Bangladesh stress

A devastating building collapse, deadly religious reforms protests, an ongoing war crimes tribunal and a lethal cyclone: the South Asian country is being hit hard

Unsurprisingly, Bangladesh was leading the news on the morning of Thursday 16 May, and this time the story was the moving to safety of one million people in response to the chaos that Cyclone Mahasen could bring. The little Bay of Bengal state has been a regular contributor to the news agenda in recent weeks. And although there seems to be a new story coming out of the country almost daily, each tale is linked by the themes of death and destruction.

Today, the south-eastern coasts have been hit by the storm, with local media reporting the deaths of five people so far. Flooding, high winds, storm surges and the destruction of flimsy homes in low-lying areas are all major threats to life. The United Nations says up to 4.1m people could be affected by Mahasen, with nearly 4,000 already displaced in Sri Lanka.

Three weeks ago, the major national story from Bangladesh would go on to dominate international headlines through the end of April and into the start of May. The Rana Plaza building collapsed in the Savar suburb of the capital, Dhaka. 1,127 people died after the eight-storey complex of factories housing clothes manufacturers, other shops and a bank gave way on 24 April.

The industrial disaster, the world’s deadliest since the Bhopal gas leak in India in 1984, sparked massive protests in Bangladesh and criticism from abroad over workers’ pay, working conditions, minimum wage policies and the ethics of Western clothes companies locating their mass manufacturing operations in countries with such poor health and safety at work records. Tomorrow, more than 300 clothes factories will re-open across the nation; authorities shut down the factories indefinitely following worker unrest in the Ashulia industrial belt.

11 days after the factory collapse, as many as 50 people were killed in Dhaka and many more elsewhere in the country, in clashes between police and hardline Islamists demanding religious reforms, such as the death penalty for anyone who insults the Prophet Mohammed.

Hundreds of thousands of protesters marched in the capital to drive home their message but the stone-throwing demonstrators were met by police firing tear gas and rubber bullets. Bangladesh was formed as a secular state, and secularism still forms a large part of national Bengali ideology, but the radical Islamist group, Hefajat-e-Islam, wants the implementation of a 13-point list of new policies which includes a ban on men and women interacting freely in public.

Where the ultimate penalty is being used at the moment is in the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT), a court set up in 2010 to try people suspected of war crimes during Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence. Last week, Mohammad Kamaruzzaman, was found guilty of genocide and the torture of unarmed civilians during the war and was sentenced to death. The 61-year-old was high up in the Jamaat-e-Islami party that opposed Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan.

By themselves, and almost inevitably, a building collapse and a cyclone will cause loss of life. What sadly increases the likelihood of those numbers of deaths being higher in Bangladesh are two major factors. Firstly, the lack of infrastructure and development in areas that are most at risk from natural disasters such as Mahasen. And secondly, the shocking lack of accountability from both the construction and clothing industries over ensuring that the buildings that are built are not only safe structurally but also house labourers who have had secure working conditions safeguarded.

It is laudable that Bangladeshis are able to hold protests in the street to show their feelings about a particular policy. What is also good to see is that there has been equal appetite amongst the population to demonstrate on both sides of the debate about the place of Islam in the country and the bloody history of the war of independence. On one hand are the protests in favour of new, stricter Islamist policies. And on the other are demonstrations calling for capital punishment to be handed down by judges for those people convicted of committing human rights abuses during the war (a conflict that ended with secularism and democracy being enshrined in the new nation’s first constitution).

Bangladesh may be a small country but it is a busy one, with a population of more than 150m. It is a delta nation prone to flooding, located on the cyclone path. It has an enormous clothing industry, but one where working conditions are not safe. It may be a small country, and while it is troubled in the industrial sector, it manages to be a vociferous Muslim nation while not being a vehemently religious one. It is just a shame that not a week seems to go by at the moment without a new, deadly story emerging from the country at the top of the Bay of Bengal.

Smoke in the region

The papal election could allow West Africans to hit the headlines for the right religious reasons

So far the main international news this year from West Africa has been linked in some way to the French-led battle against Islamist insurgents in Mali. France unleashed a ground and air operation there on 11 January, fighting what it claimed was the growing risk posed to the region and Europe by a bullish al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgency.

The conflict is continuing in the sandy mountains of northern Mali and troops from across the region are involved. But the mission seems to have spurred on Islamist extremists in the area as well. A French family was kidnapped last month from the far north of Cameroon by the Nigerian Boko Haram militants; in an online video of the family one of the abductors cites the French deployment in Mali as a “war on Islam”. And the Ansaru breakaway faction of Boko Haram has murdered both Westerners and locals in what it sees as its ‘struggle of good against evil’.

