All that we are mourning

The attack on an upmarket cafe in Dhaka must not be seen in isolation from the extremist violence that has gripped Bangladesh for over a year

July 04, 2016 01:03 am | Updated September 18, 2016 05:03 pm IST

UNCHECKED: “Muddying the waters even further has been the refusal by both government and Opposition to tackle the issue of growing extremism.” Picture shows a march in Dhaka demanding justice for the victims of a series of violent attacks. — PHOTO: AP

UNCHECKED: “Muddying the waters even further has been the refusal by both government and Opposition to tackle the issue of growing extremism.” Picture shows a march in Dhaka demanding justice for the victims of a series of violent attacks. — PHOTO: AP

Bangladesh is in mourning. Not just the two-day official period following the heinous events of July 1, it’s been in mourning for over a year, as it loses its grip on a society that had been built on secularism and compassion. For over a year now, there has been a >rise in religious intolerance and targeted violence against secularist and rational voices . Bloggers, academics, priests, spiritual leaders, LGBTQ+ activists, religious minorities, aid workers, tailors — all killed for not fitting a specific definition of piousness by Islamic extremists. Following this painful trend in violence, the attack on >Dhaka’s Holey Artisan Bakery/cafe has raised the bloodshed to unseen levels. Yet it would be foolish to consider it an isolated incident.

Ibtisam Ahmed

A year of living dangerously Since early 2015, attacks on religious minorities and critics of Islamic extremism have been focussed on one or, in a handful of cases, two individuals being killed by mobs. The modus operandi has been the use of machetes and knives, with the majority of victims being selected for openly advocating a more tolerant society that fits in with Bangladesh’s secular Constitution. While the first few victims openly called themselves atheists — seen in some quarters as a social taboo, but never a criminal offence — the one common aspect tying all of them together was that they failed to adhere to a strict interpretation of Islam favoured by extremist groups operating in the region.

Contrary to some early reports, > foreigners had been targeted in these attacks as well . Italian aid worker Cesare Tavella and Japanese agriculturalist Kunio Hoshi were killed in separate incidents late last year, the first targeted killings of foreign nationals in the country since 2004. The Islamic State and al-Qaeda have been competing to take credit for the string of murders, but there is no definitive proof of either group’s involvement. >Both groups have also claimed responsibility for the siege in the capital’s wealthy Gulshan district this weekend, although both local intelligence and foreign agencies such as the U.S. State Department are yet to authenticate the claims. Like in previous attacks, the perpetrators’ exact motives are still to be determined.

What sets it apart, however, is the sheer scale of the violence. Blades have given way to guns, and single targets have been replaced by an entire building of casualties. Twenty hostages have been confirmed dead so far. In a heart-breaking coincidence, the majority of them were Italians and Japanese, with one Indian also among the dead and another Italian yet to be accounted for. Three Bangladeshis were among the hostage deaths alongside two others, policemen killed during an initial explosion. Chillingly, reports from the Army indicate that most hostages were already dead when the rescue operation was launched, with signs of torture with sharp weapons. Eyewitnesses have confirmed that the assailants demanded that the hostages recite passages from the Koran from memory, with failure resulting in their deaths.

Terrifyingly, this would indicate that extremist forces have become emboldened by the lack of response to the previous killings. The fact that they chose a target in the heart of the diplomatic zone, with few avenues of escape and with the hallmarks of a reckless suicide attempt rather than traditional hostage-taking, only lends credence to this fear. July 1 was not the first incident of violence by any means, but it certainly marks a turning point.

The blame game The rescue of at least 13 hostages, with some reports claiming a higher number of 18, has been heralded by the authorities as a sign of success. Government officials, >including the Prime Minister, have condemned the attack wholeheartedly but have said that they are largely pleased with the attempts of the security forces. Unfortunately, that confidence is not easily shared.

Muddying the waters even further has been the refusal by both government and Opposition to tackle the issue of growing extremism. The former has been steadfast in its vague accusations against the Opposition parties, refusing to consider any links with other organisations as well as the rise in extremist ideology more widely. It does not help that it has openly stated in the past that citizens should be careful not to hurt religious sentiment, effectively blaming free-thinkers for their own demise, with many of the perpetrators of the individual killings yet to be caught.

However, it would be naive to suggest that the Opposition parties have not played a part. Having exploited political Islam as part of their platform for decades, they perfected the colonial legacy of using religious prejudice and scapegoating in the socio-political landscape. That they have vocally criticised the government, and the government alone, for the recent violence shows that scoring political points has become the end-game for both sides rather than actually solving the problem.

Additionally, the wider global influence of reactionary pan-Islamism from West Asia, especially in the light of growing distrust of Muslims in the wake of the War on Terror, has had a toxic effect. Bangladesh has been inching towards a dangerous precipice for a long time, and the latest attack may have given it a bigger push than anyone could have predicted. More people and places in the country will now perceive themselves to be unsafe.

‘Stay safe’ “Stay safe” is becoming the most common way to say farewell. Making matters even worse is the identities of the attackers. While their affiliations are still unconfirmed — one hostage-taker is in custody and awaits interrogation — it is looking likely that they were all from urban, largely well-to-do backgrounds.

This goes against the stereotypical profile of extremists indoctrinated through religious education in madrasas. If the assailants do indeed go against the grain, then the extent to which extremism has taken hold needs to be seriously reconsidered.

Bangladesh was founded on the principle of secularism. Despite its Muslim-majority population, its social fabric has been strongest when the multitude of cultures and faiths within its borders have coexisted. Instead of taking recourse to superficial platitudes, the authorities need to unite in their efforts to tackle what is fast turning into the single greatest threat to the nation since its independence.

Ibtisam Ahmed is at the School of Politics and IR at the University of Nottingham, and is researching the ideological conceptualisation and legacy of the British Raj.

Top News Today

Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.