Sunday, August 23, 2009

Awami League's socio-cultural war on extremism

Until recently, it has seemed that Bangladeshi governments have only seemed content to arrest militant Islamists, trying them, executing some, jailing the rest. Less than a week ago, Bangla Nation lauded the steps taken by the Awami League government in bringing in the Ansars into the policing program for the borderlands (see...). Now it seems that the Awami League is taking the fight to the militant Islamists on another level, socio-cultural discourse.

Bangla Nation believes that without a doubt and without delay, Washington and London (all national and international donor organizations in fact) should immediately announce public support for this program and offer any assistance necessary to set it up quickly, transparently, and effectively. The Awami League government has taken a bold step in the war against extremism, it would be a shame if the move faltered or had little impact for lack of support from the international community. Aid money can easily be diverted to the government's scheme as it falls under so many broad fields, economic development, community building, and education. Even more importantly, this program is taking an approach that has only been discussed - treating extremism as a social and conscious choice before it manifests into physical violence.

Evidently, the new Awami League program will involve 14 different agencies and is said to be aiming for the "remotest parts of the country" and aims to educate the populace on the "destructive nature of extremism." The program involves: screening documentaries, training imams at mosques, organizing anti-militancy campaigns, engaging unemployed youths in development work using small loans (micro-credit perhaps?), and effective monitoring of religious institutions. Each government agency will be responsible for a piece of the program, thus the religious affairs ministry will supervise the training of imams (Daily Star).

This program is no less than a multi-pronged attack at the heart of Islamist extremism, namely misunderstanding, unemployment, poor oversight, and lack of "life choices." These "life choices" could be a job, education, and could be simply described as "opportunity." Bangla Nation believes that even more cross-community building activity should be involved in order to develop a sense of shared ownership in the program, tying in communities together for their mutual benefit. Moreover, the involvement of the communities is paramount - even staging plays highlighting the problem of militancy would be a terrific step forward.

This program will also have far-reaching consequences. At stake is the validity of the entire concept, that extremism must and can be fought in the minds of people. It will have its detractors at home and abroad. Some will call it a waste of money (Bangladeshi taxpayer's as well as donor's). Only the program's effective administration, diligent application, and uncorrupted governance will ensure its success. Others will consider it a waste of time, that one cannot fight extremism with speeches, books, and plays. To take such a narrow view of the problem is to ignore and underestimate its dimensions, violent extremism is not social deviance. It is a social movement.

Given that this program is a multi-year and probably decades-long commitment, it must not suffer for a change in political stewardship, the international community MUST hold future Bangladeshi administrations to this program, whether it is the BNP-Jamaat alliance or another Awami League government without PM Sheikh Hasina at the helm.

The Awami League government has taken a pioneering step against violent extremism. Bangla Nation believes this is a step in the right direction and should be supported by the international community. Only by winning and convincing people that the social movement, the culture of violence, the choice of inflicting death and destruction is absolutely wrong - can one even begin to beat violent extremism.

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