is haunting Bangladesh—the spectre of unbridled, violent religious extremism
with attacks on intellectuals, journalists, bloggers and religious minorities.
The Islamic State (IS) and other forms of fundamentalism are on the rise in the
country of 156 million.
neither of the two major political parties—the professedly secular Awami League
and the more religiously inclined, right-of-centre Bangladesh Nationalist Party
(BNP)—has demonstrated any interest in containing these developments.
poverty-stricken nation has—thanks to massive infusions of foreign assistance
as well as the dramatic growth of non-governmental organisations—made
significant dents on child mortality and maternal health. Despite these
laudable achievements, its record in guaranteeing the rights of religious,
ethnic and other minorities is abysmal.
still, the present regime, in denial about religious extremism, finds this
trend to be politically expedient. The ostensible need for sweeping powers to
curb such religious violence enables the regime to further aggrandise its
political power. If extremist movements are not curbed, Bangladesh could well
become an epicentre for Islamic radicalism. Given its proximity to other
substantial Muslim populations in both south and Southeast Asia, the emergence
of such religious extremism could have profound destabilising consequences well
beyond the reaches of the country.
southeast and South Asia have had brushes with religious zealotry, and growth
of bigotry and violence in Bangladesh could have major spill over effects. In
the region, especially in the adjoining states of West Bengal and Assam in
India, the tides of religious extremism could encourage Muslim and Hindu
radicals alike. Muslim zealots may feel encouraged to press their parochial
agendas. In turn, their Hindu counterparts could highlight their rise and
promote their own violent programs.
it appears that despite professedly secular and democratic credentials, the
current Bangladeshi regime of Sheikh Hasina Wajed is at least tacitly allowing
such zealotry to flourish. In considerable part, willingness to dally with
these extremists stems from an attempt to marginalise the organised religious
party, the Jamaat-i-Islami, which is politically tainted owing to the
association of several of members with the 1971 genocide. Indeed in early May,
the government sent a Jamaat leader, Motiur Rahman Nizami, to the gallows for
alleged involvement in the killing of fellow Bengalis during the civil war.
on free thinkers are well-documented and number in the dozens. A few salient
examples should be cited. One of the most recent incidents involved the murder
of Rezaul Karim Siddique, a teacher of English at Rajshahi University. The IS
claimed responsibility for his killing on the grounds that he was an atheist.
Locals claimed that he was not killed owing to his lack of religious
convictions and instead argued that he was a victim because of his support for
various cultural activities, especially musical soirees, an anathema in the
austere version of Islam that the IS seeks to promote.
In April, a
prominent gay rights activist and a member of the editorial board of the
magazine Roopbaan, Xulhaz Mannan, was hacked to death at his Dhaka apartment.
Once again IS extremists took responsibility for his killing while local police
authorities attributed the murder to local militants.
minorities are also under siege. In February of this year after a series of
attacks on Hindu temples, a priest, Jogeshwar Roy, was killed while organising
prayers at a local temple in Deviganj, a town a few hundred miles north of
Dhaka. Once again the IS claimed responsibility. The government, yet again,
attributed his death to local militants. In May, a 75 -year-old Buddhist monk
was hacked to death in his temple in Cox Bazar. Though no evidence is readily
available, this incident could have been spurred because of a spate of attacks
that Buddhist monks have launched against virtually stateless Rohingya Muslims
in neighbouring Myanmar.
Hasina has publicly decried these tragic incidents with various qualifications.
At least on one occasion, in the aftermath of the killing of two self-declared
atheist professors, she stated: “If anybody thinks they have no religion, OK,
it’s their personal view…But they have no right to write or speak against any
religion…When you are living in a society, you have to honour the social
values, you have to honour others’ feelings.”
reluctance to unequivocally condemn these horrific attacks and the perpetrators
is fraught with political significance. The country’s current political context
helps explain such ambivalence.
trappings of democracy, the country is steadily lurching towards
authoritarianism in many ways. In 2014, the Awami League won an overwhelming
parliamentary majority as the principal opposition, BNP, had chosen to boycott
the elections. Since then the party of Sheikh Hasina has relentlessly harassed
the opposition and its supporters. This includes lodging cases of sedition
against the party’s leader, Begum Khaleda Zia.
clashes between followers of the two parties have become all but routine.
opposition has, for all practical purposes, been decimated, the freedom of the
press is under widespread attack, the judiciary mostly pliant with police
forces largely politicised. Against this distressing political backdrop, Sheikh
Hasina has attempted to consolidate her power, evincing an unwillingness for a
swift crackdown on the fanatics. Some astute political observers argue that her
reticence is actually part and parcel of a strategy to undermine an already
insidious development, however, has been the administration’s attempt to muzzle
Bangladesh’s normally feisty press. The most well-known case involves Mahfuz
Anam, highly regarded editor of the Dhaka-based paper, The Daily Star. Anam now
faces 79 cases in various courts owing to his admission that he published a
possibly erroneous allegation about corruption in Sheikh Hasina’s government.
government has also lodged charges against Shafik Rehman, the editor of a noted
Bengali monthly, because of his putative involvement in an unlikely plot to
abduct and kill Sheikh Hasina’s son in the US.
on the press, in no small measure, are possible because of a sweeping piece of
legislation—the Information, Communication, and Technology Act—first passed in
2006 and amended in 2013 with more draconian provisions, some so vague that the
government now assumes extraordinary powers of prosecution. Indeed, the scope
is such that it was used to incarcerate an electronic shop owner, Tonmoy Malick
for selling a recording of a song that parodied both Sheikh Hasina and her
father, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman.
may well assume that the risks inherent in its tacit toleration of religious
extremism, whether local or international, are manageable and useful. Sheikh
Hasina may have concluded that she can co-opt fundamentalists to further
marginalise the already weakened BNP and its allies.
the experiences of other leaders, for example, Indira Gandhi and Sant Jarnail
Singh Bhindranwale in India, or various Sri Lankan politicians and the Buddhist
clergy in Sri Lanka who have sought to harness religious bigots to pursue
political ends suggests the contrary. Religious dogmatists, especially those that
embrace violence, have their own agendas. Given free rein, they work to expand
the ambit of their activities and often return to haunt those who gave them
leeway in the first place.
was initially created as a democratic and secular state. It has gone through
the vicissitudes of military rule, witnessed a shrinking of its democratic
space and now sees a frontal assault on its secular ethos. If the regime
continues to flirt with Islamists, it may not only ring the death knell of the
country’s fragile democracy and secular traditions, but worse spread the virus
of extremism into India and as far as Thailand and Malaysia.