””

The real face of Bangladesh - moderate, secular

The high-profile arrests and deportation of 27 Bangladeshi workers from Singapore for planning violent attacks overseas may have caused some Singaporeans to wonder about Bangladesh and its people. This professor says the truth is that the country is a secular, moderate nation with a Muslim-majority population.

The arrests of 27 Bangladeshi workers under the Internal Security Act is the first instance that a radical militant terror cell comprising foreigners has been uncovered in Singapore.

The Ministry of Home Affairs said last Wednesday that the authorities had arrested the Bangladeshis between Nov 16 and Dec 1 last year for supporting the armed jihad ideology of terrorist groups such as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda.

According to both the Singaporean and the Bangladeshi law enforcers, some of the arrested men are loyal to Ansarullah Bangla Team, a Bangladeshi radical terrorist group that allegedly subscribes to the teachings of radical ideologues such as Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni-American preacher with ties to Al-Qaeda, who was killed in a United States drone attack inSeptember 2011.


Devotees gather for 'Bishwa Ijtema', the world congregation of Muslims on the bank of the river Turag in Tongi near Dhaka, Bangladesh on Jan 8, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

While Singaporeans are understandably concerned about this episode and the large numbers of Bangladeshi workers in the country, the truth is that Bangladesh is a moderate democratic Muslim state known for its religious tolerance, liberal values and communal harmony.

Compared to other South Asian countries, Bangladesh has been quite successful in dismantling religious extremism. According to the 2015 Global Terrorism Index, Pakistan and India are ranked fourth and sixth respectively among the countries where terrorism is highly concentrated. Bangladesh is at 25th position.

Despite the confrontational nature of domestic politics, the country has made considerable strides in key socio-economic parameters like girls' education, microcredit, women's empowerment and world-class NGOs, and is one of the leading apparel exporters of the world.

The state of Bangladesh has secularism as one of its fundamental principles. Most Bengalis are exposed to Islamic preachings by the "Sufis" or the saints, whose teachings are centred on love for humanity.

However, like any other society, a divide does exist. The radical narrative offered by the extremists loathe the Sufis' form of religion, which is deemed as impure and not representing the true form of Islam. Religion-based politics and extremism crept into the country in the 1980s and 1990s, when militants came back from Afghanistan where they had fought the Soviets.

The rise of modern radical militant ideology is often traced back to the emergence of Wahabism that led to the formation of a kingdom in Central Arabia in the 19th century, currently known as Saudi Arabia. World War I saw Britain and France orchestrate the Arab Revolt that broke the control of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the transnational anti-Soviet alliance gave rise to extremism in South Asia, as the concept of defeating an enemy through violent struggle started spreading.

As the global spread of radical militant ideology is on the rise, Bangladesh is struggling to cope with self-radicalisation, particularly of youth, fostered by a host of factors, which includes the ease and availability of extremist materials, growing divide between the rich and poor and the seeming appeal of the grand community or "Ummah".

The Internet has long been a recruitment and propaganda tool for extremist organisations, and the preacher-based model of radicalisation via the Web allow close-knit individuals belonging to a group to become self-radicalised.

From the Sept 11, 2001 attackers to the Boston Marathon bombers, all the individuals belonged to close-knit groups. The terror plot in Singapore reflects the same kind of decentralised structure of the terrorist organisation.

Self-radicalisation is a threat to the security of any state. Yet, it is not easy to counter, as individuals who become self-radicalised often have underlying discontent over social, economic or political factors in their society.

Regional terrorist networks operating across South Asia also sought to expand their base in Bangladesh. The rise of Jamaatul Mujahidin Bangladesh, which aims to replace the current state of Bangladesh with an Islamic state based on syariah law, has unleashed a new wave of terrorism in Bangladesh. The government has been responding by suppressing these terror groups.

For Bangladesh, countering radicalisation is a multi-faceted effort that goes beyond the state. It has an active civil society and media which have come together with the government to address issues that are fuelling terrorism via self-radicalisation within the society.

It is quite likely that ISIS and other terrorist groups have their eyes on Bangladesh, the third-largest Muslim-majority country in the world.

In September last year, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina raised her concerns as several British Bangladeshis were arrested as recruiters of ISIS, and asked Prime Minister David Cameron for "more steps on the ground" from the British government.

The Singapore incident is a poignant reminder of the importance of cooperation between national and international actors to combat terror groups.

Singaporeans are known for their tolerance and acceptance, and Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam aptly commented: "How our non-Muslims treat our Muslim brothers and sisters will decide what type of society we are, If we behave with suspicion and negativity, then our Muslim population will be further pushed. The harmonious society that we have built will be at risk."

For the Bangladeshi workers, he gave an equally strong message: "They have come here to work to benefit their families, stick to that. As long as they stick to that, they will be protected and nothing will happen to them."

Bangladeshi migrant workers and students have a critical role in the country's development, and Bangladesh needs to further strengthen its efforts to prevent the import and export of radical extremist ideology.

While the deportation of the Bangladeshis highlights the importance of being vigilant and of closer cooperation between the intelligence and law-enforcing communities of the two countries, it is equally important not to let the extremists negatively influence socio-economic relations and resulting opportunities for the people of both countries.

  • Professor Syed Munir Khasru is chairman of the think-tank, The Institute for Policy, Advocacy and Governance, based in Bangladesh.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 25, 2016, with the headline 'The real face of Bangladesh - moderate, secular'. Print Edition | Subscribe