It’s been over three months since my friend Ishrat Ahkond was murdered in a restaurant in Dhaka, Bangladesh. She was hacked to death by militants who claimed allegiance to ISIS. They stormed the upscale eatery, Holey Artisan Bakery in an exclusive part of town and proceeded to murder 20 people.
In its aftermath both the government and many Bangladeshis claimed that this attack came out of nowhere because the nation has a liberal tradition, which is not susceptible to the scourge of Islamic radicalism like other hapless nations such as Syria or Pakistan. This denial and indolent arrogance actually make Bangladesh more vulnerable to radical Islam.
Yet, the nation’s constitution, as it stands now after various politically expedient amendments, has diluted the pledge to secularism in the original 1972 version. It is a testament to the government hedging its bets to pacify both Islamists and secularists. It states that Islam is the national religion, but grants equal status to all religions. State functions are routinely opened with an Islamic prayer, the irony lost or ignored.
Attacks such as the one on July 1, 2016, could not happen in a vacuum. The warning signs were there in the form of the brutal hacking deaths of secular bloggers as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender bloggers Xulhaz Mannan and Tanay Majumdar. The day after the Holey Artisan attack, a Hindu priest was hacked to death while he was sweeping his temple steps. After a first flush of outrage at the initial blogger murders, there was a sort of whimpering lament. There has been no mass outrage at the murders of Hindu minorities. Steps to hunt down the killers were not forceful enough. There was no government statement that Bangladesh would not tolerate its secularism being undermined by Al Quaeda and ISIS, who have been rapaciously prowling the region for fresh recruits for years.
For an aggressive conservatism to take root, it has to gain momentum stealthily over decades. A friend remarked to me that they saw more and more women donning hijab or the niquaab. “It sort of sneaks up on you,” she said. Now it is here, this beast of religious extremism. And it is here to stay unless Bangladesh stops the tiresome refrain that these young men who carried out this brutality are “home grown” terrorists, and thus, not puppets of ISIS. Because to admit that ISIS has slithered into the homes and hearts of promising young men is to admit that we are not infallible, and that we are in danger of losing our claim to secularity.
A few months back I was criticised for “misrepresenting” Bangladesh where a terrorist attack of this scale could take place. For one heady season I was on the writing team of the hit TV series “Quantico” starring the inimitable Priyanka Chopra, making me the first woman of Bangladeshi origin to write for American network television. On episode five, Priyanka’s character Alex Parrish is accused of consorting with a man who bombed a Bangladeshi nightclub. The torrent of self-righteous indignation aimed at the show and me in particular for that one line was incredible. It started with a blog post on a self-described progressive site that accused the writers of not fact checking – Bangladesh had no nightclubs, it was claimed.
The post shared on social media sparked heated, bruised discussions and quickly turned into outrage about American/Western arrogance and propaganda aimed at painting all brown folk with the same terrorist brush. “How dare the writers say we have nightclubs?” “Plus, we are secular – no one would bomb our nightclubs if we had them, which we don’t.” “You’re confusing us with Indonesia.”
Bangladesh most assuredly has nightclubs. I’ve been in them. There is one in nearly every foreign-owned hotel, frequented by some of the commentators who were outraged by this one line. These spaces are closed off to common people – the unwashed masses, as they are derisively called – so that upper crust Bangladeshis and expats can cavort in privacy and feel they are living in a secular country.
When my name was mentioned I made the rookie mistake of trying to engage. Some of the comments were hostile and personal. It was somehow my failing as one of Bangladeshi origin that I let this outrageous line slip through. When I contacted one of the blog founders, he had my name removed, which I appreciated.
This is not some personal beef I have with a few left wing pseudo liberals (who mostly hail from the privileged class). This is about the denial that Bangladesh is somehow immune to terrorism. What makes Bangladesh so special that it has magical deflector shields against radical Islam?
I too was misguided at first. After the attack, I was interviewed by the BBC, where I asserted that Bangladesh was solidly secular, that we were Bengali first, Muslim second. I was mistaken. The brutal truth is that Bangladesh is in the battle of its life to maintain its secular tradition. We can insist on calling the terrorists home grown, we can expend useless energy being outraged by how Hollywood and the West depict us on fictional shows, we can ignore that our next door neighbour’s 16 year old son has been missing for nine months, or that our once bubbly, outspoken cousin is suddenly refusing to meet our eyes and shows up to family events in hijab, or that we ourselves are terrified of expressing anything that could make us a target for murder.
We can point to the US and Western imperialism as the progenitors of radical Islam. This may be true but it doesn’t change the dangerous reality we face, that the cult of ISIS has arrived in Bangladesh, and made its presence known in the most horrific way, and will continue to do so. To fight it, the nation has to admit it exists – it has to admit it is struggling with its identity. What are we, a theocracy pretending to be secular or a secular nation at its core, fighting to maintain it? Either way, this identity crisis has exposed Bangladesh’s underbelly, making it fair game for the likes of ISIS.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are mine alone, and not those of the Disney Corporation or of the show.