Islam and Christianity dominate West Africa, although they are often mixed with traditional beliefs. Islam holds sway in nations such as Burkina Faso and Niger; there are more Christians in Benin and Liberia. Countries like Nigeria are split half and half. It is a cultural and religious concoction, nowhere better illustrated than in Senegal.

More than 90% of Senegalese are Muslims but there is respect for the Christian minority, which is open and powerful enough to have one of its cardinals in the Vatican right now: 76-year-old Théodore-Adrien Sarr is the Archbishop of Dakar. And he is not alone. In the Holy See with him are four other West African cardinals, of whom one is among the favourites to be voted into the papacy. The two Nigerian men in red are 76-year-old Anthony Olubunmi Okogie, who’s the Archbishop Emeritus of Lagos and John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan, the 69-year-old Archbishop of Abuja. Guinea’s Robert Sarah, who’s 67, is the President of the Pontifical Council and finally there is the affable Peter Turkson. At 64, he’s the youngest of the West African crew and the President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. He is also high up on many people’s betting slips for the top job.

Clearly, the secretive voting and burning going on in the Vatican City at the moment only concerns Roman Catholics, and an argument can be made that this negates the papal election having any pan-religious bearing on the region. But this only takes the conclave’s significance at face value. By electing an African pope (and there are also bishops from the other side of the continent in Rome, such as the Sudanese Archbishop Gabriel Zubeir Wako and Tanzania’s colourfully-named Polycarp Pengo) the cardinals will be supporting the notion that the continent can be the driving force behind development in the coming decade; that Africa won’t just be in the lead pack when it comes to economic drivers but that it can also take on the weight of a world faith for the future.

That the responsibility is to head up a Christian denomination does not belittle or criticise the other major global religion – Islam. It supports the importance of faith in the region, be it from a mosque in Dakar or a church in Lagos. Nor does the Catholic factor denigrate the other Christian off-shoots.

However, the Catholic Church is going through a rough period at the moment with global sex scandals and Vatican financial scandals hurting the papacy. What also clouds some of the positive vision that some may have for an African pope are the conservative policies – particularly on the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS and on homosexuality – that remain popular and preached to the faithful. The welcome image of an African pope and all the hope that could bring may well be stained by the realisation that while he may look forward on overall development in his continent, he will also be looking backwards on internal social development.

Last week, the French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told his forces that they are going to be staying at war in Mali until the security of the country is assured. That will take a little while longer yet. Papal conclaves are somewhat shorter affairs and the result of this one could bring what would be (on the surface) positive news to West Africa – with one of the Christian leaders following in St Peter’s footsteps for the first time.

A universal throne

How monarchies cross religious and political boundaries

All you have to do is glance at the guest list for the British royal wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton on 29 April.

45 different members of foreign royal families were invited; from 25 different countries. There were representatives from absolute monarchies (Swaziland, Saudi Arabia), constitutional monarchies (Sweden, Spain) and excommunicated monarchies (Yugoslavia, Romania). Different European Christian denominations were on show: Lutheran (Queen Margrethe II of Denmark) and Eastern Orthodox (King Simeon II of Bulgaria). From Africa, there were Muslim (Moroccan Princess Lalla Salma) and Christian (Prince Seeiso of Lesotho) royals. And as for Asia, there were the Muslims from absolutist nations (Emir of Qatar) and Muslims from democracies (the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and Raja Permaisuri Agong of Malaysia), along with the Buddhist Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn of Thailand and Christian King of Tonga.

Far more countries have scrapped their palaces, tiaras and curtseys. But what can we learn from the ones who haven’t?

They span a broad politico-cultural spectrum, showing us that the monarchical system can be applied to differing extents across separate countries (think of the differences between Malaysia’s take on Islam and the Sunni teachings of Saudi Arabia: both Muslim monarchies, but with very different political agendas).

Monarchies can be a stabilising force for good in restive nations but this stability needs to be tempered by a willingness not to tamper with a country’s politics. Despite this, at times they can be wonderful mediators – think of the steady hand Spain’s King Juan Carlos provided during the rocky transition to democracy following the death of Franco in 1975. But sometimes the stability can become an overriding control and this is where the absolutist regimes suffer to maintain international credibility.

More trustworthiness is vested in those families which have taken a constitutional step-back. One area where they generally succeed is on the global stage. They act as patriotic symbols of their nation and can negotiate interests, discuss deals, or, seeing as many countries are more than ready to don rose-tinted glasses and think back to a former age, simply try to whip up attention for the oft-lampooned idea of a monarchy.

