Sheikh Hasina Must Call Islamist Terrorism What It Is
In the wake of the Dhaka attack, Bangladesh’s refusal to call out and confront its problem with Islamist radicals will only make the problem worse.
Before breaking the day’s fast with an iftar meal on July 1, five fundamentalists, their minds awash with Islamic State propaganda, stormed Dhaka’s trendy Holey Artisan Bakery and brutally killed 20 hostages in the name of Islam. The attackers all came from elite backgrounds and specifically targeted foreigners for their alleged crimes against Islam and the Islamic State.
Naturally, citizens of Bangladesh, Dhaka-based expats, and anyone else with even a passing connection to the country are still in shock five days after the event. But should we be? After all, the writing — that a major attack in Dhaka was not only possible but probable — has been on the wall for years. Indeed, with a major increase in religiously motivated assassinations against secular bloggers, Hindus, and anyone else accused of working against Islam, alongside the more gradual creep of the Islamization of Bangladeshi politics, the idea that this country could insulate itself from the kinds of major attacks that take place in Pakistan and the Middle East no longer passes muster.
Since 2013, more than 40 people have been killed in Islamist attacks in Bangladesh, many of which targeted Bangladeshi citizens who have been accused of heresy and blasphemy. The high-profile killing of Bangladeshi-American Avijit Roy in 2015 by machete-wielding extremists in broad daylight is illustrative. Roy did little more than publish blog posts in favor of secularism and atheism, which was apparently enough to warrant a targeted assassination. His death, and that of many others, should have been a wake-up call to the government of Bangladesh that the security situation in the country was heading into troubled waters.
Instead, the government chose to downplay the religious connections and focus on Roy’s assassination as if it was just a criminal issue, preferring to ignore the ideological, religious, and political motivations at the heart of the crime. The response from Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government was a slight increase in security but also, more tellingly, the imposition of restrictions on the freedom of expression, making it a crime to publish anything that might offend religious sensibilities. This came just two years after a major movement within Bangladesh for strict anti-blasphemy laws that would have allowed capital punishment for secular activists. The government rejected these demands but did concede to arresting four bloggers for hurting religious sentiment. While the government stopped short of arresting all the accused blasphemers, some portion of the country’s hard-line Islamic community was happy to pick up the slack.
As always, minorities are far more aware of radical, oppressive trends than those standing atop the social ladder. While many Muslims in Bangladesh might be able to pretend there is no real extremist problem in their country, Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, Shiite Muslims, and LGBT people are only too aware of the reality.
In 2013, more than 40 Hindu temples were vandalized, and many Hindu homes were attacked across the country. Many more Hindus and Christians have been the victims of religiously motivated attacks since then. Buddhists — primarily indigenous Tibeto-Burman-speaking peoples in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in the country’s southeast — face daily threats to their existence. They have also come under fire from Bangladesh’s largest Islamic political party, the Jamaat-e-Islami, which has orchestrated large-scale attacks in the area against indigenous non-Muslim peoples. On Oct. 24, 2015, three bombs were detonated during a Shiite procession in Dhaka. The Islamic State was quick to claim responsibility, presumably acting through local supporters. When Julhas Mannan was killed for his advocacy work with Bangladesh’s criminalized LGBT population, the government did eventually take on the task of finding the perpetrators, motivated at least in part by the U.S. Embassy’s strong condemnation of the murder. However, the issue was treated as a simple murder, rather than a political action intended to silence anyone defying a hard-line interpretation of Islam. This is the key distinction between a simple criminal act and an act of terrorism: One is personally motivated; the other is clearly about power and politics.
Despite this, Sheikh Hasina is already hard at work downplaying the seriousness of these recent attacks. In fact, she seems determined to avoid connecting the events in Dhaka with the long string of attacks perpetrated in the name of Islam in her country, calling on “everyone to unite against these handful of criminals” — not radical Islamists or the Islamic State. Other attacks in Bangladesh claimed by the Islamic State have been met with official skepticism, and the government continues to deny that the group has any presence in the country. Foreign intelligence and embassy staff, meanwhile, took the Islamic State’s claims of responsibility for the attacks against Shiites — as well as the killings of a Japanese man and Italian aid worker last year — more seriously than Sheikh Hasina’s government. In October 2015, the prime minister noted: “I can surely say that [the Islamic State] or any such type of organization or their activities have not sprouted in Bangladesh yet.” Instead, her government continued to argue that the attacks were organized by opposition parties to tarnish her leadership and legitimacy. Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan echoed this conspiracy but added an international component by insinuating that Israeli intelligence was also involved. More recently, on July 3, 2016, Khan stressed that the attackers were part of the homegrown terrorist group Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen, which he claimed had no connection with the Islamic State.
Nothing will improve in Bangladesh until the government and a sizable chunk of the population admit that this is not your run-of-the-mill law-and-order problem. Whether the majority of Bangladesh’s Muslims like it or not, there is already an ongoing, visible, deadly debate underway for the soul of the Muslim-majority country. But unless the government and the mainstream population get involved in the ideological battle that the Islamic State is now supporting in Bangladesh, it is unlikely to end in a way that fosters diversity of thought, religion, or even existence.
Dhaka will not escape the global reach of Islamic extremism by sticking its head in the sand.
Bangladesh might not be the first country to ignore jihadi-type threats until it was too late, but it can lead the way to a workable solution. The first step will be the sobering recognition that Bangladesh’s Islam is not isolated from broader developments in the Islamic world. Its religious leaders, after all, are largely trained in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan; the country’s porous borders allow for easy infiltration from Pakistan via India; and the Islamic discourses and debates are increasingly digital and accessible to wide audiences. The next step will be recognizing that connections, however informal or rhetorical, between Bangladesh’s homegrown groups and those operating in Pakistan and the Middle East are not only possible but likely. This will be a critical realization if Bangladesh is to tailor its counterterrorism strategy and domestic security policy. Then, and only then, will Dhaka be able to design a meaningful campaign that not only relies on breaking up terrorist networks, but also includes a concerted effort to counter hard-line propaganda with a strong, civil society-led moderate Islamic message in favor of social justice and the rights of all of Bangladesh’s diverse citizens.
Photo Credit: ROBERTO SCHMIDT / Staff