Terror Visits Dhaka

The terrorist attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery café in the diplomatic quarters of Dhaka on July 1 and 2 triggered a chain reaction.

The Bangladesh government banned Doctor Zakir Naik’s Peace TV from being aired in the country, implying thereby that the doctor-turned-preacher may have inspired the brazen hostage-taking incident. India’s Maharashtra state government, too, went on a similar offensive against Dr Naik, after sections of Bangladeshi media reported that one of the Dhaka cafe attackers had been inspired by Naik’s speeches to carry out the attack. A Bangladeshi newspaper, The Daily Star, had claimed on July 6 that Rohan Imtiaz, one of the five militants involved in the Dhaka cafe attack, ran a propaganda campaign on Facebook last year urging all Muslims to be terrorists, quoting a speech by Naik on Peace TV.

On her part, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina called on every school, college and university to “create a list of absent students and publish it”.

“We will be rigorous,” the premier said. “We must uproot militancy and terrorism from Bangladesh,” Hasina said in a televised address to the nation, urging unity against criminal elements.  To her credit, she has on many occasions publicly articulated her secular beliefs, particularly in the aftermath of the killing of two self-declared atheist professors. “If anybody thinks they have no religion, OK, it’s their personal view…,” she had said. “But they have no right to write or speak against any religion…When you are living in a society, you have to honor the social values, you have to honour others’ feelings.”

The prime minister’s impassioned appeal for unity and the resolve to deal with criminal elements with an iron fist notwithstanding, her rule since winning the controversial 2014 election is itself marked with inconsistencies and high-handedness. The Awami League’s near autocratic rule and secular ideals –coupled with a penchant for clubbing Islamists with the opposition parties, particularly Khaleda Zia’s right-of-center Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) – have all created the specter of religious extremism with attacks on intellectuals, journalists, bloggers and religious minorities. Executions of “war criminals”, primarily elderly pro-Pakistan Jamaat-i-Islami leaders, seem to have spurred a new wave reaction by the extreme right.

Both politicians and officials view JI as the accomodationist proponent of Muslim Brotherhood in Bangladesh, a party that believes in incremental, evolutionary expansion of Islamist power, and hence the crackdown through the questionable “war crimes tribunals.”

The trans-border enemy is drawing oxygen from the notions of Muslim victimhood

Attacks on minorities and political dissidents have been on the rise. In February this year, after a series of attacks on Hindu temples, a priest, Jogeshwar Roy, was killed while organizing prayers at a local temple in Deviganj, a town a few hundred miles north of Dhaka. Once again the IS claimed responsibility. The government, yet again, attributed his death to local militants. In May, a 75 -year-old Buddhist monk was hacked to death in his temple in Cox Bazar.

The shrinking space for free media (under the Information, Communication, and Technology Act first passed in 2006 and amended in 2013 with more draconian provisions) and the predominance of state institutions by Awami League loyalists are of course among the reasons for general discontent which also feeds into radical religious parties – all of whom are upset with the string of political executions also questioned by international jurists.

Ironically though, the government appears in a state of denial about religious extremism. The recent events remind me of a couple of consultations in Dhaka on religious radicalization. During those interactive sessions too, one could discern the denial mode projected through the successes against (arrests of) thousands of extremists and terrorists associated with the aforementioned groups.

A very senior counterterrorism official conceded that Bangladesh was “under the stress of radicalization” being fueled both by internal and external factors. He also admitted that creeping radicalization comes through amplification of consequences of poor but authoritarian governance and legal injustices and advocated change in the British-era Criminal Procedural Code of 1860.

The official also conceded the presence of Al Qaeda in Bangladesh, saying it “can and does recruit from here but does not want to operate here.” This too sounded like denying the obvious. The IS constitutes a growing part of the conversation on extremism and terrorism. Behind the scenes, the army and the police are hunting down Jamaat, Al Qaeda and IS extremists, yet there is little public acknowledgement of these entities as potent threats to the society.

If extremist movements are not curbed, Bangladesh could well become an epicenter for Islamic radicalism. Given its proximity to other substantial Muslim populations in both South and Southeast Asia, the emergence of such religious extremism could have profound destabilizing consequences well beyond the reaches of the country, wrote Sumit Ganguly in YaleGlobal (17 May 2016).

Some of the absolutely essential keys to containment of radicalization and denial of space to violent extremists could be:

1)    A democratic conduct by the ruling party, and space for inclusive governance,

2)   An across-the-board rule of law regime,

3)   Urgent reform of the CrPC (that is still in use in India and Pakistan too), and

4)   A rational approach towards neighbours, Pakistan in particular.

A witch-hunt of the opposition, high-handed partisan governance, undue ostracization of political rivals as “traitors”, and a lack of seriousness about reforms in the legal and justice system are some of the ingredients that feed discontent, particularly the one stoked by motivated religious radicals. Therefore, unless the government in Dhaka embarks on a transparent reform process, and until it creates space for accommodation of political opposition, the specter of religious radicalization will keep growing. After all, never before was Bangladesh – that boasts of Sufi religious traditions and secular political traditions – faced with an enemy that is trans-border and is drawing oxygen from the notions and narratives of Muslim victimhood currently circling across the globe.

The author Imtiaz Gul is the Executive Director of Center for Research and Security Studies (CRSS). This article originally appeared in Friday Times, July 15, 2016. Original Link.

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