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Is Bangladesh Sliding Down the Path of Becoming a Safe Haven for Islamist Militants?

By Ali Riaz

April 19, 2016

The international media and observers of Bangladeshi politics have been grappling with the question for almost two years: Is Bangladesh sliding down the path of becoming a safe haven for Islamist militants with transnational connections? The recent brutal killing of Nazimuddin Samad, a social activist for liberal causes, has once again brought the issue to the fore. Ansar al-Islam, the self-proclaimed Bangladesh affiliate of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), has claimed responsibility for the murder.

The latest killing follows the pattern of previous murders of bloggers. This neatly fits into two dominant narratives — one that highlights the failure of government to address growing militancy and the other that insists the government is fighting for secularism.

There is no denying that the government has not succeeded in saving the lives of a number of bloggers or providing them safety. But the rhetoric of the government raises serious questions about its commitment. The comment of the home minister after Samad’s killing is instructive. He practically put the blame squarely on the bloggers and asked “Why are they [bloggers] using these kinds of languages against religious establishment? In our country, we do not allow these kinds of languages. It is restricted by our law.” Although such comment is not new, it seems to be getting louder in recent days. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s recent comment has made the position of the government amply clear.

While attending a Bengali New Year celebration on Thursday, she came down heavily on the bloggers who criticise Islam and the Prophet. She said nowadays it has become a fashion to write something against religion as part of free thinking. “But, I consider such writings as not free thinking but filthy words. Why anyone would write such things? It’s not at all acceptable if anyone writes against our Prophet or other religions.” Additionally, the prime minister questioned why the government would take responsibility for such writers in case of any untoward incident.

A lack of knowledge of Islam and ill-conceived remarks has featured in the online comments of some bloggers but, overall, most online discussions have addressed various dimensions of religion and extremism. Indeed, these statements have annoyed a section of the supporters of the ruling party. They decry that the government is appeasing a section of radical Islamists, seemingly to dissuade them from joining the opposition’s rank. Critics, on the other hand, express concern that this is to create an excuse for adopting heavy handedness by the government. There are allegations that, in the past, militancy and terrorism have been used as a pretext to crack down on dissenting voices. Both Islamists and secularist critics of the government have faced its wrath.

The second narrative — that the government is fighting a resurgent militancy — has been repeated ad nauseam since 2011 to portray the opposition as the façade of the militants, as a justification for shrinking democratic space, to clamp down on the opposition, and to gain support of Western countries. Interestingly, until 2015, the ruling party insisted that these militants have external connections; but it made a volte face when transnational terrorist organisations such as the AQIS and the Islamic State claimed to have established organisational presence in the country.

 The simplistic narrative that a secularist regime is fighting back militant Islamists in a Muslim-majority country ignores the complexities of the political situation. What role the long-standing fissure of Bangladeshi politics plays and how religion is being used by politicians of all shades for expediency are ignored in this narrative.

 The war crimes trials, which began in 2010 with almost unanimous support of the citizens, have played a role, too. They were only opposed by the Islamists, especially the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), to save their leaders. The trials opened the possibility of bringing closure to the historical pain of the nation and delivering justice. But whether the gravity of such historic tasks has been undermined by their use for immediate partisan political gains is an open question. The non-inclusive election of 2014 and the authoritarian behaviour of the regime and its supporters since have restricted the space for dissension.

The absence of these issues in discussions on growing militancy, especially in the international media, provides an impression that there are parallel universes within the Bangladeshi political scene— one that has the militancy and militant groups and the other, mainstream politics.

Mainstream politics, so to speak, is not a single stream of events either. One stream is the relentless persecution of the leaders of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the abject failure of the BNP to reorganise and present itself as a viable opposition, its inability to address the issue of the war crimes trials and its alliance with the JI, and the timidity of the smaller opposition parties in raising voices. All of these allow the ruling party to conduct sham elections such as the ongoing union council elections and undermine the foundational institutions of democracy in the country. The growing number of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and unwritten restrictions imposed on the media, and limiting public discourse accompany these events.

The other stream is the growing discontent among the populace. The pent-up frustration and anger is reflected in a series of spontaneous protests in recent days. Nationwide protests against the murder of a young female cultural activist, Sohagi Jahan Tonu, whose body was found in a cantonment in early March, and the investigation which proceeded at a snail’s pace with no arrests and allegations of cover-up, is a case in point. The resistance of the local people to a proposed coal-fired electricity plant in Banshkhali in Chittagong, which left four innocent villagers dead, shows how quickly situations can escalate. There is a prevailing impression among citizens that the hacking of the central bank in February was an inside job or there was an effort to cover up, because it was only addressed after being reported in the foreign press almost a month after the incident.

To discuss these issues in the wake of Samad’s murder is unfortunate. There have been enough deaths in the past years to highlight these issues. The lessons are clear:

That intolerance is breeding intolerance in society; that freedom of speech enshrined in the constitution should be applicable to all — to bloggers who criticise religious extremism, to those who express their religious faith and to others who condemn state-perpetrated violence; that murder is a criminal act regardless of the twisted justifications provided for and whoever perpetrates it; that militancy should be addressed in earnest as a matter of national security; that the extant culture of impunity which discriminates between perpetrators of crimes based on their political identity must be ended; and that the absence of unfettered democracy hurts all citizens. Bangladeshi leadership and citizens can ignore these lessons only at their peril.