With rising Islamic fundamentalism, weak government, and not enough dry land for its 150 million people, Bangladesh could use a break. Instead, it must face the catastrophic threat of climate change.

NGOs would not have such influence in Bangladeshi villages without the country’s moderate, syncretic form of Islam. Islam did not arrive in Bengal until the end of the 12th century, when Muslim invaders brought it from the northwest. It is but one element of Bangladesh’s rich, heavily Hindu-ized cultural stew. In Muslim Bengali villages, matbors (village leaders) can be weaker than the sheikhs in Arab villages. And below these figureheads, women—whose committee mentality has been both receptive to and empowered by Westernized relief workers—can play a great role.

But this low-calorie version of Islam is giving way to a stark and assertive Wahhabist strain. A poor country that can’t say no to money, with an unregulated, shattered coast of islands and inlets, Bangladesh has become a perfect setup for al-Qaeda affiliates, which, like Westernized NGOs, are filling needs unmet by a weak central government. Islamist orphanages, madrasas, and cyclone shelters are mushrooming throughout the country, thanks in part to donations from Saudi Arabia as well as from Bangladeshi workers returning home from the oil-rich Arabian Peninsula.

A decade ago, women in Dhaka and in the port city of Chittagong wore jeans and T-shirts, but more and more they cloak themselves in burkas. Madrasas now outnumber secondary schools, according to Anupam Sen, the vice chancellor of a new private university in Chittagong, who also told me that a new class of society is emerging that is “globally Islamic” rather than “specifically Bengali.”

Here is how global warming indirectly feeds Islamic extremism. As rural Bangladeshis flee a countryside ravaged by salinity in the south and drought in the northwest, they are migrating to cities at a rate of 3 to 4 percent a year. Swept into the vast anonymity of sprawling slum encampments, they lose their local and extended-family links, becoming more susceptible to a form of Islam with a sharper ideological edge. “We will not have anarchy at the village level, where society is healthy,” warns Atiq Rahman. “But we can have it in the ever-enlarging urban areas.” Such is the weakness of central authority in Bangladesh following 15 years of elected governments.

Bangladesh perfectly illustrates the perils of democracy in the developing world. That is because it is not a spectacular failure like Iraq, but one typical of those developing countries that officially subscribe to democracy and pay lip service to liberalism: here, civil-society intellectuals play almost no role in the political process, the army is trusted more than any of the political parties, and everybody—at least everybody I met—dreads elections, which they fear will lead to gang violence. “We have the best constitution, the best laws, but no one obeys them,” lamented one businessman. “The best form of government for a country like ours,” he went on, “is a military regime in its first year of power. After that, the military fails, too.”

The military has become the power behind a caretaker civilian government since the autumn of 2006, when the political system appeared on the brink of chaos, with strikes, demonstrations, a spate of killings, and a stagnant economy. The ruling Bangladesh National Party was in the process of fixing the upcoming election, and the opposition Awami League was planning a series of attacks by armed gangs in return. Up to that point, elections had essentially been contests between these two feudal dynasties: the Awami League, headed by Sheikh Hasina Wazed, the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, one of Bangladesh’s founding fathers who was assassinated in a military coup in 1975; and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, headed by Khaleda Zia, the widow of another of the country’s founders, General Ziaur Rahman, who was assassinated in another coup in 1981. The animosity between the two women harks back to their feud over whose family played a greater role in the country’s independence struggle, as well as to the pardon Zia’s late husband gave to the killers of Hasina Wazed’s father.

Because each party is too weak to rule on its own, each has sought alliances with various Islamic groups and turned a blind eye to al-Qaeda affiliates such as Jemaah Islamiyah, which has reportedly used Bangladesh as a transit point and training base. Last March, when the military-backed caretaker government hanged six militants from the Jama’atul-Mujahideen—another local Islamist group responsible for hundreds of terrorist attacks from 2003 through 2005—the conventional wisdom had it that neither party could have carried out the sentence, compromised as each was by its Islamist coalition partners. In the eerie calm of the present moment, with the country more orderly than it has been in years—with no terrorist attacks, no strikes at the ports, army checkpoints everywhere, hundreds of politicians arrested on charges of corruption, and technocrats getting promoted over party hacks—nobody I met wanted a return to the old two-party system, even though no one wanted the military to continue playing such an overt role in the nation’s affairs.

For now, the fear that radical Islam will take advantage of a political void keeps the military from returning to the barracks. “But in the long run, we are hostages to democracy,” Mahmudul Islam Chowdhury, a former mayor of Chittagong, told me. “Your Westminster–Capitol Hill system won’t work here. But we’re poor and need aid, and so are required to hold elections.” Democracy works in India, Chowdhury explained, because there are so many states and cities where different political parties dominate, so that state and municipal governments thrive alongside the federal one in a multitiered system. But in Bangladesh, the central government finds it hard to risk an opposition party’s gaining control of one of the two big cities or some of the smaller ones; all power is hoarded in Dhaka. The result is a gap that village committees have filled at the bottom level of government, and NGOs and Islamists are vying to fill in the vast and crucial middle ground.

Presented by

Robert D. Kaplan, an Atlantic national correspondent, is the Class of 1960 Distinguished Visiting Professor in National Security at the U.S. Naval Academy. His latest book is Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts: The American Military in the Air, at Sea, and on the Ground.

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