By S.Mubashir Noor For New Age Islam
10 March 2016
British newspaper the Daily Mail reported on March 2 that Bangladesh’s supreme court is reviewing a petition to remove Islam as the state religion. It will decide whether former President Muhammad Ershad’s 1988 decision to designate Islam as such was illegal. A hearing scheduled for late March takes place against the backdrop of rising extremism in Bangladesh and the emergence of a local Islamic State (IS) faction. Christians, Hindus and Shiite Muslims alike were targeted through 2015 by way of machete attacks and homemade bombs.
Most recently on February 21, a Hindu priest named Jogeshwar Roy was hacked to death by fanatics in Panchgarh district. His murder followed similarly fatal strikes on several prominent bloggers belonging to religious minorities. IS soon claimed responsibility for Roy’s death through social media, tweeting that, “Soldiers of the Caliphate” had “liquidated the priest.” Police officials, however, rubbished IS claims as they have all through last year, stressing homegrown militants and not international jihadists were responsible for the recent killing spree. Is the government in denial?
On October 24, 2015, bombs went off outside a Shia shrine in Dhaka on the day of Ashura, leaving one dead and over a hundred injured. A few weeks earlier, unknown assailants had gunned down Kunio Hoshi, an elderly Japanese citizen, in Rangpur district. Hoshi’s murder came a few days after Italian aid worker Cesare Tavella fell to a hail of bullets in Dhaka’s diplomatic neighborhood.
The SITE Intelligence Group, a jihadist watchdog focused on online snooping, revealed that IS had accepted responsibility for all three hits. Given what we know so far, snowballing extremism in Bangladesh traces back to one of two options. These attacks were either perpetrated by rebranded radicals, or political saboteurs. Let us start with the first option. Do IS admissions of responsibility fit the profile? On the surface, no.
IS prefers flashy ways to kill, like high-yield car bombs and elaborately staged executions. Moreover, the militant group expertly uses social media to make itself look invincible, thereby attracting wannabe jihadists. Still, there are rhetorical commonalities between the original IS and its supposed Bangladeshi lieges. Hoshi and Tavella died because they belonged to a “crusader coalition,” while IS bombed the Ashura rally because mourners there were “polytheists.”
It does not surprise, however, that this uptick in domestic militancy coincides with the Awaami League’s (AL) years in office. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajid is an avowed secularist who opponents often accuse of using the Islamist card to scare up votes. Hasina has also gone after alleged war criminals with a vengeance, many of them leaders of Bangladesh’s Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) party. The country’s International Crimes Tribunal has already tried and hanged two JI patriarchs Abdul Kader Mullah and Mohammad Qamaruzzaman, sparking countrywide protests by incensed partisans.
Political sabotage, the other possible motive, has its roots in Hasina’s autocratic rule. Longtime rival Khalida Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) is of course the prime suspect, but most of Hasina’s political opponents and the free press are chafing under her dictatorship. Mahfuz Anam, editor of Dhaka’s Daily Star newspaper, explained to a British interviewer recently: “I think you have a phrase for the prime minister in the UK? First among equals. Here it’s different. Hasina is first. No equals.”
Nevertheless, we cannot dismiss Zia’s hand in recent events for obvious reasons. Her bitter political rivalry with Hasina stretches back over two decades and Zia led the opposition boycott of national elections in 2014 for fears of rigging. Hasina, who thereafter cakewalked to victory, now worries Zia is trying to discredit her government and blames the BNP for “supporting terrorism and launching killing sprees across Bangladesh.”
Her case for accusing Zia is twofold. First, Hasina points to the BNP’s long political ties to the JI and its militant subculture that cannot stomach a secular Bangladesh. Hasina believes Zia is egging on these disgruntled Islamists to ruin her government’s image. Two, Hasina claims that recent acts of terrorism are Zia’s version of payback for Dhaka upholding the death sentence of senior BNP leader Salauddin Chowdhury.
At the end of the day, the loss is Bangladesh’s to bear and there will be economic consequences if such attacks continue. The country’s export-driven economy, especially the garments sector, could stall if new orders drop significantly because foreign executives are too afraid to make the trip. Previous episodes of rioting in 2014 and 2015 have already dented Bangladesh’s tourism industry with hundreds of booking cancellations.
That said, if recent attacks do signal the arrival of IS in Bangladesh or a local rebranding outside of the BNP’s sphere of influence, then it is imperative that Hasina and Zia cease fire and find a way to coexist for the greater good. A weak central government does neither any favors, since as Syria and Iraq have shown us, this exact situation first allows IS to foment unrest and then start taking over territory.
S.Mubashir Noor is Freelance journalist
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