European monarchies have survived in more recent times by branching out from their inter-regal and cross-crown breeding. Mette-Marit Tjessem Hoiby, a single mother, met Norwegian Prince Haako at a rock concert before marrying him in 2001. In 2004 Australian Mary Donaldson married Denmark’s Crown Prince Frederik. And last week’s British royal wedding continued a tradition kicked-off in style by Grace Kelly’s marriage to Monaco’s Prince Rainier III in 1956.

Royal families have shown they can cross international political and religious boundaries. They also seem to have realised that they truly need to modernise and to understand and break down the remaining boundaries that still exist at home.

Kicking sand in their face

Western Sahara is caught between Moroccan overlords, the Sahara desert and an uncertain future

The Arab Spring has so far not reached the nomadic Muslims of El Aaiun. Or Semara or Bir Gandus. Or in fact any town at all in Western Sahara. And it looks likely that it will be blown off course as it tries to reach down to the desert coastal territory.

When Spain left in 1975, Morocco and Mauritania both rushed in for a land-grab and the local Polisario Front declared Western Sahara to be the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. Mauritania has since retreated, leaving only an anomalous section of its national railway in the far south-eastern corner.

Morocco has done more than roll a few engines through the dunes in the last 36 years. The UN-supported republic only has legitimate administration in the thin eastern slice of the country that is not governed by Morocco. The rest, including El Aaiun, the capital, is run by Rabat. For those from Tangier down to Agadir, the Southern Provinces are considered a fundamental part of the kingdom.

The UN disagrees and sees Western Sahara as a part of an ‘incomplete decolonisation’. On 15 April, the Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned that despite the repeated stalling of talks over the dispute (10 rounds of UN discussions have taken place in the last four years), the international community must make more effort to find a solution to the problem.

A ceasefire has been in place since 1991 and Morocco has floated a proposal to devolve more autonomy to the 500,000 Sahrawis. The Polisario Front have rejected this idea and Mr Ban admitted that:

“While both emphasise their full commitment to the search for a solution, a total lack of trust continues to haunt the negotiating process, and each party harbours deep suspicions of the other.”

Sahrawis, spread out across a large, arid (but rich in phosphates) country, will not be able to remove Morocco in the same way the Tunisians and Egyptians kicked out their presidents. They cannot organise a rendez-vous on Facebook. The nomadic version of Islam that had developed there means they cannot get together on Fridays to plot the latest post-prayer protests.

They will have to rely on the UN coming to a definite agreement with Morocco to hold the long-postponed referendum on self-determination and try to garner firm help from the 50 or so countries which have formalised foreign relations with the republic. South Sudan recently became Africa’s newest independent nation. The dream for Sahrawis is that it does not take them too much longer to capture that title.

Living on a prayer

Trying to balance religion and politics in West Africa can be a hard game to play

France has been accused of stoking up religious tensions with its recent decision to ban full-face covering garments, such as the Muslim niqab and burka. However, in its former African colonial heartland, religion and the state are managing to carve a delicate balancing act.

The Francophone countries of West Africa tend to have huge Muslim populations. But in Mali, for example, Barcelona FC shirt-wearing men and bare-ankled women abound. Beer is brewed and drunk. Secularism dominates the constitutions of countries such as Niger, Senegal and Burkina Faso.

Far from the Maghreb and the Middle East, it seems that the customs and animism of the area has infused with Islam to breed a slightly different take on the faith. However, the people still faithfully queue outside the vast, mud Mosques on Fridays. There are millions of Christians also living in the area, although they are more numerous in Anglophone states such as Ghana and Nigeria.

There are exceptions, of course. The civil conflict in Ivory Coast, although primarily based on politics, had strong religious undercurrents. Laurent Gbagbo, the deposed former president, is a Catholic and his internationally-endorsed successor, Alassane Ouattara, is a Muslim.

Nigeria held the first-round of a presidential election on Saturday 16 April. According to exit polls, it seems that incumbent (Christian southerner) Goodluck Jonathan will head to a run-off against his main rival Muhammadu Buhari (Muslim northerner).

It is a country with a bloody record when it comes to religious and political balance. Recent years have seen regular fighting and hundreds of deaths in the central prefectures where the Muslim and Christian populations meet. There is a growing Islamist insurgency calling for sharia law to be imposed in the north. The radical group Boko Haram shot dead two people on Friday 15, the day before the presidential polls opened.

Nigeria has a rough agreement to rotate the presidency between the largely Muslim north and the mainly Christian south, although when Mr Jonathan assumed the presidential office last year on the death of his northern predecessor Umaru Yar’Adua that cycle was broken.

