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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 32 New Delhi July 30, 2016

Bangladesh: Look at the Iceberg and Not its Tip

Tuesday 2 August 2016

by Aparupa Bhattacherjee

Do the recent attacks in Bangladesh (by seven young men in a Dhaka café killing several foreigners and the subsequent bomb blast on the day of Eid) signify the tip of a far larger iceberg? Worse, are they the tips of different icebergs that are coming to form a perfect storm?

Are the radicalisation of the youth, attacks on minority communities and violence against liberals in Bangladesh symbolising a deeper problem? Do the recent commentaries on the subject focus primarily on the symptoms and not the disease?

There are at least three major icebergs in Bangladesh whose tips are getting exposed in the recent attacks: youth radicalisation, decline of liberal Islam or/and the ascendancy of a radical ideology, and the failure of the state to address all these issues.

Revisiting the Dhaka Attack

The terrorist attack on July 1, 2016 in Bangla-desh will have an impact for not only Bangladesh, but also the South Asian region. For Bangaldesh, this was not a lone attack during this year; there has been a series of attacks during the past eighteen months resulting in deaths of more than forty people. Many analysts, both inside and outside Bangladesh, have been warning of the prevailing situation; unfortunately, the government did not take the right measures. Worse, the government failed even to acknowledge that there is a problem. Of course no one could have anticipated the new facets of terrorism; the carnage that took place in the posh restaurant in Dhaka should be regarded as a new beginning and a watershed event.

The involvement of educated, radicalised youth as the perpetrators of the carnage is a new face of terrorism in Bangladesh. Second, one has to impartially analyse the rise of a more radical and intolerant society in Bangladesh. Third, there should also be a realistic assessment and debate on the presence and support of the Islamic State militants in Bangladesh and also in its neighbourhood. This commentary looks into these three issues

Youth Radicalisation

In Bangladesh, there were evidences in the past on the role of poverty and illiteracy playing a pivotal part in the youth being galvanized into various activities of violence. Furthermore, college students owing allegiance to political parties have clashed with each other resulting in street violence.

But the new trend, where educated youth from well-off families are more willingly choosing to participate in terrorist activities in the name of religion, is new in Bangladesh. The Dhaka attack on July 1 highlights this trend. All the perpetrators were young, in their early twenties and belonged to the higher strata in the Dhaka society having had education from the most elitist schools. Their background has shocked the entire nation, all these youth went missing from their houses since February 2016. Even more shocking was the published picture in the IS magazine Dabiq—with gun in their hands, smile on their faces and the IS flag as the picture’s backdrop.

This forces one to ponder over the query: what went worng? Why do the educated youth from a comfortable lifestyle choose to kill people in the name of religion? According to reports and the Facebook pages of these youth, a self-proclaimed Indian religious preacher, Zakir Naik, and his radical preaching through his Peace TV was blamed to have incited these youth to radicalise. Hence on July 10, 2016 the Bangladesh Government banned the Peace TV Bangla and also requested the Imams around the nation to preach the rights and wrongs in Islam in order to stop the youth from getting radicalised.

But the question is: are these precautions sufficient enough to stop the youth to deviate from their bright future to become killers for sake of their disbeliefs? Interestingly, Bangladesh is not a stand-alone example of this trend, there are several young persons from South and South-East Asia—including several educated youth from India’s Kerala and West Bengal—who have been reported have joined the IS. Is it just some radical preaching that has led to this development or is there something funda-mentally wrong with the society around these young people that leads them to believe and act in accordance with these preachings?

Ascendancy of Radical Ideology

Although there were traces of radicalisation in Bangladesh, abuse of religion never gained prominence until recently. Religion remained moderate and liberal in Bangladesh; the credit for this mainly goes to the fact that Islam in this region had mainly grown out of the Sufi school of thought. Bangladesh, though a Muslim majority country, has always been liberal in terms of Islamic rules and customs in comparison with other Islamic majority countries. Additionally for Bangladesh, due to its foundational history, Bengali culture has always gained predominance over the religious community. Therefore one could question: are these attacks indicators of a shift in Bengali society from Sufism to a more radical religious approach such as Wahhabism? Or is it the unstable polity and repercussion of bad governance which has resulted in the populace choosing religious fundamentalism as their sole identity?

This in fact is providing terrorist groups, such as the Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (ASIS), to make inroads inside the society. Most of these attacks in Bangladesh have been claimed by IS or ASIS; however the government led by the Awami League has been claiming these to be the work of the Opposition. The July 1 event, if as claimed, is an IS attack, then it could be considered as the first major strike that has been anticipated and warned about by several security analysts. Though the veracity of the claim is being questioned, nobody can deny at least the covert linkages of these perpetrators with the IS. According to SITE, Amaq, the IS news agency, has published the pictures of the carnage while claiming the attack and Dabiq, the IS magazine, published pictures of the perpetrators which were definitely taken before the attack. However, one cannot be definite as similar to the IS even the AQIS has recently published in Resurgence (the AQIS magazine) the attacks on Hindus in Bangladesh.

Failure of the State

The issue is also of the government’s response. The denial mode of the government is making the situation worse. Although it was claimed by the Awami League in 2007-2009 that most of the terrorists have been arrested or killed, it seems these groups have reorganised, re-recruited and strengthened themselves in these years. Several security analysts have also claimed that there were reports, such as mentioned in Dabiq’s 2014 September edition, that the JMB has formed linkages with the IS. There are reports of training of Jaamat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and Ansarullah Bangla Team members in India’s east and North-East. This came to the forefront with the bomb blast in 2014, while a group of terrorists were making bombs in a rented house in the Bardhhaman district of West Bengal. Reportedly there are several training camps in different districts of West Bengal, especially in the Murshidabad district, which shares a long border with Bangladesh.

The lack of political stability and political violence, corruption, unrest have provided a fertile ground for the ice to turn the iceberg. In Bangladesh both the Awami League and Bangladesh Nationalist Party have always used the state structure such as legislature, judiciary, and also the religious radical groups for their political benefits. The result is a defunct political structure with rampant corruption and the rise of strong radical groups. As aforementioned, although massive steps were taken since 2005 onwards to eradicate terrorism from the country and the outcome of these measure jubilantly announced, it seems that was not a victory. The political clashes and violence, especially before and after the 2014 elections in Bangladesh, have given the space and time to these terrorist groups to reorganise themselves.

All these reasons and the constant denial by the government, which seems to refuse to acknowledge the elephant in the room, will further make the condition worse. This is the tip of the iceberg and if precaution is not taken the effect will be massive and will be felt not only in Bangladesh but also in India and Myanmar.

The author is an independent researcher.

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