Bangladesh prime minister’s hard-won anti-extremism

A Bangladeshi man cries after his vehicle was set on fire by Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami activists following the execution of their party leader Abdul Quader Mollah in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Friday, Dec. 13, 2013. (AP Photo/Suvra Kanti Das).
A Bangladeshi man cries after his vehicle was set on fire by Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami activists following the execution of their party leader Abdul Quader Mollah in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Friday, Dec. 13, 2013. (AP Photo/Suvra Kanti Das).

When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Bangladesh in June, he praised Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina as a formidable force in fighting regional and global terrorism while working to build a tolerant, secular country free of extremism.

These are more than planks in a political platform. They are core beliefs written in family blood.

In 1975, the Bangladesh leader was a 27-year-old wife and mother. Bangladesh had achieved its independence from Pakistan only four years earlier through a devastating war. Her father, Sheikh Mujibar Rahman, was Bangladesh’s Founding Father and President.

Ms. Hasina was on a goodwill tour in Europe with her husband and her younger sister when a coup took place in Dhaka, the capital. Some ambitious Army officers burst into her father’s modest home, killing him and 18 other family members.

The tragedy galvanized Hasina and set her on a course to carry out her father’s unfinished business: creating a vibrant, democratic Bangladesh.

As Bangladesh’s Prime Minister from 1996 to 2001 and again from 2009 until today, Ms. Hasina has been a target of those who want Bangladesh to be a backward, stunted theocracy. She has survived a remarkable 19 assassination attempts including a 2005 grenade attack at a rally that killed 24 and injured another 500. She has been jailed and twice exiled by political foes.

This is why she has a zero-tolerance policy against extremism. Under Ms. Hasina, Bangladesh has worked with regional allies and the U.S. to prevent the country from becoming a breeding ground for terror. The Bangladesh police have scored several significant confiscations of illegal arms and have stopped terror plots before they could be carried out. India and the U.S. value Bangladesh as a partner in stability in an increasingly violent world.

The U.S. Department of State recently praised the Hasina government for its “commitment to counter both domestic and transnational terrorist groups.” Bangladesh has showed “political will and firm commitment” to combat terrorist groups and has made it “harder” for transnational terrorists to operate in or establish safe havens in its territory, the department declared.

One of Bangladesh’s weapons against terrorism is a strong economic policy. Under Ms. Hasina, Bangladesh’s gross domestic product has grown at an annual rate of 6.2 percent during the past six years. Poverty has declined dramatically and per capita income has more than doubled. Bangladesh no longer makes merely T-shirts, but now produces $1,000 ski jackets sold in Switzerland and has diversified into information technology, which has boomed.

Ms. Hasina has championed female participation in every aspect of the country’s commercial and public life. Bangladesh may have the only government in the world in which the Prime Minister, Speaker of Parliament, the Deputy Leader of Parliament and the Chief of Opposition are all women.

Ms. Hasina rode to victory in the 2009 election in part by promising to restart long-delayed war crimes tribunals to bring to justice to those who collaborated with the Pakistani Army during the 1971 war for independence and contributed to a genocide that killed 3 million Bangladeshis. This has again made her the target of those who wish to destabilize Bangladesh and destroy its tolerant society.

Bangladesh’s chief opposition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, has found that its ideas have failed in the country’s political marketplace. So it has turned to political disruption, boycotting the 2014 national election, pulling out of city elections this year and enlisting thugs in the extremist Jamaat-e-Islami party who have waged a nearly two-year campaign of firebombing, arson and broad-daylight murder. Hundreds of innocent citizens have died because of this domestic terror.

Through it all, Prime Minister Hasina has upheld rule of law and due process. Her government continues to carry out the necessary work of the war crimes tribunals and refuses to back down to the forces of evil.

This is why Forbes magazine recently placed Hasina among the 100 most powerful women including heads of state in Germany, Brazil, South Korea, Chile and Poland.

Each of these women is accomplished in her own right, but only the Prime Minister of Bangladesh struggles daily against armed domestic forces that seek to terrorize her population and bring down her government. For this, she deserves the special praise she’s received.

Mohammad Ziauddin is Bangladesh’s ambassador to the U.S.

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