The balance of the stability of the region depends on similar domestic accords. Yet if such agreements can be broken without provoking resultant religious fury then the region will have be able to look forward again.

The region’s capability to forge nations out of the bubbling and potentially venomous cauldron of post-colonialism, animism, Christianity, Islam, strongmen and dictators, developing democracies, oil and cocoa, deserts and droughts, rivers and floods and linguistic differences must be lauded and the nations must strive towards growing co-operation and confidence in one of the main areas they have had some success and are trying to improve at the moment: balancing religion and politics.

Friday prayers can wait

Is the European Union stalling over policy towards the Islamic world?

Recent events in Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt have not gone totally unnoticed in Europe but there was a significant delay in releasing official reaction to the unrest which began in December. These events were occurring just across the sea, indeed the Italian island of Pantelleria lies only 45 miles or so from the Tunisian coast. And the EU is the largest trading partner for the Maghreb. Why was there no coherent policy announcement?

European ministers are dedicated at the moment to sorting out the financial crisis and trying to ensure that neither Spain nor Portugal goes the way of Greece and Ireland. Reacting to the downfall of the government in Tunisia raised confusion over how the bloc feels and eventually no clear response was issued. Whether or not to give Turkey a membership card has been relegated from the to-do list.

David Cameron has let it be known that the UK Government will be batting for the Turks but as Conservative Baroness Warsi, the UK’s first female Muslim Cabinet member, will say in a speech on Thursday 20 January, Britain has to get its national attitude towards Muslims right first before it can think about lecturing others on equality.

And this is part of the wider problem – there has never truly been a coherent, union-wide policy on this issue. Take burqas for example: should members be banning them or not? And as this blog noted last month, (‘Snow boots for Islamic fundamentalists’, 31 December 2010′), Islamic terror plots have been on the rise in Scandinavia and earlier this week a Somali man went on trial for the attempted murder of Kurt Westergaard, a cartoonist who published drawings of the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb for a turban. Should members be allowing the publication of such pictures?

Switzerland, surrounded by EU member-states, drew gasps of breath in 2009 when its parliament approved a ban on the building of minarets. There is also rising antipathy in Germany towards Muslims and Turkish inclusion in the EU. The majority of the country’s four million Muslims have Turkish ancestry and president Christian Wulff faced a particularly tough time on a state visit to Turkey last year. The EU talks at length about a common agricultural policy, a common defence policy and a common economic policy and 2011 should be the year when major steps are taken to discussing a common policy to all the issues surrounding the place of Islam in Europe.

Snow boots for Islamist terrorists

Sweden was the subject of a recent bomb plot gone wrong and five men were arrested in Denmark on 29 December on suspicion of planning a bombing raid. Has Islamist terrorism come to Scandinavia?

The chilly winds and blizzards of Sweden and Denmark are far-removed from the blasting sun and desert heat of the Middle East but Islam is a powerful and growing presence in Northern Europe. It has overtaken Catholicism to become Norway’s largest minority religion. There are approximately 500,000 Muslims in Sweden. After Lutheranism, Islam is the biggest religion in Denmark.

Mass immigration in the 1980s and 1990s, particularly from the Muslim south-east corner of Europe, Somalia and Pakistan, has prompted the development of Islam as a serious faith in the three Scandinavian countries. National reaction to the growth of Islam has courted controversy.

The Jyllands-Posten cartoons uproar in 2005 was the first major sticking-point to development between this part of Europe and Islam. The men arrested earlier this week in Denmark have been accused of wanting to kill “as many people as possible [at the newspaper’s offices]”, according to Danish officials. The fact that these alleged threats and confirmed arrests have occurred five years after the cartoons were published show that the reach of Islam is growing.

Cartoons were also at the centre of controversy three years ago. Lars Vilks, a Swedish cartoonist, pictured Muhammad as a dog on a roundabout. Mr Vilks has since taken precautions against possible retribution.

Islam has not suffered the same level of inertia and religious apathy which has afflicted the Christian denominations across Europe. Young Muslims are born into a growing faith of potency and totality. Their non-Muslim peers simply do not worry about religion that much at all. And it is this perceived affront to the standard Scandinavian secular-based lifestyle by a popular and powerful minority religion that has caused an upswell in indignation towards Muslims in the region.

The traditional Scandinavian mentality may also be a root cause of the increase in terror plots. By attacking a liberal, less outspoken area of the majority-Christian and Western world, the direct opposite of the US, the UK and Israel, Islamist fundamentalists are demonstrating their capabilities to challenge religious and political ideologies across the globe, no matter how quiet and non-confrontational those countries appear on the surface.