Creeping Extremism in Bangladesh


This article is about the extremism in Bangladesh. The present government had little option but to cave in to pressures from religious forces in the country.

By Nazarul Islam

Human memory is short. Amazingly it has harbored inside, a more perfect world than the universe: it gives back life to those who no longer exist. On July 1, 2016, five militants stormed the Holey Artisan Bakery, a restaurant frequented by foreigners in an upscale neighborhood of the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka.

The Islamic State (ISIS) had claimed responsibility, but local officials had blamed members of Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), a Bangladeshi militant organization. A twelve hour siege ended with the deaths of twenty two hostages, nearly twenty of them were foreigners. This tragedy, which generated headlines around the world, was the country’s deadliest single terror attack in recent history. This was also its exposure to the first-grade, terrorism.

All of a sudden, Bangladesh—long overlooked not just by the international media but also within policy circles in Washington and other key capitals, despite being the world’s seventh most populous country and third-largest Muslim majority country—was on everyone’s radar.

Four years later, Bangladesh has faded from the headlines, yet terrorist attacks continue, and the country’s deep secular traditions have never been more vulnerable thanks to Islamist extremists’ increasing inroads into society.

Only after a week of the Holey Artisan attack, militants carried out another assault—this one in eastern Bangladesh during the country’s largest prayer gathering for the Eid holiday. There were no formal claims of responsibility, but officials in Dhaka once again blamed JMB.

Four people had died, prompting an increase in counterterrorism efforts from the government. In July and August 2016, security officials seized large amounts of explosives around Dhaka that they claimed were in the possession of operatives of JMB and also Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), another local Bangladeshi terror group. They also targeted dozens of jihadists, leading to the deaths of nearly 20 militants, including the alleged mastermind of the Holey Artisan attack, Tamim Ahmed.

In late July, police claimed to have killed nine militants affiliated with JMB and reportedly planning to carry out an attack similar to the Holey Artisan attack.

Bangladeshi Islamic militants deface wall paintings done for Bengali New Year

After the government crackdown there were no reported attacks until March 17, 2017, when a suicide bomber attacked a camp of the Rapid Action Battalion—an elite counter-terror wing of the Bangladeshi police—in Dhaka, injuring two officers.

Then, on March 23 and March 24, two suicide bombers struck outside Dhaka’s international airport. ISIS and al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) had claimed the bombings. But, there were no casualties. On March 25, though, a suicide bomber killed six people, including an army lieutenant colonel, in the northeastern district of Sylhet. It took four days for Special Forces to eliminate four other terrorists holed up near the area.

Both ISIS and AQIS again claimed responsibility for this incident, but the government pinned the blame on JMB.

This flurry of terrorist activity seems to indicate that Bangladesh remains in ISIS and AQIS’ cross-hairs—even after stepped-up counter-terrorism efforts. To be sure, the country is not as ravaged by terrorism as are some of its neighbors in South Asia, such as Afghanistan and Pakistan. Still, the problem has persisted.

Bangladesh society is changing in turn. Until now, the country had been relatively hospitable for its roughly 16.0 million non-Muslim citizens (about a tenth of its overall population). As recently as 2013, Dan Mozena, then the U.S. ambassador in Dhaka, had remarked that Bangladesh was a “moderate, tolerant, democratic country” and “a viable alternative to violent extremism in a troubled region of the world.”

Yet from February to August 2015, four prominent atheist bloggers were killed by machete-wielding assailants. These attacks continued into 2016, with the deaths of over 15 people —including religious minorities, social workers, and USAID employee Xulhaz Mannan. These assaults were claimed by ISIS, AQIS, and ABT, which has close ties to al Qaeda.

Many Bangladeshis condemned these attacks.

In all these cases, however, the attackers were locals, indicating the inroads that radicalization has been able to make across different spheres of Bangladeshi society. Local militant groups like ABT recruit from among madrasah students and teachers, while one of the first deadly attacks on a blogger, back in 2013, was carried out by students at North South University, a prestigious Dhaka educational institution.

