambulances,” most of them fake. Vans marked “Ambulance” carried passengers, one of whom feigning sick!

Five years ago I was in Bangladesh when the BNP chairwoman and a former prime minister Khaleda Zia was thrown into jail by the government and her son was not only incarcerated but severely tortured. For a long time, the mother and the son weren’t allowed to publicly express their views on their ordeal. For months, they were not produced before a civilian court, either. Zia, the BNP chairperson, was later linked to official misconduct and, Tarek Rahman, her son, to massive financial corruption. Bangladesh is a decades-old multi-party democracy with a free-wheeling press. But most Bangladeshis, including many BNP activists, didn’t care much about the denial of their democratic rights to free speech the due process of law.

Bangladesh is a decades-old multi-party democracy with a free-wheeling press. Why has there been this nationwide outrage over the kidnapping of a rather low-level BNP leader, but not much of a whimper about the denial of basic democratic rights of the head of the BNP? If you are familiar with Bangladeshi society and culture, you would have expected it.

The right to free speech and habeas corpus, which Zia and Rahman were denied, are alien concepts in Bangladeshi society. These institutions derive from the Enlightenment principles of liberty and freedom, among the West’s greatest gifts to mankind. In this South Asian country, too, many political activists, especially when they are in the opposition, and Western-educated elites, value these principles. They would have greater public appeal as Bangladesh modernizes further.

But 90 percent of Bangladesh’s 160 million people are Muslim, and these liberal values are not rooted in their native Islamic culture, as they are not many other non-Western ones. The Islamic faith and civilization is anchored to the concepts of equality before God, charity and brotherhood, which are viewed as dimensions of justice, the core Islamic tenet.

True, most Muslims in Bangladesh and elsewhere don’t live by many of the Islamic ideals, including justice. Yet, being organic to their native culture, they stir Bangladeshi minds more deeply than the Western institutions of liberty, democracy and the rule of law. Ali’s abduction and possible killing are widely perceived here as a grave injustice. No wonder the incident has offended everyday Bangladeshis more poignantly than the curtailment of Zia’s and her son’s democratic rights to free speech and the due process of law.

The Bangladeshi government has been promising the investigation of Ali’s abduction and urging patience to let the tools of law run its course. The public has largely ignored these pleas; many suspect them to be ploys to sap the public rage over the issue. Most Bangladeshis are unlikely to be satisfied with any outcome of the government investigation, unless they see it as fair and just.

Mustafa Malik, the host of the blog Islam and the West, is traveling in his native Indian subcontinent.

U.S. liberals callous to Libyan uprising

By Mustafa Malik

 President Obama always makes good speeches, and he gave an excellent one defending his administration’s participation in NATO’s military intervention in Libya.

The coalition bombing has averted, as the president pointed out, a “brutal repression and looming humanitarian crisis” brought on by Muammar Qadhafi’s forces.  Even though   the Qadhafi forces have halted the rebels’ advance toward his eastern strongholds, the United States and its allies aren’t going to let the dictator prevail.

I’m concerned about the resistance to the mission that the administration is facing from America’s political and intellectual establishments. Republican and Tea Party opposition to the operation was predictable.  I’m disappointed, though not surprised, by the Democratic and, especially, liberal resistance to it.  It’s hard to imagine more liberal Americans than Leslie Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations, Washington Post columnist Mark Shields and Rep. Denis Kucinich, Democrat of Ohio. They’re leading a range of American liberals and progressives who oppose the U.S. role in the U.N.-sponsored military action. I’m not surprised by their stance because I have known conservative and liberal Americans who profess support for “universal” human rights and freedoms, but view their “universe” to be the West. (The neocons’ “democratization” propaganda about the Iraq war meant to camouflage a clumsy imperial project.)

I was a member of an “International Congress” that was pushing for military intervention to stop the Serbian slaughter of Bosnian Muslims.  At our August 1995 conference in Bonn, Germany, my fellow U.S. delegates and I were elated to hear American liberals being hailed as “the bastion” of support for such a campaign. Coincidentally, the NATO bombing of  Serbian aggressors began while we were heading back home. I didn’t hear Kucinich, Gelb, Shields or any other well-known American liberals denouncing the Clinton administration for leading that operation.   Four years later when the United States led the NATO air raids to stop the Serbian army assaults on dissidents in Kosovo, American liberals applauded it.  Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo are part of the West.  Libya isn’t. Neither was Rwanda or Congo.

Kucinich and other liberals are criticizing Obama’s failure to obtain prior congressional approval of the Libya operation.  More revealing, however, has been their silence about the morality of the campaign. Shields and others have offered a moral argument, which is equally telling. The administration, they say, didn’t prove how defending the Libyan uprising would serve America’s “vital interests.”

