Which way, Islamic Radicalism?
In a shocking video, Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri urges the Muslims in Bangladesh to challenge the tyranny of politicians who have colluded with the West to weaken Islam.
Some unscrupulous elements have been trying to sow the seeds of religious fundamentalism in Bangladesh.
In 1977, President Ziaur Rahman systematically removed secularism from the constitution of Bangladesh and declared Islam as the state religion. Since then, secularism had an unclear legal status in the country. However, in 2010, the Bangladesh Supreme Court restored secularism as an important foundation of the constitution when it prohibited religious fundamentalism in politics. Subsequently, this was elevated to the status of a fundamental principle of state policy in Bangladesh’s constitution.
Interestingly, Islam continues to be the state religion in Bangladesh. Despite operating within an Islamic purview, the state has still managed to assert the political rights of nonMuslims who constitute 20 percent of the population. As a result, secularism
is neither incongruous nor a weak ideology in Bangladesh.
Against the backdrop of tolerance and diversity, there are unscrupulous elements who have been trying to sow the seeds of religious fundamentalism and resentment. An audio-visual message released in January 2014 specifically addressed to the ‘Muslims in Bangladesh’ is an ever-present testimony of a new wave of Islamic radicalism. The video message is purportedly from Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and has been aptly titled ‘Bangladesh: A Massacre behind a Wall of Silence’.
Although it was posted in January on the online portal, Jihadology, it only attracted media attention in February. Furthermore, it is difficult to determine the authenticity of the message. Throughout the video, an unseen narrator delivers a sermon which has been translated into English through subtitles. The narrator is supposedly Ayman al-Zawahiri, although there is no video footage to verify this. The credibility of the video can only be verified by the claim made on Jihadology that explicitly states the message is from Zawahiri and has been released by As-Sahab, the media wing of the Al-Qaeda.
In the video, Ayman al-Zawahiri urges Muslims in Bangladesh to challenge the tyranny of politicians who have colluded with the West to weaken Islam. The Al-Qaeda leader propagates the belief that a popular uprising and genocide provide the best means of protecting a religion that represents peace. This approach is likely to be dismissed as superfluous, extreme and short-sighted.
More significantly, the video message is marred with historical imprecision and fundamentally distorts facts to promote a biased viewpoint. Ayman al-Zawahiri narrowly interprets the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War as a conspiracy to undermine the Muslim Ummah in the subcontinent. The video discredits the fact that Bangladesh’s independence was not a means of preventing hostilities against the Bengalis in the East wing. This is a misleading assertion that lacks a consistent explanation.
Labeling the events and tragedies of the 1971 war as a conspiracy serves to absolve West Pakistan of all responsibility in the skirmish. Pakistan was created for the benefit of the Muslim Ummah. However, the Muslim Ummah was divided on ethnic and cultural lines. Before the 1971 war, the Bengalis were severely short-changed in the political arena. The Bangladesh Liberation War was a mechanism of avoiding further conflict and depicts the extent to which the desire for change can determine the fate of a country. It continues to be an ugly stain on the history of Pakistan. Seen in this context, Ayman al-Zawahiri’s narrow depiction of history and indifference towards the political struggle of the Bangladeshi nation for the creation of Bangladesh is unlikely to trigger a movement that can strengthen Islamic radicalism.
Despite the misconceptions in Ayman al-Zawahiri’s video message, there are some justifications for developing greater awareness about finding an Islamic solution. Over the last few decades, countless campaigns against Islam have been orchestrated in Bangladesh. These have largely favored the West and resulted in the ban of Islamic movements and frequent acts of violence against renowned Muslim academics and professionals.
The video message also makes reference to the status quo. It begins with the photographs of the Hefajat-eIslam rally held in Dhaka in 2013. The images of the police crackdown on the participants of the rally are heartwrenching. However, it is difficult to sympathize with the view that the plight of the Muslims in Bangladesh is an outcome of an elusive conspiracy. Ayman al-Zawahiri has not offered sufficient evidence to show how the major stakeholders – Indian agents, the Pakistan Army, the western media and politicians from Bangladesh and Pakistan – have been involved in this conspiracy. In the absence of such information, the video message reflects a false philosophy that will indoctrinate those who uncritically accept its validity.
Some of the views expressed in the video could direct the law-enforcement agencies and policymakers towards finding a solution. For instance, Ayman al-Zawahiri has criticized the double standards shown by the West towards Islam. He explains that when Muslim countries wish to implement Shariah, they are billed as international criminal. However, if individuals make derogatory remarks about Islam, they are treated with utmost respect. These contradictions could serve as the rallying point for Islamic radicalism in Bangladesh. It is important to note that such tactics can be used to promote terrorism. Any delay or failure to deal with them can shake the foundations of democracy, secularism and progress.
The law-enforcement agencies in Bangladesh have been working towards combating terrorism. They have developed the capacity to handle complex situations and have been praised for their good work on international platforms. But the challenges of preventing a false philosophy from becoming a mainstream discourse are enormously difficult.
The government’s response has been fairly balanced so far. It has not blown the matter out of proportion by giving it too much importance. However, the government must be prepared to tackle any quandary it may find itself in. After all, terrorism is driven by a dangerous mindset. Only time can curb its influence on society.
The writer is a poet and author. He is currently pursuing a degree in Law at the SOAS.