The actual and potential damage caused by religious militancy or the so-called 'Islamist violence' can no longer be brushed aside in our parlance. Owing to factors both internal and external, this writer believes that even the pragmatic objective of marginalising religious militancy would actually be an awesome task, not to speak of eliminating religiously motivated violence. The reasons for such a view are grounded in reality.
One has to note that the fearsome Bangladeshi youths of the Gulshan Holey Artisan Bakery attack who did not carry the communally driven 1947 partition luggage, resorted to unprecedented violent actions to allegedly realise political and perhaps divine goals. The unsettling dimension of the gory incident at Gulshan is that the attackers and their guides and the masterminds reportedly have had the benefit of better education to enable them to grasp the realities of power equation and the compulsions of international geo-politics. It is thus puzzling as to why should Bangladeshi Muslims, howsoever small in number, commit themselves so completely to carry out the ISIS agenda. Does the suffering of coreligionists in near or distant lands propel them to such repulsive zealotry?
The external factors supposedly causing the militant actions are, practically speaking, beyond our competence to effectively engage in. However, to fruitfully undertake de-radicalisation and counter-radicalisation processes, one needs to understand the Muslim mind. The so-called militant Islamist groups look at the underdog position of Muslims in various regional conflicts as a direct result of western policies presided over by Washington. The concentration is on public policy operating in the domain of relations between the Muslims and the West that are considered as the source of militancy.
A predominant part of the so-called Islamist militant view is that the military power of the West is the key to its perceived arrogance, its aggression against Muslim societies and its connivance with Israel for occupation of the West Bank and its complacency about Russia's oppressive policies towards Chechnya. The radicals argue that if power is the way in for the West, power is the way out for Muslims. The focus is on the use of power in pursuit of policy. The suspicion is that a section of Bangladeshi youths have been converted to this approach in varying degrees.
Observers are of the view that what is required is a policy on the conflicts affecting Muslim countries and not a policy on Islam as some interested quarters would like to hint at.
We have to admit that over the years while the Bangladeshi elite has represented the process of war against terror, significant sections of Bangladeshi society have been exposed to the radicalisation of Islamic thought and action.
Reference needs to be made to the 'Tablighi Jamaat' that has substantial appeal and significant mass following in our society. This organisation is devoted to the non-militant activity of discussion and preaching. In practice, it aims at urging Muslims to observe the basic tenets of Islam, practice Islamic morality and do good things in life.
The Tabligh movement has attracted persons from the prosperous sections of the society such as retired armed forces officers, civil bureaucrats, wealthy businessmen and professional middle class in general. Its annual grand assembly at Tongi on the outskirts of the capital city attracts nearly two million people. The contribution of this movement is the cultivation of an Islamic idiom, which provides the overall philosophical framework for discussion of issues ranging from corruption and domestic violence to Western dominance in the world. It also provides a large pool of Islamic symbols, injunctions and sanctions which contribute to the discourse of difference from the West.
Under the circumstances as mentioned, it is an uphill task to make youthful minds understand that cultivating an inaccurate prejudice damages the tolerance, liberality, and compassion that are supposed to characterise the Islamic faith. It is also equally difficult to convince that Islam's liberal principle cannot be defended by reviving a medieval prejudice.
The silent multitudes and potential sympathisers of violent action need to know that the violence of the so-called Islamist militants has actually served the strategy of their professed adversary to malign Islam by projecting the faith as a religion of violence. The scenario of Sunnis and Shias continually slaughtering each other and keeping Muslims busy in internecine warfare, thereby, unwittingly implementing the sinister game plan of Western powers, has to be taken into account.
To the curious observer, it might be interesting to note that over the years, in Bangladesh, particularly since 1975, a quarter has quietly usurped considerable space from the State by creating an extensive network of schools, madrasahs, medical facilities, ambulance fleet and social welfare organisations. This has reportedly created enormous political and social capital for the said quarter which can, if it wants to, manipulate political gains.
The question is, has such a quarter created a parallel narrative of hope and strength in times of crisis, and thereby expanded its political capital? Does such narrative stand to gain in a climate of despondency resulting from political conflict?
The reasonable fear in our situation, as elsewhere, is whether religion has not only been utilised as an ideology but also as an insurrectionary strategy that can draw people of varying political convictions.
An important issue is whether the authorities have been able to agree as to the contents of a historically credible and religiously correct counter-narrative to confront the extremists. Should we not project Islam as being just as rational as any western system?
We need to project that Muslims have a vital mission to witness the divine dimension of life, not the retiring from the world to engage in contemplation or indulging in suicide-bombing, but by an activism that implements the social ideals of Shariah. We also need to realise that politics had never been a secondary issue for Muslims.
The counter-narrative needs to recognise that politics had been the theatre of religious quest of Muslims. Salvation for them does not mean redemption from sin, but the creation of a just society in which the individual could more easily make that existential surrender of his or her whole being that would bring them fulfilment. The polity for the Muslims was, therefore, an aspiration that required a jihad, a struggle that could find no simple outcome.
The task ahead is long and complex.
The writer is a former IGP and columnist of The Daily Star.