On April 22, two assailants on a motorcycle attacked Rezaul Karim Siddiquee, 58, an English professor at Rajshahi University in northwestern Bangladesh, slitting his throat and hacking him to death. Three days later, 35-year-old Xulhaz Mannan, a founding editor of Roopbaan, the country’s only magazine for the LGBT community, was hacked to death in Dhaka along with fellow gay rights activist Mahbub Tonoy.
These incidents bring some realities into stark relief, including the country’s elephant in the room.
The Bangladeshi police, despite their claims of having made several arrests of militants responsible for the string of killings of bloggers and activists over the last 14 months, have not broken the back of the militant organisations conducting these attacks. Far from it.
Since last February, Al Qaeda affiliates have taken responsibility for at least seven killings in the country. The Islamic State has owned up to more than double that number during the same period.
Over the last three weeks alone, four secular individuals have been murdered. Prior to the murders of the English professor and the gay rights activists, law student Nizamuddin Samad was killed on April 6 in Dhaka, for which Al Qaeda affiliate Ansar-Al Islam took responsibility.
Rather than the government clamping down on militancy, there appears to be an escalation of attacks. One possibility is that the arrested persons are not actually involved in the crimes. The other possibility is that militant groups are now large enough that the loss of a few members does not severely hamper the organisations’ ability to carry out more attacks.
It remains unclear whether the law enforcement agencies have the wherewithal – or real commitment – to investigate these crimes, find those responsible and bring the militancy to an end.
Another emerging reality is that the parallel (and perhaps competitive) activities of the militant groups carrying out these killings seem to be converging.
Before now, there were two clear and separate streams of killings. The murders carried out by the Al Qaeda affiliate Ansar-Al Islam – previously known as Ansarullah Bangla Team – have involved hacking people to death.
And in all of the incidents (until the killings of the gay rights activists this week), the group claimed their targets were killed for their atheist views.
Meanwhile, until April 22, the Islamic State had used more conventional weapons such as guns or bombs. Their targets have been very diverse and not linked to atheism. Among the victims were a Christian priest, foreign visitors and Muslim minorities.
However, the Islamic State claimed the murder of Professor Siddiquee on Saturday, hacking him to death because he was an atheist (though there is no evidence to support this claim).
The significance, if any, of the Islamic State’s move to ape the Al Qaeda’s means and motives of attacks is unclear.
After atheist bloggers, LGBT activists appear to be the latest target for Al Qaeda-affiliated outfits. It is fair to say that both groups have limited sympathy from most people in Bangladesh. This has meant that there has been a muted outrage over the murders in both cases.
The Sheikh Hasina government condemned the killings. However, the half-hearted manner in which it has done so makes it clear to the people that it shares their disgust of these atheist bloggers and gay men, whom they also believe deserve punishment (though perhaps nothing as extreme as death).
This results in a Catch-22 situation for different or “dissident” voices in Bangladesh. They face the threat of being killed by militants and require police protection. However, seeking police protection would bring with it the risk of harassment and the possibility of detention by the police and the state authorities. After all, atheist blogging and practising homosexuality can result in criminal prosecution. Many of those at risk now feel that the only alternatives to death and detention are living "underground" or leaving the country.
And finally, there is the elephant in the room.
Apart from its decision in January 2014 to continue in power without seeking a proper electoral mandate, the Awami League government has displayed repressive conduct over the last three years in weakening, destroying and delegitimising the country’s opposition parties. This must be increasingly seen as part of an explanation for the current militancy.
A number of factors may have led to the rise of Islamic militancy in the country, but what is becoming clearer by the day is the impact of the destruction of the opposition political parties, and the end of democracy.
Through highly repressive measures such as widescale imprisonment, extra judicial killings, mysterious disappearances and restrictions on rights, the ruling party has all but wiped out the political strength of the forces that have traditionally opposed it.
Apart from closing off the political space, its restrictions on the media and freedom of expression have left limited scope for risk-free dissent.
The systemic political repression also resulted in thousands of people, including those implicated in false cases and family members of those killed and disappeared, having deep-seated resentments against the current Awami League government.
Many of these will belong to the Jamaat-e-Islami, a party which has deeply conservative theological views – and a youth wing not adverse to violence.
When you mix all this into a pot along with the Islamic militancy that has already existed in the country, a highly politicised police force and the circling international jihadist organisations, you have a dangerous brew.
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