Bangladesh re­luc­tantly com­bats ex­trem­ism

Pakistan Observer - - OPINION - Matthew Pen­ning­ton

THE tak­ing of hostages by gun men in Dhaka’s diplo­matic quar­ter is the lat­est in a string of at­tacks that have sparked in­ter­na­tional alarm and prompted the United States and Bangladesh to prom­ise more co­op­er­a­tion against vi­o­lent ex­trem­ism in the Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity na­tion. But the two gov­ern­ments still tip­toe around the di­vi­sive is­sue of whether transna­tional ter­ror groups like the so-called Is­lamic State (ISIS) group are in­volved in the mount­ing blood­shed, which has in­cluded a wave of killings of lib­er­als, for­eign­ers, and re­li­gious mi­nori­ties.

The iden­ti­ties of the at­tack­ers in Dhaka on Fri­day were not known, but ISIS claimed its fight­ers car­ried out the as­sault, is­su­ing a state­ment through its me­dia arm, Amaq, that was re­ported by the mon­i­tor­ing group SITE. ISIS and al-Qaida af­fil­i­ates have claimed re­spon­si­bil­ity for many of the pre­vi­ous at­tacks, typ­i­cally by smaller groups of ma­chete-wield­ing as­sailants, that have claimed nearly two dozen lives since 2013. The fre­quency of at- tacks has in­creased in re­cent months.

The vi­o­lence has stoked fears over the rise of rad­i­cal­ism in the tra­di­tion­ally mod­er­ate coun­try and cast a shadow over the achieve­ments of its 160 mil­lion peo­ple in eco­nomic devel­op­ment and fight­ing poverty. In Bangladesh, at times con­sid­ered a bul­wark against re­li­gious ex­trem­ism, “the trend sug­gests an al­most gang-like cam­paign by ri­val Is­lamist ex­trem­ist groups to at­tract sup­port­ers by out­do­ing each other in vi­o­lently de­fend­ing their views of Is­lam,” as The Chris­tian Sci­ence Mon­i­tor re­ported in April:

More­over, the rash of of­ten public ex­e­cu­tions, most of which have gone un­solved, raises fresh con­cerns that Is­lamist ex­trem­ism might find a grow­ing niche in the Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity coun­try known widely for a mul­ti­party democ­racy, pro­gres­sive ad­vances in poverty re­duc­tion, and mi­cro­fi­nance. Bangladesh’s gov­ern­ment has blamed do­mes­tic groups aligned with po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion par­ties, and main­tains that groups like ISIS and al-Qaida have no pres­ence in the coun­try. Crit­ics con­tend that stance in part re­flects the coun­try’s deeply po­larised pol­i­tics and the gov­ern­ment’s in­creas­ingly au­thor­i­tar­ian ten­den­cies.

The United States, a key aid donor and ex­port mar­ket for Bangladesh, has voiced grow­ing con­cern over the vi­o­lence, par­tic­u­larly af­ter a for­mer US Em­bassy em­ployee and gay rights ac­tivist was killed in April. The killing was claimed by An­sar al-Is­lam, the Bangladesh di­vi­sion of al-Qaida in the In­dian sub­con­ti­nent. Bangladesh’s re­sponse to the vi­o­lence was top of the agenda at an­nual high-level talks in Wash­ing­ton last week. The two sides shared the view that vi­o­lent ex­trem­ism is a global prob­lem, and looked at ways they could im­prove co­op­er­a­tion through in­tel­li­gence-shar­ing and pro­grams to com­bat rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion.

But Mar­cia Ber­ni­cat, the US am­bas­sador to Bangladesh, said af­ter the talks that they did not delve into what kind of reach that groups like ISIS may have in­side Bangladesh. She said Bangladeshi of­fi­cials stead­fastly deny that ISIS or al-Qaida is in the coun­try, but she thinks of­fi­cials rec­og­nize the in­flu­ence of those groups through so­cial me­dia is a dan­ger that they have to ad­dress. Bangladeshi For­eign Sec­re­tary Mo­ham­mad Shahidul Haque said the FBI is cur­rently based in Bangladesh pro­vid­ing sup­port in iden- ti­fy­ing peo­ple who are in dan­ger of turn­ing rad­i­cal. He said Bangladeshi au­thor­i­ties have made ar­rests and ini­ti­ated le­gal cases in dozens of ter­ror­ist and ex­trem­ist at­tacks.

But the ques­tion of who is be­hind the at­tacks re­mains a sen­si­tive one. The gov­ern­ment has ac­cused lo­cal ter­ror­ists and op­po­si­tion po­lit­i­cal par­ties — es­pe­cially the main op­po­si­tion Bangladesh Na­tion­al­ist Party and its Is­lamist ally Ja­maati-Is­lami — of or­ches­trat­ing the vi­o­lence in or­der to desta­bi­lize the na­tion, which both par­ties deny. But speak­ing af­ter the talks in Wash­ing­ton, Haque said: “The gov­ern­ment is not blam­ing any­one. The gov­ern­ment is try­ing to find out who is re­ally in­volved in this.”

An­a­lysts con­tend that the shrink­ing demo­cratic space in Bangladesh could be cre­at­ing con­di­tions for more ex­trem­ism and pre-oc­cu­py­ing over-stretched law en­forcers. Prime Min­is­ter Sheikh Hasina has tight­ened her con­trol af­ter eas­ily win­ning 2014 elec­tions that the op­po­si­tion par­ties boy­cotted, al­leg­ing un­fair con­di­tions. — Cour­tesy: The Chris­tian Sci­ence Mon­i­tor

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