Bangladesh is slowly being riven apart
When his autopsy had drawn to a close, the doctors at the Forensic Department of Dhaka Medical College declared that there were signs of fatal strikes to the head of Faisal Arefin Dipan; his spinal cord had been severed. Dipan was the owner of Jagriti Prokashoni, a publishing house in Bangladesh. He was hacked to death a month ago, at his office in the heart of one of the capital’s busiest book hubs, Aziz Market. But unlike previous attacks on secular writers, this was a crime against their advocate; Dipan’s death followed that of the author he had once published, Avijit Roy. Roy was slain in February, one of four to have faced death this year. A local group, claiming to be a franchise of Daesh, Ansarullah Bangla Team had asserted responsibility for Dipan’s death. If the machete-hacked disfigured body of a publisher says anything, it is probably that the threat of terror is real and increasing.
But there is no easy binary in Bangladesh that says: secular government-good, religious oppositionists-bad. Whilst the attacks were against secularists, the government, also secular, was already under fire for sponsoring state terrorism elsewhere.
Yet in a subcontinent where sectarian violence is no stranger, Bangladesh has long been notable for its moderation in all things religious. This is now under threat with the potential for devastating local and regional ramifications. Furthermore, that such violence against a declared target can take place in broad daylight is unprecedented. From being a devout and temperate Muslim nation, where religious coexistence spans centuries, how could Bangladesh have reached this state?
In a widely discredited 2014 election, the current Bangladesh Awami League (BAL)-led government of Bangladesh was voted in. “The Bangladesh government failed to prosecute security forces for serious abuses including killings, disappearances, and arbitrary arrests,” Human Rights Watch said in its 2015 World Report, released on Jan. 29. The election occurred amid violence, mass opposition arrests and allegations of ruling party vote rigging. Trust in the process was so low that all leading opposition parties boycotted the polls, leaving a large section of the population violently disenfranchised. Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. A government of deeply questionable mandate rules.
Meanwhile the BAL-led government has severely clamped down on any perceived threat to its rule. This includes the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Islamist Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami (JI). The latter is often considered a kingmaker; a party that can form the government based on its choice of coalition bedfellows.
Under the BAL clampdown, however, JI’s scope for mainstream political participation was severely curtailed. Following their election, the BAL-led government arrested JI’s top brass and placed them on trial for committing alleged war crimes 44 years ago, in the events of the 1971 war of secession with Pakistan. The U.N. as well as rights groups, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have issued strident condemnations of the kangaroo courts, with the latter noting the “serious travesty of justice” that has played out. Witnesses for the defense have been kidnapped or killed. Nonetheless, three senior JI leaders have been executed to date, including JI Secretary-General Ali Ahsan Mujahid, along with top BNP leader Salauddin Quader Chowdhury, leaving the nation scarred. Meanwhile the remaining leadership of JI has been forced into hiding or exile.
At the grassroots level, thousands of Islamist activists have been jailed and subjected to rife custodial torture, while hundreds have been killed by police shootings with many others disappearing. Villages sympathetic to Islamists have faced major paramilitary raids, terrorizing residents and forcing all male residents to flee. Women and children have not been spared either and have been subjected to raids, arrests, sexual violence and murder. The BAL government has also ordered that measures be taken against JI affiliated institutions, including banks and educational entities. In its public statements, however, JI has maintained its commitment to democratic processes, condemning all acts of violence against secular bloggers among others. Often the government has been quick to blame JI. But JI itself has demanded a U.N.-led investigation into the murder of bloggers, given the general level of mistrust emanating from the government’s blame-game.
The narrowing democratic space coupled with repression has had a more lingering, sinister effect though; the vacuum of civil discourse is now a fertile breeding ground for extremism among the oppressed. State violence is the bread and butter of an extremist group. Nothing works better for recruitment than repression, alienation and victimhood. As Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution has argued, on these terms Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El Sisi’s regime is a gift to Daesh. Growing empirical terrorism studies show that more repression leads to a greater urge for vengeance and violence.
Bangladesh is no outlier in this regard. WikiLeaks, the organization, revealed that disgruntled members from mainstream Islamist parties in Bangladesh have indeed previously broken away to join extremist groups. Daesh, in its magazine, has excommunicated mainstream Islamists, including Bangladesh JI from the realm of Islam, and called for a ‘revival of Jihad’ in Bangladesh. The ongoing state-led purge of political opponents, termed a “partisan witch hunt” by The Economist, is then music to the ears of groups like Daesh. And while mainstream Islamists like JI may repeatedly voice their commitment to peaceful democracy, they have little say over those who break away from their ranks seeking less democratic outlets.
The Awami League was seemingly able to sell the idea that despite having no mandate, it is the necessary evil whose primary function will be to crush any extremist threat to ensure stability. But it is not yet clear who’s buying. Never before in Bangladesh’s history has the sense of insecurity from violent extremism been more tangible, real and felt across the nation. Indeed, the regime’s vengeance against the public in general and against mainstream Islamists in particular is pouring fuel into the very fire that radicals are desperate to kindle.
If repression continues, it will continue to breed a ready pool of disenfranchised young people who could easily be seduced to respond to the ubiquitous invitation from Daesh et al. Terrorism studies have established that the steps that could prevent radicalization include: a space for moderates, restoration of democratic processes and more civil liberties. Otherwise, a bleak future may await the once revered nation of poets Abdul Hakim or in our time, Shamsur Rahman. As former U.S. President John F. Kennedy once said: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”
An earlier version of this article listed Bangladesh as Rabindranath Tagore’s birthplace. The error is regretted.