“Offending religious sentiments shows a perverted mindset,” the Bangladeshi Premier, Sheikh Hasina, recently said at a celebration of the Bengali New Year on April 14. She was careful to add, however, that anyone “killing another person in response to what they have written is not Islamic”. The Prime Minister’s comments came just days after the >killing of Nazimuddin Samad, a young social media activist, and capture the terrible duality facing this nation of 160 million, mostly Muslims, whose progressive aspirations are under threat from violent fringe elements like never before.
The >killing of blogger Avijit Roy in February 2015 brought the level of threat to the world’s attention; a series of subsequent fatal attacks have heightened the concern, in part due to the targeting of self-described or alleged atheists. It is not surprising that in a mostly rural country with low literacy rates, there is little comprehension or sympathy for anything intellectually as rarefied as atheism. But by targeting young freethinkers — atheist or not — the Islamists pose as defenders of religion, placing their progressive opponents on the defensive.
Islamists v. secularists This macabre scenario derives from an extended history of Islamist intrusion into Bangladesh. The importation of religion into politics occurred first during the military dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s, and later under the auspices of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). The last tenure of BNP (2001-06) saw the rise of state-patronised militant outfits such as Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami Bangladesh and Jamat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh. In the interim, the influx of petrodollar funding for mosques and madrasas, and the presence of millions of Bangladeshi workers in West Asia, many of whom send back not just money but also conservative values, have fuelled reactionary attitudes.
The current Awami League government claims to be committed to secularism, and has boldly initiated the trial of war criminals who committed genocide and mass rape during the Liberation War of 1971, all in the name of religion. Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s leading Islamist party and firm ally of the BNP, has been hardest hit by these trials. Many of their leaders have been convicted of war crimes. Despite questions about due process, these trials remain hugely popular with a public tired of seeing the perpetrators of the most heinous crimes roam free, or occupy ministerial seats, as they did during BNP’s last tenure.
The trials, in conjunction with hard-line tactics employed by the Awami League since it came to power in 2009, have left the BNP and Jamaat in tatters. Ahead of the last elections in 2014, the desperate union of BNP-Jamaat resorted to unprecedented forms of violence, including petrol-bombing commuter buses. While Bangladeshi politics has always been full of clashes, such targeting of civilians was new, and when mainstream political parties start attacking their own electorate, extremist elements will take that as licence to go yet further.
Regardless of the history of contest between secularist and Islamist forces, many foreign observers, especially American officials and media, appear keen to flag a distant force such as Islamic State (IS) as a key factor in the new Islamist spike in Bangladesh; however, experts on the ground believe self-motivated local outfits such as Ansarullah Bangla are behind the recent attacks. All the murdered bloggers were active supporters of the war crimes trials, which suggests that Jamaat or its proxies may be targeting them. Furthermore, it is in the interest of the deeply beleaguered Jamaat to create instability in the country, preferably to the point of deposing the Awami League government.
Red herring, real questions None of this is to discount the potency of a post-Jamaat wave of Islamism. The latest issue of the IS magazine, Dabiq , clearly lays out its intent to make inroads into Bangladesh. Yet any alliance with either al-Qaeda in South Asia or the IS is mainly a tactical move for publicity that suits both sides: the IS gets to project reach on the cheap, and the local thugs enjoy heightened exposure and menace value. Indeed, it is possible that local outfits will rebrand themselves as “IS” to gain greater mileage. The deeper reality is this: even if IS central were eliminated tomorrow, Bangladesh — like so many other places beset by jihadist groups — would still have home-grown Islamists to deal with. Bangladesh managed to contain the threat for nearly two decades; the first terror attacks in the country occurred back in the late 1990s. Hence, the debate over the existence of the IS in Bangladesh is a bit of a red herring. The real question should be: what more can Bangladesh do now to stave off the new surge in extremism?
The recent spate of killings is not without precedence: fanatics mounted sufficient protests for free-spirited poets like Daud Haider in the 1970s and Taslima Nasreen in the 1990s to go into permanent exile. Celebrated poet Humayun Azad was hacked to death by Islamists in 2004, just outside the same Ekushey Book Fair where Avijit Roy would meet his end in 2015. The relative complacency of many Bangladeshis, the moment a victim is revealed to be an “atheist”, exposes the brittle nature of its culture of tolerance.
Despite the increasing odds, Bangladesh’s success in its battle against extremism should matter to the entire world. Most Muslim nations that have been historically congratulated by the West for being “moderate” owed their relative progressivism to military, monarchic or even civil authoritarianism; for example, in the case of Turkey, Morocco and Malaysia. In contrast, secularism in Bangladesh has survived a tumultuous democracy, including periods when powers sympathetic to an Islamic tone were in charge. If Bangladesh were to survive as a secular nation, it could serve as a model of a Muslim-majority nation where faith and progressive ideals — tolerance and pluralism — could coexist.
Part of the problem is that Bangladesh is still at a stage of development where freedom of speech — like so many other fundamental rights, even habeas corpus — is treated as discretionary. And though the Awami League enjoys a reputation as the more liberal of the country’s two dominant parties, its record is not without blemish; it has promulgated a draconian cyber law that allows for detention without bail. Also, and less talked about in the light of the more headline-grabbing blogger killings, dozens of people disappear each year; a bane that did not exist in the 1990s but which has flourished since the early 2000s.
Bangladesh has sustained so far as a liberal society thanks to the strength and tenor of its ethno-linguistic culture. Examples of this are the millions of women who ignored the warning of Hefazat-e-Islam, a network of hard-line clerics allied with the BNP and Jamaat, to stay away from the festivities celebrating Pohela Boishakh (the secular Bengali New Year). Yet, heartening as such spirited displays are, culture alone cannot keep us progressive.
The less we do to challenge the inhuman arrogance of violent extremists, the more we are in danger of allowing the normalisation of intolerance. To reach our most profound ideals, we Bangladeshis, and our government, must avoid appeasement, and muster the courage once displayed by those who died for our language, and for our independence.
K. Anis Ahmed is a writer, and publisher of the Dhaka Tribune. He is also a co-director of the Dhaka Literary Festival.