The weekend, which brought a horrific attack to Dhaka, has faded, but the events have not as confusion reigns in Bangladesh. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina spoke twice on July 2, but what she said about the latest Islamist attack did not hint at a shift in stance or intention on part of her Awami League government.
Conflicting information followed from the statements of law enforcement officials and the home and health ministers with regard to the attack. Amidst the torrent of information and misinformation, the severity of what had happened began to dissipate.
The populace is at risk of being so focused on uncovering the truth that it is disregarding what to do with the truth, should it ever come to light.
Certain incontrovertible facts about the underlying causes of extremism that exist in Bangladesh are also being ignored as the discourse mutates from grieving and demanding solutions to apportioning blame, and believing venomous rhetoric aimed at the perceived reprobate or sinner. The government, opposition, law enforcement agencies and citizens have, thus, adopted the Islamists’ penchant for confirmation bias. Under such circumstances, a legitimate investigation that equips the nation to prevent further attacks and root out extremism is unlikely. Misdirection prevails, and a political problem that was birthed by the politicisation of Islam, shows no signs of having the necessary political solutions considered or implemented.
There are two versions of what happened on the night of July 1 and the morning of July 2.
The Rapid Action Battalion – an elite paramilitary police force that was created under the last coalition government of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Jamaat-e-Islami as political muscle – had announced during the siege that a peaceful settlement was hoped for as law enforcement negotiated with the hostage takers. This has since disappeared from the narrative, leading to the assumption that at no point had there been any communication with the attackers.
In the aftermath of the attack, and before any autopsy results were available, the Bangladesh Inspector General of Police stated that the 20 hostages were killed within the first 20 minutes, implying that a quicker or different response would not have changed the outcome. This claim has not been altered by the authorities, even as eyewitness accounts and the law enforcement raid have revealed the deplorable extent of the savage torture meted out to the 20 victims, which would have been time consuming.
When the law enforcement officials eventually released the names of the terrorists, they claimed that they were aware of the involvement of these individuals – all local Bangladeshis – with extremism. They specified that the attackers belonged to the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen – a banned Islamist outfit that came into existence because of government patronage under the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-Jamaat-e-Islami regime.
Having this knowledge, yet taking no action is a glaring intelligence and law enforcement failure. The government, however, has not, and will not, take any action against those who have been negligent and incompetent. It relies on these forces to stay in power, a fact that remains constant regardless of who is in government. Further ineptitude and indiscretion that will be overlooked or excused is expected.
The home minister stressed that no foreign Islamist organisations were involved, and the assertions of home-grown terrorism from past attacks were reiterated. The government may say there are home-grown terrorists, but refuses to acknowledge or deal with home-grown extremism. His colleague, the health minister, took it further, stating that the perpetrators were activists of the ruling party’s political opponent – the Jamaat-e-Islami.
While the Jamaat-e-Islami, with the insistence and assistance of its ally, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, has been central to introducing and nurturing Islamism in the country, these statements were made before a thorough investigation, or any semblance of a meaningful investigation, had been concluded, much less conducted. Furthermore, they were made before details of the deceased and injured were confirmed, before the tragedy could be mourned.
The appearance is that of the government using the time of the siege and hostage situation to devise a political strategy for the aftermath as opposed to thinking about tackling the root causes of Islamism and its inhuman consequences. The hesitation in deploying the Army in a country with a regrettable history of coups d’état – the last coup was foiled in 2012 and had the involvement of Islamists – only increases these suspicions.
The second version, pieced together with the aid of information released by the Islamic State to substantiate its claim of responsibility for the attack, identified the attackers as being from the urban middle class in Bangladesh.
Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen recruits are predominantly rural ideologues.
The photographs the Islamic State released matched with those of the terrorists killed in the last hours of the Dhaka siege. The young men, educated at private English medium schools and universities, had disappeared between December 2015 and March 2016. Their parents had reported them missing, but neither their location nor their activities were uncovered. One of them is said to be the son of an Awami League leader.
It is also evident that the Islamists released hostages they deemed to be Muslims before accepting their fate in the imminent raid by law enforcement agencies, giving the lie to claims of a successful rescue mission. The hostages were alive, not because they were rescued, but because they were spared.
That the Islamic State account of who the perpetrators were, what they were doing during the attack – documented in gruesome images posted online – and the death toll were accurate while the Bangladesh government’s information is neither coherent nor consistent is deeply concerning.
At a time the population’s trust in the government and its opponents is desperately low, people are turning to Islamic State propaganda for the truth. The July 1 attack is a testament to the death and destruction that can be wrought by the disillusioned, disenfranchised and alienated when they turn to fundamentalism.
The way out?
Bangladesh is a country whose politics has been dysfunctional and devoid of a Left for a long time. As the government and its opportunistic opponents thrust and parry, more people are vulnerable to embarking on the same journey that saw those young men carry out this senseless attack.
The July 1 attack is the worst single terrorist attack on Bangladeshi soil. It is many times worse than the brutality and number of casualties in 2005, when the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen set off 500 bombs across the country.
There is a romantic notion that Bangladesh is secular, which must now be accepted as a myth. The nation fought for and gained independence on a secular platform, but that value has been eroded by decades of a conservative and radical form of Islam being the overriding political ideology. This has not only manifested itself in Islamism becoming a dominant political force wielded by the Bangladesh National Party and Jamaat, and appeased by the Awami League, but also as a religion that has lost its syncretic regional roots, and as a society that has become more intolerant. Justifying the brutal slaughter during this latest swathe of ever escalating Islamist violence has, thus, been convenient.
When preachers at mosques in the capital spew vitriol about apostates, heretics and blasphemers, when radical preachers reach millions via television channels and the internet, bigotry, prejudice and hatred are all too easy to pass off as the one true Islam.
The indoctrination into fundamentalist cults is available in every home. A country that has made turning a blind eye into an art-form – evidenced by the decades of oppression of its indigenous people by governments and the military – needs serious introspection to reverse the rot that has already set in.
Additionally, Bangladesh needs exceptional leadership and a comprehensive strategy to deal with the Islamist threat in the immediate and distant futures. Instead, while a fire has been lit, and is spreading throughout their kingdom, the would-be despots are wrestling over a crown of thorns.
Ikhtisad Ahmed is a columnist for the Dhaka Tribune, and author of the socio-political short story collection Yours, Etcetera. His Twitter handle is @ikhtisad.