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Bangladesh: A Nation Searches for Its Soul

By Syed Badrul Ahsan

06 July 2016

Bangladesh is today engaged in a search for its lost soul. Murder and mayhem have always been a part of its history, right from the time its people were subjected to genocide by the Pakistan Army and all the way to the systematic killings of liberals by Islamist terrorists over the past three years. Three and a half years after its liberation from Pakistan, the country saw founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, four leading lights of the 1971 government-in-exile, and an entire team of iconic freedom fighters done to death through assassinations.

In an ironic twist to history, Bangladesh had the dubious reputation of passing into the political control of military and quasi-military regimes that blatantly rehabilitated the very elements that, in collaboration with Pakistan’s soldiers, had actively participated in the murder and rape of fellow Bengalis. Many of these collaborationist elements even served as ministers in the nation they had so violently opposed in 1971. Five of these collaborators, eventually tried for crimes against humanity, were to be executed by the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. There is little question that the trials and executions, 45 years after liberation, brought some relief to Bangladeshis.

But the search for Bangladesh’s soul is yet to end after the murder of 20 diners and two policemen at the Holey Artisan Restaurant in Dhaka’s elite Gulshan area on Friday at the hands of young Bengali men under the macabre influence of Islamic State. Of those murdered 17 were foreigners, including Italians, Japanese and an Indian. The other three were two young Bengali women and a young Bengali man. In a murder spree lasting 12 hours, the terrorists ruthlessly butchered their victims before the commando action early Saturday morning ended the siege. One of those suspected of being a terrorist was taken alive and is under treatment for injuries received in the commando operation.

In this season of monsoon rains, Bangladesh’s spirit is subdued and despondent. There are a good number of reasons, and many questions are yet to be answered. The government, that over the years doggedly put it across that there is no IS presence in the country, that indeed the killings since 2013 of 49 individuals — bloggers, writers, publishers, Hindus, Christians, secular Muslims and foreigners — was the work of home-grown terrorists, remains adamant that it was local terrorists who were responsible for what happened. The mood of denial persists, with ministers and ruling party loyalists pushing the government line that IS and Al Qaeda don’t exist in Bangladesh. A new notion that Pakistan was behind last Friday’s tragedy, helped of course by its agents in Bangladesh, is being peddled. Not many are amused.

The soul-searching goes on. This revolves around the question of the slow degrees through which radical Islam is making inroads into the country. The slide began soon after the violent change of government in August 1975, when secular Bengali nationalism was jettisoned by the country’s first military regime in favour of a so-called Bangladeshi nationalism, patterned carefully on the lines of the discredited 1940s’ two-nation theory of the Muslim League. Bangladesh’s second military regime then consolidated the hold of neo-communalism through arbitrarily decreeing Islam as the state religion.

Move to the mid-2000s. In August 2005, coordinated terror by outfits like Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) saw explosives being detonated simultaneously in 63 of the country’s 64 districts. Later, the emergence of Hizbut Tahrir through the recruitment of young men educated at elitist private universities only extended the reach of Islamist fundamentalism. The then government, led by Begum Khaleda Zia, Bangladesh Nationalist Party chief, however, insisted that religious fundamentalism had no presence in Bangladesh. Denial was getting to be a pattern in the corridors of power. This denial remains, today, the template on which the present Awami League government defines the clear acts of Islamist terror that have undermined the country’s secular ethos. The killings on Friday were the last straw that left a nation reeling from wounds that will take very long to heal.

It was not merely lives that were brought to a sudden end in Dhaka last week. It was Bangladesh’s global image, never very positive at the best of times, which took a dangerous nosedive. One doesn’t now expect foreigners, especially diplomats, to be reassured by the government’s pledges of “zero tolerance” for terrorism, for these pledges haven’t been followed through with decisive action. Indeed, the American ambassador, in comments that are as telling as they are worrying, has indicated Bangladesh on its own cannot tackle religious terrorism.

The consequences arising from the Holey Artisan killings are only too obvious. A Japanese firm has already banned all travel by its employees to Bangladesh. Shinzo Abe is outraged at the killings of his citizens. One doesn’t therefore; need much wisdom to imagine the responses of other global leaders to the situation. One is quite clear too about the probable damage the IS presence has caused investment and foreign trade. The finance minister suggested that foreign investment will not, as a result of Friday’s tragedy, be affected. No one takes his remarks seriously.

The soul-searching goes on. To what extent will the government remain in denial mode? And will it be in a position to prevent future assaults on lives given the inefficiency of its police and security forces? In a society deeply divided along politically partisan, almost tribal lines, can the ruling party and Opposition join forces to retrieve the ideas and values lost to these medieval forces operating on barbaric notions of life?

In this monsoon, deep sadness drips, incessantly and insistently, from the heart of Bangladesh.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is associate editor of Dhaka’s Daily Observer and a columnist with online newspaper