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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
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And I'm Michele Norris.
In Bangladesh, more than 40 people have been killed in recent political violence. The country's two main parties are battling over the upcoming elections. And there's a third element coming into play in Bangladesh: the growing power of Islamic fundamentalists.
NPR's Philip Reeves was in Bangladesh recently and sent this report on the political and social climate there.
PHILIP REEVES: This is a scene you might find in any American city: students, male and female, are enjoying a break between classes by lunching together at a popular restaurant. They discuss their ambitions to become heavyweights in an international world of commerce and computers. You'd hardly know you were in Bangladesh, a country most outsiders associate with poverty and disaster, a place better known for Thai foods than tycoons.
The talk turns to another subject.
Ms. ALISA HASSAN SHERMAN: We don't want a fundamentalist rule in the front seat because obviously then we will face a lot of problems, they will put a lot of restrictions so as long as they don't come into power, it's okay.
REEVES: That's a student called Alisa Hassan Sherman. With a population of some 150 million, Bangladesh is one of the most populous Muslim countries in the world. The fundamentalists to which Alisa refers are hard line Islamist parties which have been growing stronger in Bangladesh over recent years.
Another student, Shafad Fahimi(ph) shares Alisa's concerns.
Mr. SHAFAD FAHIMI: We are kind of afraid of that. I mean, yeah, if they do come into power, we're going to hope that they don't actually put down real restrictions(ph) because at present, other than the politics, if you take the politics out of the country, it's not a very bad life here. It's a very nice life here. We get a lot of freedom.
(Soundbite of loudspeaker)
REEVES: For weeks now, the capital Dhaka has been an arena for mass political protests. In October, an interim government took over for the run-up to elections in January. Since then, there's been a running battle between Bangladesh's two main political forces, parties with millions of followers led by two women who hate one another.
One is the Bangladesh Nationalist Party or BNP of Khaleda Zia which ran the last government. The other is Sheikh Hasina's Awami League which wants to run the next government.
The Awami League thinks the BNP's rigging the poll. The enmity between these two parties has been going on for years and, says Hasif Nashrual(ph) professor of law at Dhaka University, Bangladesh is paying a price.
Professor HASIF NASHRUAL (Dhaka University): The main reason of the rise of Islamic fundamentalists in this country is the hostile relations between these two major parties.
REEVES: He says the answer is to cooperate.
Professor NASHRUAL: If they take a united stand that, okay, we would not allow Islamic extremism in this country, I believe Islamic extremism could not have come to the extent it has come now.
(Soundbite of car horns)
REEVES: You only have to wander around Dhaka to see this is scarcely hard line Islamist territory. The streets are adorned with racy posters advertising jeans, new luxury apartment blocks and the latest raunchy Indian movies. You don't see very many women in burkas.
Professor Nashrual acknowledges the number of Bangladeshis who could be categorized as Islamist militants is tiny. But he adds this warning:
Professor NASHRUAL: If even 1000 people believes in extremism, that can be dangerous for this country. That's going to be dangerous even for a region (unintelligible).
REEVES: In August of last year, Bangladesh had a nasty glimpse of that danger. Militants set off some 400 bombs in all but one of the country's 60-odd districts. A few months later, there were more bombings which killed a dozen people. The outside world began to wonder if there was truth to claims circulating in the western media for some time that traditionally tolerant Bangladesh was becoming a hub for jihadis who may be planning attacks on the West.
In the Dhaka office of Jamaat-e-Islami(ph), they dismiss such claims with a contemptuous wave. Jamaat's the largest legal Islamist political party in Bangladesh. It believes in the establishment of an Islamist state, including Sharia(ph) law though through the ballot box. In the last BNP government, Jamaat controlled two ministries, but it's still relatively small, commanding about 10 percent of the electorate at the last poll.
Unlike the two mainstream parties, it's seen as honest, and it's won support by funding social programs. There are allegations Jamaat has ties to banned fringe militant groups. There are a handful of these operating in Bangladesh, at least one of which reportedly has had links to bin Laden. Such allegations are denied by Jamaat's secretary general, Ali Ahsan Mojaheed.
Mr. ALI AHSAN MOJAHEED (Secretary General, Jamaat-e-Islami): We do not believe any kind of tourism(ph) or any kind of (unintelligible) or any kind imposing our view to others.
REEVES: After the nationwide bombing campaign of August, 2005, and under pressure from the U.S., the Bangladeshi authorities cracked down. This March, hundreds of suspects were arrested. Seven people now face the gallows.
Madud Akmed(ph) was law minister in the last government. He believes the problem is now contained.
Mr. MADUD AKMED: The fundamentalists of this country, there is none. But there are individuals in isolated who we have now captured and after that, there has been no incident of bombing. So it only shows that they do not have any public support at all.
REEVES: Western observers hope he's right, but it's unlikely they'd bet on it.
Philip Reeves, NPR News.
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