The prime minister of Bangladesh touched on the terrorist attack in Dhaka while inaugurating a four-lane highway between the capital and the country’s major port city, Chittagong – a symbol of the government’s much vaunted development – as a passing thought early on Saturday. Sheikh Hasina was gracious to spare a minute or two later in the day, to address the nation specifically about the July 1 attack that lasted into the morning of July 2. The whole world was watching, waiting to hear from the government as Bangladesh made the headlines for the most deplorable, inhuman reasons, in the wake of the suicide bombing at the airport in Istanbul.
Shyamanondo Das and Bhabasindhu Roy both missed the premier’s statements, though: the former had been hacked to death by Islamists on the way to his temple on Friday, the latter fighting for his life after being similarly attacked inside a temple compound on Saturday.
The prime minister’s earlier remarks praised the efforts of the law enforcement agencies, and criticised and threatened the media; her later ones offered prayers for the departed and denounced the Islamists as not being true Muslims. Additionally, she urged patience and confidence in her government, a command that is beginning to sound like a plea increasingly falling on deaf ears every time there is a tragedy.
Sticking to script
The aftermath of attacks has seen the government adhere strictly to a script. There are reminders about its accomplishments in the field of development, blame apportioned to its opponents, assertions of home-grown terrorists to repudiate claims of global Islamist organisations, and censures aimed at the victims. This last one was, mercifully, absent in the prime minister’s statements, although people were instructed to be better parents as details about the attackers that were emerging showed them to be the urban youth who had gone astray. When domestic Islamists have been goaded into proudly announcing their pledges of allegiance to international organisations, perhaps it is time to retire the line that refutes such claims as well. Denial has seen the problem escalate; acknowledging that there is a severe problem that is metastasising is the first step to solving it.
Bangladesh has sleepwalked towards the Islamism epidemic. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its ally, Jamaat-e-Islami, politicised Islam and forced the deep conservatism and inherent fanaticism of the alien Wahhabi ideology on a country that once interpreted Islam through a secular, inclusive and heterogeneous lens. That pluralism is dying, if not already dead.
A rural population concerned with making ends meet and an urban population concerned with amassing wealth received communion from Bangladesh Nationalist Party -Jamaat as a means to their ends. Education and social progress have long been ignored in Bangladesh, allowing politicians to lean heavily on the tenets of anti-intellectualism and anti-knowledge to become more powerful without being questioned. The politicisation of Islam has, thus, defined how Islam is interpreted in Bangladesh.
Faced with the prospect of a moderate Muslim-majority country becoming socially and religiously ever more conservative, Awami League acquiesced to the new geography rather than asserting secularism.
Extremism would not have existed in Bangladesh if not for state patronage of terrorist organisations such as Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh and Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami by the last Bangladesh Nationalist Party-Jamaat government. However, the unabated escalation of Islamist violence leads to the conclusion that the current Awami League regime has not dealt with a longstanding threat. Furthermore, the argument that Islam and Islamism are distinct is becoming harder to make.
For one thing, Islamism is derived from a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam that is promulgated and propagated by the Middle East, chiefly Saudi Arabia. There are differences amongst the Islamists too – as evidenced by the ongoing turf war between ISIS and Al-Qaeda in Bangladesh – but they are united in their unshakeable belief in the glory of Islam, in whose cause they are soldiers.
For another, renouncing terrorists as not being Muslims alienates them further, and denounces the very foundation of their worldview – that they represent the only true Islam. If that is what they believe, telling them that they are wrong is not going to dissuade or deter them. The unchecked recruitment of extremists and the rising body count resultant from the havoc they wreak is testament to that. By accepting and furthering the politicisation of Islam, neither the politicians nor the people of Bangladesh have done enough to separate the fundamentalist ideology from the religion.
It is a coincidence that the majority of the 20 fatalities in the July 1 attack were of Italian and Japanese descent, the nationalities of the first two expatriates to have been killed by Islamists in Bangladesh, in September 2015 and October 2015 respectively. Sensitivity has been easier since most of the victims were foreigners, not apostates. There were Bangladeshis who were slaughtered alongside the foreigners, whose numbers included an Indian. Bangladeshis have been bleeding at the hands of fundamentalists for over a year now in the recent swathe of attacks, longer if history is viewed correctly.
Sympathy was hard to find amongst politicians and the populace alike, because they were largely religious minorities, heathens being judged not just by extremists in a country where Islam takes precedence over all else. The attacks in rural areas did not affect the collective conscious, dictated by the elite class of Dhaka society, either. The classist attitudes prevalent in the corridors of wealth and power meant the terrorists, said to be drawn from the lower-middle and lower classes, and the victims, certainly not members of the upper class, were not relatable.
Friday’s attack has defied these preconceived notions. A restaurant whose patrons were almost exclusively expatriates and members of the upper class, in one of the safest and most opulent neighbourhoods in Dhaka, was attacked by a group of 20 year-olds who lived and went to English-medium schools and universities in the capital, in the name of Islam. The unwashed masses are no longer the only ones vulnerable to the scourge of Islamism and its violent consequences.
The prime minister called on the nation to observe two days of mourning. Bangladesh may largely have ignored the deaths of Hindus, Christians and minorities outside Dhaka, but it mourned the Rana Plaza disaster, the murders of Avijit Roy and his fellow freethinkers, the butchering of Xulhaz Mannan and Tonoy Mahbub. Sometimes, the world mourned with Bangladesh. In time, and all too quickly, both forgot. Politicians have been allowed to shirk their responsibilities as their complicity in, and ineptitude in dealing with, Islamism become more evident, because of this memory loss.
As a divided and despairing nation heals, it cannot afford to forget again, if the plague of fundamentalism is to be permanently cured. The alternative is complete submission to and compliance with Islamism, regardless of who is in power.
Ikhtisad Ahmed is a columnist for the Dhaka Tribune, and author of the socio-political short story collection titled Yours, Etcetera. His Twitter handle is @ikhtisad.