Asian Editors Circle

The challenge before Bangladesh

The Indian subcontinent was partitioned in 1947 into India and Pakistan on the basis of religion. Bangladesh was born 31 years later, in 1971, on the basis of nationalism, democracy and secularism. Democracy we lost first, in the mid-1970s and then in the early 80s, and are yet to recover fully. Secularism, which was on a gradual decline, now faces its most severe threat.

As a freedom fighter I remember, as we sat glued to a one-band radio, on the evening of Dec 16, 1971, along with others in a guerilla camp, listening to the surrender ceremony of the Pakistani army to the joint command in Dhaka and shouting "Joy Bangla" (Victory to Bangla), I was certain that my new country would be a place of prosperity, freedom and religious harmony. Never again would a Muslim or a Hindu lose his or her life for religion.

On the night of July 1, as most inhabitants of Dhaka stayed up all night watching the hostage tragedy on television unfold and hoping that the end would not be as tragic and gruesome as we were beginning to fear, I could not recognise the country to whose birth I, with millions of others, had contributed.

Bangladesh - the people, government, civil society, intelligentsia, media and so on - is still reeling from the events of July 1 that saw the killing of 20 people, 17 foreigners and three Bangladeshis. Two police personnel died while trying to fight the terrorists in the first rescue attempt. It was not only the act of cold-blooded murder but also its bestial nature and the age of the perpetrators - between 20 and 28 years - that have brought forth many questions as to where the country has come in terms of values and beliefs in its post- independence period.

As a people, we firmly believed that our culture and history, especially the syncretic Islam that we practise here, and our religiosity that blended our diversity and devotion to produce a living culture of tolerance and openness, were enough to protect us from the extremism that seems to afflict so many other countries where Islam is the dominant religion.

We proved to be so thoroughly and tragically wrong.

Our government made the cardinal mistake of being in denial from the start, thinking that any admission either of the seriousness of the initial killing of bloggers, atheists and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) activists or of any outside link will provide an excuse for the international community to term us as terrorist or a terror-prone country with all its paraphernalia of negative "advisories" and other possible restrictions.

Security officials at the entrance of a mosque in Dhaka check people through a metal detector during Friday prayers. The country's anti-militancy operation shows that the government appears to have moved from denial mode and is taking the threat of extremism seriously. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

This led to the initial downplaying of the gruesome murders of writers, publishers and "free thinkers" as "isolated incidents" and not taking timely steps to galvanise serious and effective preventive measures that could have prepared us better to handle the situation that we unfortunately did on July 1.

The ever-vigilant Bengali intellectuals, known for their anti-colonial and anti-imperialistic struggles, and for being the first to raise their voice against all forms of oppression and for their uncompromising stance against extremism and for secularism, appear to have totally failed to grasp what was happening around them. Instead of making a robust call for waking up to the fundamentalist threat, they made the fatal error of allowing themselves to be sucked into partisan politics and, rather than being the voice of freedom and democracy that they traditionally were, they became a tool of the two dominant political parties which, for their own narrow ends, flirted with the fundamentalist forces whenever it suited them.

Civil society, especially the grassroots-based non-governmental organisations (NGOs), which were spread throughout different corners of the country, appear also to have failed to grasp the spread of extremism. For ordinarily, they should have been among the first to sense what was happening on the ground in the remote areas. Here again, the government, in its deep suspicion of the role of the NGOs and mainly considering them to be peddling a donor-driven agenda, probably ignored whatever warning they might have given.

Media must also accept its share of the blame for not going deep enough with investigative reports to challenge the government's narrative that these were "isolated" incidents, and that everything was under control with the Prime Minister repeating for years her policy of "zero tolerance" of extremism; all the while it grew under the very feet of the administration. A few who tried to project a different story were branded as trying to damage the image of the country and for working for interests inimical to that of the country.

The challenge now before all of us is to determine how deep and wide the spread of extremist ideologies is and how entrenched is the threat.

The first question to face is: Where is all this extremism coming from? So far the culprit was thought to be the madrasahs, the religious schools, which have generally been considered to be the breeding ground of fundamentalist ideals. But the killings at Holey Artisan Bakery showed that only one of the five kids that carried out the massacre came from a madrasah. These kids came from the middle and upper-middle class, studied at expensive English-medium schools and private universities; one had even studied abroad. They were boisterous kids donning T-shirts and jeans, frequenting hangouts like youngsters of that age do everywhere in the world. So what had gone wrong with these kids and at what point in their lives?

There is no denying the fact that the overall impact of religion in general has significantly risen in the country. More women are seen in religious clothing and men sporting beards. Friday prayers are far more widely participated in than before. Religion, no doubt, is in the air.

There is of course no correlation between rising religiosity and extremism but it is also true that there has been an overall corrosion of secular principles in Bangladesh. It is a fact that when bloggers, atheists, so-called "free thinkers" and LGBT activists were being murdered one after another, there was a silent murmur that since they criticised religion and professed not to believe in any, they somehow deserved to be "punished".

So where do we go from here?

We are still to gauge the full impact of terrorism on our lives. But the "normal" is no longer so. Personal lives are restrained, social lives significantly narrowed and public gatherings are few and far between. Shopping malls and restaurants are almost empty and roadside shopping is down. Factories are running and our major export, the ready-made garment sector, is still holding in terms of order. However, most buyers are refusing to come to Bangladesh. Many countries and foreign businesses are considering declaring Bangladesh as a non-family post, with some having already done so. Some big international conferences - many business-related ones - are being shifted away from Dhaka.

The good news is that our government appears to have moved away from the denial mode and, by the large-scale anti-militancy operation that we are seeing, it appears we have taken the threat seriously. However, so far, the moves have been by the police and other law enforcers. Those familiar with religion-based extremist movements say that these are not mere law and order problems that can be solved simply by use of force. The challenge here is to "win the hearts and minds", for which there must be motivational campaigns alongside the use of force.

Bangladesh has a long history of resilience and of beating the odds. From a country of disasters, we became a country of achievers, almost always proving our sceptics wrong. It is my deeply held belief that in fighting back extremism, we can prove to be equally successful. The balance between religion and culture in our society, our unique blend of Islamic heritage and Bengali heritage, our fundamental nature of tolerance, our thousand-year-old tradition of openness and acceptance of the "other", our rich heritage of political struggle have prepared us well to resist a fundamentalist and extremist upheaval. It is what makes us unique as Bangladeshis that will, in the end, help us win in this battle against extremism.

  • This is the fourth article in a series of columns on global affairs written by top editors from members of the ANN and published in newspapers across the region.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 23, 2016, with the headline 'The challenge before Bangladesh'. Print Edition | Subscribe