Not surprisingly, many of the restaurant attackers in July 2016 were well educated and had come from prominent, wealthy families. The militants claimed that they were motivated by the alleged defamation of Islam in a case having to do with a prominent blogger, Mannan, publicly supporting LGBT rights in Bangladesh’s first LGBT magazine. The wide scale of attacks on bloggers, social workers, and religious minority groups is unprecedented in the country.

Bangladesh government spokespersons had repeatedly condemned recent terrorist attacks. However, troubling developments during the last few months, raised doubts about how committed the government was to combat radicalization within society. Indeed, they suggested that the state may be hindering more than helping efforts to tackle extremism—which means that a decrease in attacks on religious minorities and other vulnerable members of society so far in 2017 could be short-lived.

In Bangladesh however, Anti-government voices, including Bangladeshi journalist and writer K. Anis Ahmed, had clearly accused the government authorities of appeasing Islamist parties, particularly a group named Hefazat-e-Islam Bangladesh, which roughly translates to Guardians of Islam in Bangladesh. Notably, political leaders allied with the ruling Awami League (AL) party, such as Rashed Khan Menon of the Workers Party, had also accused the government of caving to the demands of Islamists.

We keep hearing the name of Hefazat, which is an activist group, and not a formal political party, that had gained prominence in recent years, including a 2013 protest known as the Siege of Dhaka. During that day-long event, members demanded government support for a set of 13 demands ranging from enacting a blasphemy law and cancelling the government’s women development policy to banning the deployment of sculptures in public places and punishing atheist bloggers with death.

In that past spring, Hefazat followed up on one of these demands and called for the removal of a statue of Lady Justice from the Supreme Court premises in Dhaka. It organized large protests demanding the statue’s removal, and on May 26 good fortune had smiled. This move sparked counter protests, where people had demanded that the statue be reinstalled, and on May 28, it was—although in a less prominent and central space than the original location.

Bangladesh government’s exact role in this affair not very clear, although there’s good reason to believe that authorities in Dhaka had helped forge a compromise to appease Hefazat, and also the Awami Olama League—a religious group that espouses Islamist views and claims affiliation with the ruling Awami League party, and which also wanted the statue removed. In April, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had expressed her support for the statue’s removal, saying it was improper to display what she described as a rendering of the Greek goddess Themis (the sculptor denied that it depicted Themis).

Prime Minister Hasina had then appeared to suggest that it was inappropriate to display a statue that depicted a Greek goddess, wearing a traditional ‘sari’.

Plainly speaking, Dhaka would have had a strong political incentive to foster this compromise and to seek common ground with Islamists more generally: doing so could help bolster support for the Awami League government from the Olama League and other Islamist parties, perhaps even those from the opposition, ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for 2019. And the Partnerships with religious parties, by empowering the forces of anti-secularism, would also have portended the possibility of assaults on the secular traditions of Bangladesh.

Just a few days after the resolution of the statue controversy, Hefazat had reportedly called for the arrest of Sultana Kamal, chair of the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International Bangladesh, after she had commented on a television talk show on May 29 that, if no religious structures like the statue should be allowed on the Supreme Court premises, “then no mosques should be on the premises, either.”

In hindsight, Bangladesh’s government has said relatively little about this incident. Its unwillingness to speak on behalf on an eminent citizen like Kamal—a well-known activist—could be taken as a sign that Dhaka did not wish to upset those who had agreed with the views of Hefazat on this matter. These developments had followed another example of Dhaka’s apparent acquiescence to Islamists’ agenda: changes to school text books that were recommended and pushed by Hefazat had resulted in the presence of fewer-text— and other relevant material, by non-Muslim authors.

From the perspective of counterterrorism, the Bangladeshi government’s dalliance with Hefazat may not have seemed as problematic as shrugging off the presence of terrorism on its soil—as The government machinery had done in the weeks and months leading up to the July 2016 restaurant attack. Still, by cozying up to a hardline organization like Hefazat, Bangladesh’s government had in fact started to play with fire. True, Hefazat has not been called a terrorist organization, so far.

However, it had espoused a retrograde, intolerant ideology revolving around harsh interpretations of Islam—the very ideology that attempts to galvanizes Islamist terror groups. Dhaka, by refusing to distance itself from the ideas of Hefazat, had been indirectly legitimizing the types of ideas that could also give rise to terror.

