Terror in Bangladesh: Root Cause and Red Herrings

Instead of blaming the ruling government, the BNP-Jamaat should join hands to fight the rising radicalism in Bangladesh.

People during a protest against the brutal killing of Bangladeshi- American blogger Avijit Roy in Bangladesh. Credit: PTI

People during a protest against the brutal killing of Bangladeshi- American blogger Avijit Roy in Bangladesh. Credit: PTI

The attacks on freethinkers last year, followed by broadening of targets this year, confirms that Islamist militancy is on the rise in Bangladesh. The Awami League government has been denying the existence of foreign terrorist organisations and blames its political opposition – the alliance of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Jamaat-e-Islami – for the upsurge. The BNP and the Jamaat in turn blame the government’s coercive tactics, an argument echoed recently by Toby Cadman, a Jamaat lawyer, and William B. Milam, former US ambassador to Bangladesh.

David Bergman, a staunch critic of the Awami League government, too had blamed the ruling party’s heavy-handedness recently. Interestingly, though, he seemed to distance himself from the patent one-sidedness of Cadman and Milam in a piece in The Wire on June 1 which also joined issue with an earlier article by me. Bergman’s latest iteration is more nuanced, citing multiple reasons behind the sudden spike in terrorism in Bangladesh. The reasons need to be evaluated precisely because if the diagnosis is flawed, the solutions can never work.

The ruling Awami League government’s authoritarian tendencies are undeniable. They include a cascade of cases against opposition leaders and mass arrests of their workers, extra-judicial killing or disappearance of suspected militants, and attempts to curb both mainstream and social media. Although there are valid reasons for some of these measures – for example, disrupting violent messaging or organising events online – even in the best cases, such measures always come with a plethora of problems. Innocents get targeted by mistake, dissenters by design, and the response is often disproportionate to a threat or an offence.

While serious and legitimate criticism can be levied against the ruling Awami League, in power since 2009, they can also go astray in two important ways. The critics mentioned above have all argued as if the techniques used by the Awami League government were pioneered by them. In truth, extra-judicial killings were introduced in 2003 during the BNP-Jamaat alliance’s last tenure (2001-2006). BNP was also the first post-democratic government in Bangladesh to shut down a critical media channel, the much-lauded Ekushey Television, early in its last term. The military-backed Caretaker Government of 2007-08 – supported by the so-called “civil society” – firmly established the precedent of suspending civil rights more completely than at any time before or after, as well as shutting down a television channel (CSB).

One-sided criticism

The past derelictions of either BNP-Jamaat or other regimes do not excuse Awami League’s shortfalls. However, when critics speak as if they are the doings only of Awami League, and not part of the corroded political culture, that is partial reporting at best. Apologists for the BNP and Jamaat further leave out, while discussing the root cause of terror, the issue of who introduced political Islam in Bangladesh or oversaw its transformation into extremist violence. That the founder of BNP, Ziaur Rahman, rehabilitated Jamaat in politics in the late 1970s is not an incidental fact, nor is it similarly accidental that decades later, groups like Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh and Harkat-ul-Jihad Bangladesh flourished with the direct political cover of the BNP-Jamaat regime of 2001-2006.

Groups like JMB and HuJi were behind about two dozen attacks that took the lives of an estimated 140 people – nearly 100 more than those killed by Islamists since 2015. Their bombings targeted the current premier, Sheikh Hasina. While she escaped narrowly, top leaders of her party and civilians were killed in the bombing attack of 2004. Awami League’s former finance minister, S. A. M. Kibria, was killed in a separate bombing attack. It is the only time in post-democratic Bangladesh that leaders of an opposition party came under such terrorist attacks. BNP-Jamaat also presided over one of the worst pogroms against Hindu minorities immediately after taking office in 2001, setting a precedent of communal violence.

Furthermore, the number of Qawmi madrasas, many of which serve as incubators of extremism, increased at an unparalleled rate in the 2001-2006 period. These institutes, like Jamaat, promote a brand of fundamentalist Islam imported from West Asia. Its propagation contradicts and threatens the native tolerant Islamic practices that were predominant in Bangladesh’s pluralist society. Jasim Uddin Rahmani, a spiritual leader of Ansar-al-Islam – one of the leading outfits in the latest phase of terror – taught at a Qawmi madrasa. Ansar, and revived fellow terrorist organisation, JMB, have found willing acolytes among madrasa students and graduates.

