The challenge before Bangladesh
The Indian subcontinent was partitioned in 1947 into India and Pakistan on the basis of religion. Bangladesh was born 31 years later, in 1971, on the basis of nationalism, democracy and secularism. Democracy we lost first, in the mid-1970s and then in the early 1980s, and are yet to recover fully. Secularism, which was on a gradual decline, now faces its most severe threat.
As a freedom fighter I remember sitting glued to a one-band radio on the evening of Dec. 16, 1971, along with others in a guerrilla camp, listening to the surrender ceremony of the Pakistani army to the joint command in Dhaka and shouting “Joy Bangla” (Victory to Bangla). I was certain that my new country would be a place of prosperity, freedom and religious harmony. Never again would a Muslim or a Hindu lose his or her life for religion.
But on the night of July 1, as most inhabitants of Dhaka stayed up watching the hostage tragedy on TV unfold and hoping that the end would not be as tragic as we feared, I could not recognize the country to whose birth I, with millions of others, had contributed.
Bangladesh—the people, government, civil society, intelligentsia, media, etc.—is still reeling from the events of July 1 that saw the killing of 17 foreigners and three Bangladeshis. Two police personnel also died while trying to fight the terrorists in the first rescue attempt. It was not only the act of cold-blooded murder but also its bestial nature and the age of the perpetrators—between 20 and 28—that gave rise to questions as to where the country has come in terms of values and beliefs in its post-independence period.
As a people, we firmly believed that our culture and history, especially the syncretic Islam that we practice, and our religiosity that blended our diversity and devotion to produce a living culture of tolerance and openness, could protect us from the extremism afflicting many other countries where Islam is the dominant religion. We were so thoroughly and tragically wrong.
Our government made the cardinal mistake of being in denial from the start, thinking that any admission, either of the seriousness of the initial killing of bloggers, atheists and LGBT activists, or of any outside link, will provide an excuse for the international community to label us terrorist or a terror-prone country.
The Bengali intellectuals, known for their anti-colonial and anti-imperialistic struggles, for being the first to raise their voice against oppression, and for their uncompromising stance against extremism and for secularism, appear to have failed to grasp what was happening. Instead of making a robust warning of the fundamentalist threat, they allowed themselves to be sucked into partisan politics.
Civil society, especially the grassroots-based NGOs, appear also to have failed to grasp the spread of extremism. For ordinarily they should have been among the first to sense what was happening on the ground in the remote areas.
The media must also accept their share of the blame, for not challenging the government’s narrative that the initial killings were “isolated” incidents and that everything was under control. The prime minister repeated for years her policy of “zero tolerance” of extremism, while it grew under the administration’s very feet. A few who tried to project a different story were branded as trying to damage the country’s image and for working for interests inimical to it.
The challenge now before us is to determine how deep and wide is the spread of extremist ideologies, and how entrenched is the threat.
The first question is where this extremism is coming from. The madrassas, the religious schools, which have generally been considered the breeding ground of fundamentalist ideals? But the killings at Holey Artisan Bakery showed that only one of the five kids that carried out the massacre came from a madrassa. These kids are from the middle and upper middle class, and studied at expensive English medium schools and private universities; one even studied abroad. They were boisterous kids in T-shirts and jeans, hanging out like youngsters do anywhere else in the world. What went wrong with them, and when?
There is no denying that the overall impact of religion in general has significantly risen in the country. More women are seen in religious clothing and men sporting beards. Friday prayers are far more widely participated in than ever before. Religion, no doubt, is in the air.
There is of course no correlation between rising religiosity and extremism, but it is also true that there has been an overall corrosion of secular principles in Bangladesh. It is a fact that when bloggers, atheists, “freethinkers” and LGBT activists were being murdered, there was a silent murmur that since they had criticized religion and professed not to believe in any, they somehow deserved to be “punished.”
We are still to gauge the full impact of terrorism on our lives. But the “normal” is no longer so. Personal lives are restrained, social lives significantly narrowed, and public gatherings few. Shopping malls and restaurants are almost empty; roadside shopping is down. Factories are running and our major export, the readymade garment sector, is still holding in terms of order. But most buyers are refusing to come to Bangladesh. Many countries and foreign businesses now consider Bangladesh a nonfamily post.
The good news is that our government appears to have snapped out of denial mode and, by the large-scale anti-militancy operation that we are seeing, it appears we have taken the threat seriously. However, so far the moves have been by the police and other law enforcers. Those familiar with religion-based extremist movements say that these are not mere law-and-order problems. The challenge is to “win hearts and minds,” for which there must be motivational campaigns alongside the use of force.
Bangladesh has a long history of resilience and of beating the odds. From a country of disasters we became a country of achievers, almost always proving our skeptics wrong. I deeply believe that in fighting extremism, we can be equally successful. The balance between religion and culture in our society, our unique blend of Islamic heritage and Bengali heritage, our fundamental nature of tolerance, our thousand-year tradition of openness and acceptance of the “other,” our rich heritage of political struggle—all have prepared us well to resist a fundamentalist and extremist upheaval.
It is what makes us unique as Bangladeshis; in the end, it will help us win in this battle against extremism.
Mahfuz Anam is editor and publisher of The Daily Star, Bangladesh.
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