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How the Bangladesh Government Helped Create the Wolf It Warned Against

By Rumi Ahmed


When five young men stormed upscale Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka, massacred 20 guests and took the rest of the dinner time crowd hostage at gunpoint, the attackers had a very clear mission. They aimed at inflicting maximal fear among foreigners, among the non-Muslims and among the women who were not wearing traditional Islamic garb. The message was clear: Bangladesh cannot conduct business with the international community, foreign aid workers will be discouraged from operating in the country, women's and religious freedom will not be tolerated. That night at Holey Artisan Bakery, war was announced on the devout but peace-and tolerant people of Bangladesh. The seeds, though, were sown a while ago.

Since its bloody inception in 1971, Bangladesh for the majority of its existence maintained a status quo political power structure of two centrist parties (the centre-right-leaning Bangladesh Nationalist Party or BNP and the current ruling Bangladesh Awami League, which veers to the centre left), a bunch of religious elements on the far right and an assortment of fragmented leftist outlets.

Although an overwhelming majority of Bangladesh is conservative and religious, for over the last half a century, Bangladeshis have traditionally shunned religion-based political entities during elections. However, they have always accepted outfits preaching nonviolent political Islam. Analysis of election data will show that political Islam commanded a static 5-8% popular support. The prevailing political structures which allowed open politics for religious entities helped keep this population busy with mainstream politics and away from underground extremism.

Each time such a space was eliminated, the nation faced political crisis. Deviation from the status quo in January 1975, when democracy and press freedom were killed by an overnight decree and the country turned into a communist-style one-party state, Bangladesh fell into a bloody political turmoil. Finally a new political order, which reset the country back to the status quo, brought Bangladesh back from near disintegration, and the BNP and Awami League dominated the political theatre. The fractured left continued to exist as minor contenders. The Islamic parties -- with one dominant player slowly emerging in the form of the Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh -- maintained its traditional 5-8% support base among the population in Bangladesh's electoral politics.

However, a few years ago, Bangladesh again saw a major turn away from the political status quo. Since the current ruling party Awami League came to power through an election conducted under a military-sponsored caretaker government in 2007, it has steadily restricted the space for democracy, free speech and freedom of congregation. A time-tested system of conducting national elections under a technocrat-led caretaker government was abolished, forcing the major opposition party to boycott the national election. Even the local government elections were blatant shows of the state's clampdown on democracy, where even the police forces were seen stuffing ballot boxes.

The government of Prime Minister Hasina returned to power in a boycotted national election. More than 50% of the MPS were elected unopposed in this election. Since returning to power, Ms. Hasina seemed hell-bent on removing the last shred of democracy in Bangladesh. The demise of democracy at the hands of Ms. Hasina echoed what happened in Bangladesh in January of 1975 when a bloody coup killed the whole family of the current PM. With the return of an Awami league autocracy, many observers saw history repeating itself and feared and August 1975-like Military takeover.

But now it seems that history is repeating itself in a unique and strange way. It would not be unreasonable to assume that the recent spate of Islamist violence is a direct result of the elimination of the political status quo that Bangladesh traditionally is based on. Bangladesh is used to a centre right government alternating with a centre left rule and did well in preventing rise of Islamic extremism during the four decades of its existence. The Islamist organizations participated in mainstream politics of street movements and elections which kept its activists, supporters and sympathizers away from extremist activities.

The change in the political landscape over the last several years has made it impossible for the main centre right political party (BNP) to function; Islamist political organizations are similarly restricted. As these political activists fell victim to relentless state repression and pushed out of every open political space in Bangladesh, hundreds of thousands of young activists and students became vulnerable to be manipulated by extremists. Also, a formal ban of an Islamist organization known as Hizbut Tahrir, which also envisioned a pan-Islamic caliphate, resulted in resentment. Its existing and potential members were further drawn to violent Islamist ideas, making them ripe for recruitment by organizations such as ISIS. The profiles of the perpetrators in some recent extremist attacks in Bangladesh support this claim.

One tool the current ruling party used to achieve its goal of an absolute oligarchy was its decade-long campaign for the elimination of anti-independence forces from Bangladesh. During Bangladesh's bloody struggle of independence in 1971, a fringe element of society mostly composed of Islamic parties like the Jamaat-e Islami and Muslim league, who opted to support a united Pakistan, colluded with the Pakistani army in many war crimes. Since returning to power for the second time, current Prime Minister Ms. Hasina made it a priority to hang a number of her political opponents on charges of taking a stand against the creation of Bangladesh and committing war crimes during the 1971 war of independence. So far, about a dozen death sentences have been handed down and five politicians already executed.

 International observers have characterized the trial to be deeply flawed. Any political party deemed to be in the way of the ruling party's dream oligarchy was dubbed as anti-liberation, war crime suspect and hence deserving of immediate banishment. The characters and reputations of any person (whether a political leader, an intellectual or a war hero) was deemed to be a threat to the ruling coterie were accused, tried, convicted and executed by the strong government-supporting media. Meanwhile, extremely powerful and unaccountable pro-government law enforcement bodies and the activist judiciary took care of the physical executions of opposition leaders with Islamist leanings.

For the last few decades, the whole nation was tilting at the windmills of anti-liberation forces. Fear mongering reached new heights.

This highly successful campaign to physically eliminate perceived anti-independence forces had the support of the vocal urban class. This educated folks saw this as a victory in the class war. The witch hunt in the name of sorting out so-called anti-independence entities and the coordinated media trial became so rampant and powerful that even the most powerful opposition voices and most outspoken social activists kept quiet about for fear of being vilified as anti-liberation themselves. As a result of this witch hunt, major religion-based political forces of Bangladesh, which should have been kept busy in the open democratic and electoral process, were pushed underground. It's not a leap to assume that some activists found succour in following the path of extremism.

For the last few decades, the whole nation was tilting at the windmills of anti-liberation forces. Fear mongering reached new heights. For its petty interests, the ruling party cried wolf -- with accusations of anti-independence proclivities -- again and again.

And the wolf is finally here. My Hindu friend says that for the first time in his life, he is afraid of going to the temple. By blogger friend now is afraid of blogging. My atheist friend no longer publicly expresses his views on religion. He is scared to death. Rural people, who loved to congregate on fields to celebrate Eid, are afraid to do so. My female friends are painfully careful about how they dress. Too Western a look and they may be risking death. Dhaka residents, who loved their KFC or Pizza Hut outings, now fear going to restaurants and cafes.

Finally, the anti-liberation forces are here. Our freedom is under serious threat, but not at the hands of the usual vilified suspects.

All these things -- freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom to congregate for leisurely pursuits – have all been suddenly taken away in one stroke by a handful of brainwashed assailants.

For a long time, the emotions of the general population were exploited to benefit a political oligarchy. The urban folks collectively cried wolf regarding the anti-liberation forces coming to attack them. And finally, the anti-liberation forces are here. Our freedom is under serious threat, but not at the hands of the usual vilified suspects.