By Mastura Tasnim
July 14, 2016
July 1, 2016: The day our way of life changed, perhaps forever.
In admitting that, to ourselves and to our loved ones, we give a lot away to the perpetrators of this inhumane act. We let them get away with changing us, shackling our freedom and mutating our definition of love and trust.
That's why so many avoid that view. Nothing has changed, they exclaim. We will celebrate life with so much colour and joy and heart, that the earth will tremble with our shared laughter. And that is good and necessary and what the victims would want us to do – fight against the ideology of hate that their killers preach. But perhaps more than anything, the victims would want us to get the real message behind the veil of terror.
It is no coincidence that the people they chose to represent them in this vile act were young, well-off and educated. Neither is it coincidence, or generosity of heart, that led them to spare the Muslims and locals. No terrorist organisation has ever flinched from causing more deaths than necessary, there's no controlled radius of destruction. When the well-spoken assassins treated the locals politely, in an almost refined manner, when they spoke of the importance of prayer and good deeds, they did so with the full knowledge of what would happen when the stories got out about them.
Make no mistake of it - the attackers were not leaders. They were pawns. And this fundamental fact is important in understanding the purpose of the people behind the scene. Because, unlike every attack that foreshadowed what happened in Gulshan, this was carefully orchestrated to appear as an act of terror by the elite against the elite.
So when you find out the identities of these terrorists, the likes of Nibras and Sameh - bright, young, privileged - two very different reactions emerge in society.
The vast majority of people, who do not belong to the elite and whose daily lives have nothing to do with foreigners, care less about the event. They simply don't feel as invested, and even when they do, they perceive it as a 'rich issue' - English medium kids with unstable family lives and too much free time. The average Bangladeshi, with their daily struggles, at best brushes off the attacks as follies of the rich, or at worst, empathise with the anti-Western sentiments of the terrorists. Of all the people, they seem to be the only ones who understand the burden of living in a post-colonial subcontinent.
The second, smaller and relatively well off, section of society are shocked. They move through the stages of grief - denial ('the perpetrators aren't like us at all, not really'), anger ('how dare their families and friends not take greater check of them'), bargaining ('maybe if we all reach out, they will respond') and acceptance ('we can't reach all of them'). Fact is, there is at least one person in your acquaintance list who read the reactions of hostages and is wondering right now about the legitimacy of the claims they made. One person, slightly frustrated with their life, with an internet connection and a bad day - that's all it takes at this point. The terrorists know that, we realise that and that's what depresses us.
But it doesn't stop there, it makes us second guess each other. The people who go to places like Holey Artisan are the policymakers of tomorrow. Indeed, if you're reading this, you are likely one of the politicians, the businessmen, the bureaucrats and the diplomats of future Bangladesh, and if any terrorist organisation can make you question the legitimacy of foreigners on our soil or enforce laws that clamp down on people's religious rights - that is a victory for them. And that's exactly what they want from you.
Not only to fear the rise of militancy but to try and counteract it in extreme ways - such as witch hunting people with religious leanings, scouring people's social media data for clues and, shaming family and friends who have tried everything they could. Banning specialised channels. If, among the many you subconsciously suppress, even one should find solace in the arms of those organisations - that is the next weapon launched against us.
Bangladesh has expected this for a long time. From the churches to the pagodas - the religious sanctuaries we have burned have left entire communities broken. They have suffered the brunt of nameless militancy and lost, but this is the first time that the terrorists have a face - they want to be known, to be shared, to inspire.
They know that this will work because of the way we are as a country. We are secular, without being tolerant. You will cheerily attend other religious festivals - then mutter stereotype reinforcing comments when minorities aren't around. We are family-oriented and conservative. You were taught to respect and love your elders, but never taught how to talk to them. Above all, we are a poor country, getting richer. You have heard the struggles your parents went through, and so your internal turmoil is not worthy of recognition, even to yourself.
That is a breeding ground of insecurity and lack of meaning. That is why terrorists deliver an unreal reward - a slice of heaven - for a puny worldly sacrifice - your life. Is it so hard to see now how easy it is, in our unquestioning, non confrontational society? We would rather hug someone than disagree in theology or spirituality with near ones. We would rather have a fatwa than a tea stall debate about religion.
This collective mindset is why our way of life needs to change, for the better. From an ethics course in school to an opening up of family formalities, every sphere of life needs to accommodate this shift. It's no longer Us vs. Them; no otherisation exists. We are our own protectors and our own villains. So we must speak for making safe spaces around us for discourse, for religious practices, for non religious practices.
If your newly religious friend feels compelled to leave hangouts because there is no place to pray nearby, make room. Ask your imam to speak against extremism, reward him with donations for being kind and moderate. If you're a teacher or a student, introduce discussions in the classroom. Talk about uncomfortable issues, agree to disagree. Speak.
This cultural shift needs to be represented in every part of society - any section you leave out, is a section weak to our enemies. Educate the uneducated; soothe the mentally ill, talk amongst each other. Even then, many will slip through the cracks of our society, but if one man is swayed away from the path, if you rescue one person from the clutches of extremism, you not only save his life but many more.
So fight against the message they want you to accept - that the elite are callous, that foreigners are the root of the problem, that there is no incorruptible mind. Don't build walls, build a future. A future where we are aware and fighting every day, in every way.
Most importantly, listen. Listen to the voice of dissent, and learn to accept it - no, to embrace it. Otherwise, all may be lost already.