Bangladesh Rising Religious Extremism
Bangladesh started out with a balanced world view but lost its way somewhere.
A surge of Islamic fundamentalism.
In 1971, after its separation from Pakistan, Bangladesh emerged as a secular state and for decades it was known for its moderate religious practices. Secularism, however, was always a hazy concept in Bangladesh with a subtle and different meaning. The Bengali term for secularism is ‘dharma mirapekshata’ which literally means ‘religious neutrality’ and is different from its meaning and use in the west and even in Pakistan where, in the popular perception, it is understood as ‘la-deeniyiat’ or total absence of religious thought.
To put it in the correct perspective though, this is not to suggest that historically there was a lack of passion for deeply religious strands in the Bengali population. Islam, as a religion was always a part of East Bengal or else there would have been no political impetus for the Pakistan Movement in 1947 and East Bengal could just have merged with Hindu West Bengal on the basis of shared Bengali language. But it is also true that the 1971 independence movement in erstwhile East Pakistan was based on Bengali nationalism and not on religion.
The relatively recent surge of Islamic sentiments in Bangladesh coincided with the coming into power of its powerful military which began to use religion as a counterweight to Awami League’s ( AL) secular and
socialist agenda. It was during the tenure of General Zia-ur-Rehman, the first military ruler of Bangladesh, when secularism was dropped as one of the four cornerstones of the constitution – the other three being democracy, nationalism and socialism.
It is difficult to ascertain with any degree of accuracy if Bangladesh’s successive military rulers were influenced by Islamic policies of General Zia-ul-Haq, who was ruling Pakistan during the same period and encouraging his own brand of Islam. But it is a fact that the nexus in Bangladesh between its military and Islamic elements, which had taken root during General Zia-ur-Rehman’s rule, survived long after his assassination.
In fact, the relationship flourished significantly during the period of his successor, General Ershad, when Islam became a permanent political force to be reckoned with in the country’s political landscape. Since then resistance from Islamist religious elements against re-introduction of secularism in the Bangladesh constitution has been strong enough to dissuade successive government from taking it up in parliament.
Historically, religious extremism began to raise its head in 1977 when Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS) was formed in the Dhaka University central mosque with its stated mission to ‘satisfy Allah through rearrangement of total life of human beings in the way given by Allah and shown by Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).’ ICS is a student wing of JI and in 1971 was known by the name of Islami Chhatra Shanga. It was accused of atrocities during the war of independence by AL. In 2014, it was named by a US think tank as the world’s third largest armed group.
The existence of Harkat-ul Jihad-eIslami Bangladesh (HUJ-B) with links to Pakistan came to light when a plot to assassinate the AL leader Sheikh Hasina was uncovered. In the 1990s, Taslima Nasrin was hounded out of the country after publication of her book Lajja and her other controversial views. However, during the decade long political tussle between the AL and BNP, Bangladesh was not generally considered a hotbed of any Islamic radicalism. Bangladeshi politicians routinely mentioned the country’s moderate Islamic character and made a point of emphasizing that Bangladesh’s struggle for independence was based on nationalism and not religion.
All this changed in August 2005 when nearly five hundred bombs exploded suddenly and simultaneously in every city of Bangladesh on the same day. This jolted the country and brought it under the spotlight of international extremist religious terrorism. The responsibility for the attacks was claimed by a terrorist group Jamaat-ulMujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). After these attacks, both HUJ-B and JMB were banned by the BNP government - the very same political party under whose earlier rule Islamic elements were encouraged to foster their fundamental ideas as a political ploy against AL. In a sense, the chicken had finally come home to roost.
In 2015, the AL government put on trial a number of Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) leaders, which is the largest religious party in Bangladesh, and hanged a few of them. There has been a backlash against these executions and in high profile incidents, three bloggers were hacked to death in Dhaka on different occasions in broad daylight, allegedly by radical Islamic elements for holding atheist views and propagating them openly. Successive Bangladesh governments have taken measures to tackle the terrorism threat emanating from extremist Islamic thought and some success has been achieved. It has, however, generally remained in a denial mode and hasn’t gone after the Islamist extremists in a determined manner and as a part of a broader national strategy.
As a result of this vacillation, the extremist religious threat has spawned in other forms, like the emergence in 2013 of Hefazat-e-Islam, a new Islamist group, which has raised the stakes with its public demand against ‘atheist bloggers’ and other activities which it perceives as cardinal sins. The group was formed in Chittagong in 2010 and gained prominence when it successfully staged a long march from Chittagong to Dhaka in 2013 as a counter protest to a rival youth group with secular underpinnings and seeking the death penalty for those convicted for war crimes.
This group has come up with its own set of thirteen demands which include enactment of the blasphemy law with provision for death penalty, punishment for ‘atheists’ and others who ‘insult Islam’, segregation of men and women, ending ‘anti-Islam’ women policies, the education policy and a demand to ‘stop turning Dhaka into a city of idols’ through erecting sculptures.
All these demands strike at the core of Bangladesh’s culture of moderation which it had endeavoured to follow over the years. The demands also run counter to the country’s liberal policies on women’s education, free expression and an appreciation of fine art. The group has remained relatively quiet, perhaps just below the threshold of being declared as a terrorist network, although it has amply demonstrated its ability to employ violence. With the AL government not relenting on hanging of erstwhile JI leaders, it can be expected to intensify its activities in the years ahead.
The Rohingya crisis festering on the geographical borders of Bangladesh with Myanmar is another matter of concern. Myanmar considers these dispossessed and displaced Rohingyas as ‘Bengali Muslims’ who migrated to Myanmar’s Rakhine province south east of Bangladesh. Bangladesh which believes them to be Muslims of the Rakhine province and has sheltered thousands of Rohingyas for some thirty years. The UNHCR has estimated the undocumented Rohingyas refugees at 200,000 while Bangladesh estimates them at as high as 500,000.
The region where the Rohingya crisis is brewing is also a stronghold for JI, HUJI and ICS and is known for the fluid population and the weak law enforcement mechanism. It has long been a haven for smugglers, gunrunners, pirates and ethnic insurgents. If this salient bilateral irritant between Bangladesh and Myanmar is not resolved amicably, it could well become a dangerous recruitment ground for Islamic extremists with serious consequence for Bangladesh and Myanmar.
Bangladesh is also weary of the spread of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan and AlQaida’s pronouncement about its new subsidiary in the Indian Subcontinent. There have been odd arrests recently of men suspected of recruiting for IS. The extent of the threat posed by AlQaida and IS stretching all the way to Bangladesh is not clear yet, but proven appeal of these notorious organizations is serious enough to reckon with.
Bangladesh needs to acknowledge that religious extremism is a real problem and should not remain in a state of perpetual denial. It needs to retain its secular cultural values and defeat radical Islamic forces with a world view incapable of allowing differences for co-existence. It should avoid any slide towards instability, especially at a time when, after years of struggle, the country has achieved relative economic and development successes and its policies hold promise for its poverty-ridden masses. The writer is a former Vice Chief of the Pakistan Naval Staff.