In light of even this brief history, that revisionist critics can blithely put the entire blame of rising terrorism in Bangladesh only on the ruling government’s heavy-handedness is astonishing. This is not the first time that Bangladesh has suffered an authoritarian government. One can cite the caretaker regime, whose entire two-year period was conducted under a blanket of emergency. One can go further back to dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s to show that both Awami League and BNP have fought effectively in the past against oppressive regimes without resorting to violence that targets civilians. To argue there is no other way but violence is unconscionable.

If the response this time is different, it is by choice – that of the BNP-Jamaat. Their proxies are certainly no longer the only sources of terrorism: there is also the eruption of a new breed of terrorist cells. However, they have emerged in great part due to the step by step corrosion of the political environment, which began most decisively with the BNP’s sharp turn to the religious right in 2001 onwards.

It matters immensely too that BNP has taken use of violence as a mainstream political tool to new lows. While street agitation and the resulting violence are sad staples of Bangladeshi politics, neither the BNP nor the Awami League ever targeted civilians during their long decades. That changed, however, from 2013. In late-2013 and again in early-2015, BNP and Jamaat activists petrol-bombed public transport, and otherwise targeted civilians, leaving hundreds dead and thousands injured. To pretend that a mainstream party turning to such wanton violence has no bearing on extremist violence today is absurd.

None of this justifies the government’s own failures. After many of the attacks, especially on freethinkers, top Awami leaders have warned people against hurting religious sentiments. This sort of virtual victim-blaming indicates that the government is more inclined to accommodate the existing dynamics of religion in politics than challenge it. The government is hampered by the opposition’s relentless playing of the religion card. One notable incident in this regard would be the prime minister visiting the family of the first blogger victim, Ahmed Rajib Haider. The BNP-Jamaat lost no time accusing her then of sympathising with an atheist. In this context, when a critic like Milam flags the fact that the prime minister has not visited any blogger victims since Haider, but makes no mention of the BNP-Jamaat’s vigorous role in stoking the worst kinds of religious prejudice, one cannot but wonder if Jamaat’s substantial wealth is lining more pockets than just Cadman’s.

Bergman, meanwhile, has argued that Jamaat’s slaughter of liberal intellectuals in the three days preceding Pakistan’s surrender in 1971 has no bearing today. No-one is drawing a straight line from that tragic episode to the current violence, but one must also know that, in addition to the party pioneering targeted killing then, it was Jamaat’s student-wing, Shibir, which pioneered machete and knife attacks in the 1980s. The infamous Bangla Bhai, founder of JMB, was a card-carrying Shibir activist before graduating to full-blown terrorism. Many of the more credible recent aggressors have been found to be ex-Shibir members as well. Therefore, to pretend Jamaat is a victimised political organisation, and not a primary fount of Islamism in the country, is a stretch.

A final apologia for Jamaat involves blaming the war crimes trials, and its flaws, as a reason for the rise in terror. The trials are long overdue, and still supported by an overwhelming majority of Bangladeshis. BNP and Jamaat advocates like to argue that too many of the accused and convicted are their leaders. That Jamaat was an active ally of the Pakistani army and its genocide is a well-documented fact. To argue that their spurious political bona fides should effectively make them immune to prosecution is preposterous. Additionally, one cannot both cite the trials as a cause for the rising violence and at the same time seek to excuse Jamaat from any responsibility.

The Awami League lacks a sufficiently principled or strategic approach to the crisis of rising terror. To criticise it for that, and to exhort it to better governance, would be eminently justified, but to blame its failures as the “root cause” is a gross misdirection. There is no easy answer to battling terrorism. Like so many other places, Bangladesh too has to find ways to combat the rapid radicalisation of young people and disrupt their operating abilities. This is a gargantuan task which will range from cyber-security to counter-terrorism, and encompass societal, educational and religious reforms. Alongside all this, BNP-Jamaat must abandon the toxic forms of political Islam that they have expounded for decades, and with increasing vigour and vitriol since 2000. Anyone who does not call on them to do so, but rather makes excuses, is, frankly, a part of the problem.

Ikhtisad Ahmed is a columnist for Dhaka Tribune whose socio-political writings include the short story collection, “Yours, Etcetera” and the poetry collection, “Requiem”. Twitter: @ikhtisad