Bangladesh Ris­ing Religious Ex­trem­ism

Bangladesh started out with a bal­anced world view but lost its way some­where.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Taj M Khat­tak

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.

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