Suppose tomorrow troops loyal to a neo-Nazi dictator begin mowing down protesters in the streets of Berlin or Vienna. Would we hear them denounce U.S. involvement in a NATO military assault to stop it? I believe that Americans, including Shields, would then find it in America’s “vital interest” to support such intervention, just as they did in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo.

I see defending the pro-democracy upheavals in Libya and other Arab countries serving an over-arching U.S. interest.  Most Muslims and Arabs in west Asia and North Africa have been deeply anguished by the United States’ long-standing support for their repressive autocracies. Their resentment is the biggest challenge to U.S. security and economic interests in the Arab world.  Embracing the “Arab spring” would help Washington douse the toxic anti-Americanism and court tomorrow’s rulers, generals and diplomats in that region.

Barhain atop democratic ‘volcano’

By Mustafa Malik

 For the United States, the Bahraini uprising is more worrisome than most others now swirling in the Middle East and North Africa.

America’s stakes in Bahrain was underscored to me this past Jan. 13 by a researcher in Manama, the Bahraini capital. “The Al Khalifa rulers are sitting on a volcano,” said Numan Saleh, who was affiliated with the Bahrain Center for Studies and Research. “When the volcano erupts, would the [U.S. Navy’s] Fifth Fleet remain anchored in Juffairare [near Manama]? Would America and the West take their [Persian Gulf] oil supply for granted?” Little did I know that many of us in America would be asking on these same questions in four short weeks.

The recent Cabinet reshuffle by Bahraini regime and its gift of $2, 650 per family have been pooh-poohed by protesters; they left the monarchy with absolute power. A dialogue with the opposition, called for by Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, either. Yet the Obama administration is having a hard time recognizing the reality that Al Khalifa despotism is fast becoming history. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said recently she hoped that “a national dialogue can produce meaningful measures that respond to the legitimate aspirations of all the people of Bahrain.”

Holy cow! How would American revolutionaries have felt if Friedrich-Wilhelm III, then king of the Prussian Empire, had told them that a dialogue with the British King George III would satisfy their “legitimate aspirations”?

More ominously for the United States and Saudi Arabia, the Shiites are about 15 percent of the Saudi population, living mostly in the kingdom’s eastern Al Hasa region. Al Hasa is soaked with the world’s largest oil fields and used to be part of historic Bahrain. The Shiites in Al Hasa, as elsewhere in Saudi Arabia, are systematically discriminated against by their Sunni government, and many of them nurture fellowship with the repressed Bahrain Shiites at the other end of a 15-mile causeway.

Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, as all other west Asian states except Iran, were created artificially by British, French and local rulers less than a century ago. The citizens of these states are more deeply rooted in their old sectarian and ethnic communities than in state institutions foisted on them overnight from above. Hence the Shiites in Bahrain and the whole Arabian Peninsula feel affinity with the Shiite Iran, forming the so-called “Shiite Crescent.”

Abdul Karim al-Iryani, then Yemeni foreign minister, anticipated today’s Arab upheaval and the American dilemma two decades ago. In October 1991 al-Iryani, a Ph.D. from Yale, told me in the Yemeni capital of Saana that “when the tide of freedom and democracy comes, the current American [Gulf] security structure will become untenable.” The autocrats that were pillars of that structure would be “gone or have their wings clipped.” I asked him what the United States could do then to ensure continued supply of Gulf oil and its strategic ties to the region.

“Flow with the tide,” he replied.

The Yemeni statesman was a decade off on his prediction for the arrival of the democratic tide, but his caveat to America seems to be on target and timely for today’s U.S. policy makers. It’s perilous for the United States to be known by tomorrow’s democratic or populist Arab governments as the nation that tried to save the skin of their repressive autocrats. The administration should embrace the democratic “tide.” It should call on the Bahraini king, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, to retire; unless a democratically elected government wishes to keep him as a constitutional monarch.

The United States, too, needs to reassess its pointless confrontation with Iran. It’s clear that America (or Israel) can’t stop Iran’s nuclear program through military strikes, which, on the contrary, would trigger an anti-American conflagration throughout the Middle East. That would perhaps mark the beginning of the end of the U.S. domination of the region and send oil prices through the roof, plunging industrialized societies into deeper recession. Instead, the Obama administration should engage Tehran in a meaningful strategic dialogue with Iran, which would have the best chance of preserving much of American security and economic interests in west Asia.

Mustafa Malik, host of the blog Beyond Freedom,  is a columnist in Washington. He covered the Middle-East as a journalist and conducted field research on U.S.-Arab relations as a senior associate for the University of Chicago Middle East Center.