Bangladesh is facing a pivotal point of no return. The recent hostage crisis and siege at an uptown bakery/café in the Gulshan diplomatic zone of the capital Dhaka on 1 July has seen a fundamental shift in the way Islamic extremist violence functions in the country and these realities need to be checked. Unfortunately, authorities seem reluctant to actually engage with the situation, which does not bode well for the South Asian nation.
A Year of Living Dangerously
Over the past year, dozens of individuals have been attacked and killed by groups of extremists, usually wielding machetes or knives. Although individuals had been targeted with violence before – including the high profile murder of blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider in 2013 – the volume of killings since the start of 2015 has been staggering. Targets have ranged from bloggers, academics and LGBTQ+ rights activists, to Hindu and Sufi clerics and temple workers, foreign workers, and even a tailor whose only crime was belonging to the ‘wrong’ religious denomination.
The audacity of the attacks grew with each successful attempt. The initial targets were all self-proclaimed atheists whose writings and blog posts were critical of politicising Islam and the dangers of Islamic extremism. Although being atheist is not a criminal offence in the country, hurting religious sentiment is, as under Section 295A of the Bangladeshi Penal Code, which, combined with general social conservatism painting atheism in a negative light, led to the perpetrators being condemned and criticised for murder but not necessarily for their motives.
Similarly, the murder of two LGBTQ+ activists earlier this year sparked worldwide outcry but the prevalence of Section 377 of the Penal Code – which criminalises homosexual intimacy and is interpreted to legalise prejudice against the LGBTQ+ community – once again led to platitudes from the authorities regarding the intent of the killings. In fact, the Prime Minister went so far as to state that anyone who offends religious sensibilities needs to be careful as it goes against established norms, thus effectively suggesting that the victims were responsible for their own deaths.
Since then, the targets have widened even further to include anyone who is deemed a sinner by the extremist camp and the subsequent killings of people from various walks of life, and various religions, has pushed the country into a state of perpetual fear for religious minorities, secularists (including pro-secularist Muslims), free thinkers, and critics of extremism.
That the nation was founded in 1971 on the principle of secularism after the rejection of political pan-Islamism as a means of unity with Pakistan seems to have been largely forgotten, making way for a national identity that seems more welcoming of the current reactionary pan-Islamism that has emanated from West Asia in the wake of the ‘War on Terror’.
A New Ball Game
While the number of targets has been a legitimate cause for concern, the fact that they were individual killings had made it possible for the Government to either brush the incidents off as uncoordinated, random attacks or attempt to justify their lack of action by blaming the activities of the victims. The hostage-taking and murders at the Holey Artisan Bakery changed the scenario completely. Instead of individuals attacked with machetes, this was an entire building of casualties who were held at gunpoint before being executed.
Chillingly, it has come to light that all the victims inside the bakery (with two policemen also being killed in the siege) were made to recite from the Quran; failure to do so resulted in their deaths. The scale of the massacre, with the specific targeting of a bakery that is regularly visited by foreigners – and, indeed, with the majority of victims being non-Bangladeshi – was unprecedented. There had never been an incident where multiple foreign nationals were specifically killed in the country and it has already led to stern rhetoric from Italy, Japan and India (the nationalities of the deceased).
The other major concern is the identities of the assailants themselves. Previously, extremist attackers have been profiled as being from poor and uneducated backgrounds, either from rural communities or being taught in madrasas. However, it is certain that the gunmen from 1 July were all from upper-middle and upper class urban backgrounds. All of them were educated in the country’s top private schools and some had gone on to study at universities both at home and abroad. Most of them had gone missing since late last year or early this year, which hints at their radicalisation having taken place in a relatively short period of time.
All of this means that political groups and security forces need to re-evaluate how they approach extremism. The Government has consistently blamed homegrown terrorist groups without considering the impact of wider extremism and the possibility of trans-national influence. They have also blamed the Opposition on several occasions. For its part, the Opposition – which had utilised political Islam and had aligned itself with the only mainstream Islamic political party during its terms in power – has steadfastly refused to accept its role in the long-term growth of extremism, instead focusing its blame solely on the Government.
With the two sides too busy trying to tear each other down, the only victor so far has been the extremists. There needs to be a serious rethink and genuine attempts at unity going forward, for the security of Bangladesh and, indeed, the region more widely.