To cut a long story short, Bangladesh’s bedrock secularist traditions have been increasingly vulnerable. And more broadly, conservatives and secularists had always remained on a collision course. The fault lines extended far and wide; the battle over the Supreme Court statue was just the latest, in a series of showdowns over the last few years.

These had included such efforts (so far unsuccessful) by secular petitioners to get the Supreme Court to eliminate Islam as the state religion. This was sought in view of ongoing war crimes trials that had till this point of time, executed five leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), the Islamist opposition party of Bangladesh.

Defenders of secularism might have reasonably interpreted this battle as an encouraging sign: powerful forces pushing back against incessant threats to secularism. Such a view, however, might have been overly sanguine. And of late, these campaigns by secularists have been relatively sporadic and not as well organized as those of Hefazat and its ilk.

Indeed, the secularists’ most potent days may have been left behind them. Over a period of several weeks in 2013, protestors had taken to the streets to demand the death penalty for Jamaat-e-Islami leaders, who were earlier accused of war crimes and had called for banning that particular group from the national politics. The Shahbagh Movement, named after the Dhaka neighborhood— where the protests had commenced, drew tens of thousands of participants at its zenith.

Again, ironically enough, this show of strength by secularists had helped propel to prominence the powerful Islamist forces of today. One of the first fatal attacks on a blogger had been perpetrated during the early days of the Shahbagh movement by anti-Shahbagh activists. Several weeks later, Hefazat, which had been formed just three years earlier, had staged counter-protests that had but mobilized several hundred thousand people.

Four years forward, secularists in the country may have seen some of their demands addressed effectively: JI leaders accused of war crimes had already been executed, while JI had been banned from elections and had suffered from extensive (and frequently violent) state crackdowns.

However, the more recent campaigns could not even come close to approaching the numbers and frenzy generated by Shahbagh. By contrast, after that day, Hefazat had protested regularly draw large crowds—including at least 100,000 people who had congregated at a Dhaka rally, calling for a new blasphemy law earlier in the month.

And most ominously, the AL had seemingly changed its posture—to go soft on an organization that had once sought to eliminate the very secular traditions that it had long sworn, to uphold.

At the moment, the Islamists has appeared to be on the ascent, with secularists having placed increasingly on the defensive.

The competition between Islamists and secularists might have been increasingly stacked in the Islamists’ favor, but Bangladeshi society has continued to boast of uncompromising supporters of both camps. Over time, if left unaddressed, these tensions could explode into an open conflict. Already, these social fissures were ripe for exploitation by forces loyal to ISIS and AQIS, which remained clear of the perceived dangers, even in the face of government crackdowns.

Authorities in Dhaka had some hard work cut out for itself. It needed to crack down not only on terrorists but also on the ideologies that had driven them – ideologies that were propagated by Islamists who held increasing sway within society.

Therefore, Bangladesh needed to carry out a delicate dance: First, if the need arose, they were likely to have continued to rigorously combat terror, while avoiding use of counterterrorism efforts—as a pretext to target nonviolent members of the Islamist opposition.

Second, they also needed to take a firmer stand against the positions of Hefazat and its ilk, and to offer full-throated support to religious minorities and other vulnerable communities, all the while ensuring that nonviolent Islamists retained the space to operate and channel their grievances peacefully.

The ultimate goal should have been focused to reduce the deep polarization within politics and society—rifts that the government had helped exacerbate thanks to draconian and violent actions against peaceful political opponents.

It was considered that these steps were tall orders, but given what had been at stake, they were an utter necessity. Bangladesh had achieved so much over the years—from poverty reduction. Bangladesh has been fortunate to have succeeded in efforts that had reduced the number of poor by 16.0 million people between 2000 and 2010, and certainly has contributed to the development of a robust civil society—as a relatively moderate Muslim-majority country.

The nation cannot afford to fall into the world’s growing ranks of non-liberal democracies.


The Bengal-born writer is a senior educationist settled in USA. He writes regularly for Sindh Courier and the newspapers of Bangladesh, India and America.

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