The people of Bangladesh have always been religious and yet very tolerant and inclusive. The extremism we are witnessing today is a much more recent phenomenon. Indeed, we can trace it back to roughly the last one and half decades when the first signs of organised religious extremism started manifesting itself in the political landscape. The debate is still on as to the identification and roots of those who committed the attack on July 1 on the Holey Artisan bakery; with the government claiming them to be purely home-grown terrorists with no foreign links, while foreign media state that some of these groups owe allegiance to foreign entities like the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. However, what we are experiencing today has much to do with the fight between secularists and religious extremists and the attack on the Gulshan bakery merely brought to the fore, the deep ideological divides that fracture the political landscape of the country.
The Shahbagh movement saw the birth of a new young voice of the secular forces and pro-liberation elements in support of the war crimes trial. But their demand of nothing short of death penalties for the accused, the confiscation by the State of all properties and business interests owned directly (or indirectly) by JI took many by surprise. However this worked towards the government's advantage. A backlash came in early February 2013 with the assassination of blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider who was a known figure in the Shahbagh movement. Indeed, this started off a long line of assassinations of writers, bloggers and freethinkers. The State failed to respond decisively at the time. Because it had a bigger problem at hand with the appearance of a little known group known as Hefazat-e-Islami that marched on Dhaka with a congregation of some 100,000 people. The leadership of the group put forth a 13-point demand that included amongst others, the quashing of the Shahbagh movement. Hefazat-e-Islami was chased out of Dhaka. However, in time the night vigils at Shahbagh that had become the rallying point for people supporting the war crimes tribunal was effectively broken up and allowed to dissipate.
The Hefazat incident was a turning point which effectively showed that the State could be challenged and that secularists were not as powerful as had been thought to be. Chasing Hefazat out of Dhaka was the only option for the government as the group had squatted down in the middle of the business district with some 100,000 people with the world watching. But, the decision to placate Hefazat by giving in to their demands on the question of the Shahbagh movement proved costly. Secularists were flabbergasted when the State failed to go after the murderers of the so-called “atheist bloggers” who were being picked off one by one with impunity. Indeed, in the following months and years, religious extremists killed many such writers and went after publishers too. What was perhaps not expected was the slow response from the government in apprehending the killers. Instead the secularists and the free thinkers that Hefazat wanted silenced because they were deemed to be “anti-Islam”, were asked to show restraint in their writings that were deemed to be hurtful of religious sentiments. It was a major setback for not only those who had been witness to the war of liberation but the generations of people who had come after '71 and were imbued with their Bangali identity. The Shahbagh movement being decimated, the State found itself between a rock and a hard place, unable to please either the secularist camp or the increasingly belligerent extremists who were and remain bent on not just the removal of the government, but to wipe out the secularist nature of the State.
It is in this backdrop that Bangladesh today faces a major terrorist problem. We are learning about new outfits every day and operatives are being caught with sophisticated weaponry. What is disturbing is that foreign nationals are also being nabbed. The information being gleaned from suspects and their laptops is that there is external finance being funnelled in through informal channels such as hundi. But the most worrying development is the discovery of bomb making material and knowhow amongst some of those arrested. The advent of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) point to a serious escalation in terrorist plans and begs the question: Are our forces equipped to combat this threat, and more importantly are they trained to fight this type of warfare?
Placating the militants will not help; there cannot be any deal with extremists because of the simple fact that they believe that ideas like democracy is blasphemy. The war crimes trial may have contributed to some of the events we see unfolding, but definitely it was not the main cause, which is rooted in history of the Middle East and western machinations. The fight against terror requires a strong response. Awami League needs to reach out to the huge segment of the population that is not part of the party that includes the intelligentsia, professionals and civic society amongst others.
The other reality is that the BNP, being the second largest party in Bangladesh cannot be left out of the process if the government is serious about launching an all-out anti extremism drive. However, for that to become remotely possible BNP has to sever its links with JI. The formal electoral alliance between these two parties goes back to the national elections in 2001which the AL lost and JI for the first time in its history, had seats in the BNP-led coalition cabinet. Precisely what political dividends does BNP hope to gain today through its association with a party that is widely regarded by the majority of the electorate as having participated in the killings of millions during the war of independence and where some of the most violent jihadi groups active today on Bangladeshi soil are offshoots of JI? The threat posed by jihadists is real and pragmatism dictates a new chapter in politics be written.
The writer is Assistant Editor, The Daily Star.