The knife attack on Muhammed Zafar Iqbal, the popular Bangladeshi writer and science professor, in Sylhet on March 3, is a significant flashpoint, a reminder of the existential end of the idea of Bangladesh at a time when the country faces political uncertainty, with a general election scheduled for later this year.
The nature of the attack matches the modus operandi of Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent. It is said to have directed its members to attack natives identified as apostates and heretics, at close quarters, using knives and machetes as weapons. The Islamic State, by contrast, has used guns and attacked foreigners. Both groups appear on the US’s list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists, with the Islamic State’s success at gaining a foothold in the subcontinent of particular concern to America. However, the Bangladeshi government and law enforcement agencies do not acknowledge either group’s existence on its soil.
Reports by international news groups, and those with interests in Bangladesh have been reluctant to mention the historic link between the rise of fundamentalism in the country and the imported strain of deeply conservative Salafi Islam in politics that gained a foothold courtesy the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Jamaat-e-Islami, which once ruled from Dhaka in alliance. These reports also neglected the military’s connections with Islamists and terrorist groups. The Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen and Harkat-ul-Jihad would neither have existed nor flourished in Bangladesh without the help of the country’s political and military overlords. Talking heads that purport to investigate Islamism in the country have conveniently forgotten this precedent.
The military’s involvement with terrorist groups was laid bare in 2012. Army Major Syed Mohammad Zia-ul Haq – suspected of being a member of Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent – planned a coup along with fugitive Ishraq Ahmed, using the same principles and rhetoric that Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent offered as justification for butchering freethinkers and activists in 2015 and 2016. Another Army officer, Major Zahid, who committed suicide to avoid arrest, was involved with Islamic State training, but his story has been buried so deep that his very existence has become a myth. To think that these are isolated incidents, and that Islamism and Islamist terrorism are not deeply embedded in the military is folly.
However, just as Salafism would not have been injected into the Bangladeshi bloodstream without foreign assistance, it is time for Bangladesh to recognise that Salafi jihad would not exist in the country without a global movement. At the same time, it is impossible for Bangladesh to be honest since any deviation from a strictly defined message – of all being well, of hollow nationalism and the narrative of development under the leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina – is an offence that leads to swift action at the hands of law enforcement agencies entrusted with the protection of an authoritarian government.
The attack on Zafar Iqbal is significant for a plethora of reasons. Recently, Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent has mobilised against multiple targets in quick succession. The freethinkers in Bangladesh who were targeted in 2013 and 2015 belonged to a movement that operated on the margins of society. Avijit Roy, the US-based blogger of Bangladeshi origin who was hacked to death on the streets of Dhaka in February 2015, was an exception in that he was a bestselling author, but he was not a mainstream figure.
The attacks, which sent the freethinking movement in Bangladesh to the verge of extinction, were greeted by apathy and apologia in the country. The majority of Bangladeshis justified them, while those from the urban middle class, upper-middle class and upper class – people who determine how this nation operates – barely engaged with the enormity of what had come to pass. Those who spoke echoed the justifications, putting a premium on “hurting religious sentiments” above lives and fundamental rights.
Freethinkers under threat
Iqbal is one of Bangladesh’s most popular writers, and a prominent public figure. Not since the July 2016 terrorist attack have members of the upper-middle class and upper class had to confront that which they deliberately choose to be ignorant about.
Moreover, while Iqbal is a renowned liberal, he has recently been singing from the same hymn sheet as an Islamism-appeasing government. Following the arrest of publisher Shamsuzzoha Manik in February 2016 for publishing a book that hurt religious sentiments, Iqbal endorsed censorship by imploring readers not to subject themselves to its obscene contents. Last November, he participated in the government’s public relations drive centred on Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s March 7, 1971, speech which spurred Bangladeshis to fight for independence.
The old partisanship which solidified Islamism as the preserve of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Jamaat, forced quasi-progressives to find refuge in the arms of the once non-communal Awami League, which now rules the country. The liberalism of the public intellectual, particularly the celebrated ones such as Iqbal, subscribes to that, extending only as far as the Awami League’s demarcations, but never stretching far enough to enter the realms of true progressive ideology and thereby become a threat to power.
When freethinkers and activists sought help from Bangladesh authorities during the spate of attacks in 2015 and 2016, they were turned away, as they continue to be now. Law enforcement agencies and the government command them to cease their writing and activities, holding them responsible for the consequences of their actions rather than preserving their rights.
Unlike those marginalised people, Iqbal was amongst the fortunate group of national treasures afforded protection by the state. That his security detail failed to prevent the attack on him at a public event, despite warnings of an impending resurgence of Islamist militancy from foreign governments and security experts, will do little to assuage doubts about the effectiveness of law enforcement agencies, specifically on the matter of Islamism. However, the presence of state protection and support in the aftermath of the attack played a considerable role in saving his life.
The attack on Iqbal took place in Sylhet, long an Islamist hotbed prone to radicalisation due to the false piety of expatriate Bangladeshis living in Britain. It was here that British High Commissioner Anwar Choudhury was injured in a terrorist bombing in 2004, which was crucial in paving the way for a military regime to take over from an unpopular Bangladesh Nationalist Party-Jamaat coalition government that openly attempted to engineer the 2007 general election under the guidance of Bangladesh Nationalist Party heir apparent Tarique Rahman, who currently lives in London. The Awami League has built a fiefdom on an unstable coalition of compromise by appeasing Islamists, giving free rein to immoral capitalists, and indulging the military, thus outmanoeuvring the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Jamaat and claiming their home for its own.
The entire nation has turned a blind eye to the Army’s continued oppression of minorities, especially the indigenous populations. The rape and assault of two teenage sisters from the Marma indigenous community on January 22, and the subsequent assault on human rights activist Rani Yan Yan and her associates during her visit to see the girls in hospital on February 15 are the latest instances of Bangladeshi security forces operating with impunity. The same forces are the third largest contributor of troops to the United Nations Peacekeeping Force. The daily tales of persecution do not even register on the national or international conscience. The rape and assault have had no lasting effect on policy or human rights despite piercing the veil of silence.
Should this military seek to intervene against a deeply unpopular government at the urging of foreign powers, as is the unspoken fear of every member of the Awami League, there is very little that can be done to stop it. Whether the March 3 attack in Sylhet proves to be a harbinger of such political change remains to be seen, but there can be little doubt that the attack on the endangered, shrinking minority that is secular Bangladesh has not stopped.
In the meantime, the capitalists will continue to count their ill-gotten gains and volunteer as apologists for the government, blaming the victims and the vulnerable, willing to change their tune at a moment’s notice and rally behind a new benefactor in the event of a change of government. The upper-middle and upper classes will be horrified by the majority view regarding the enemies of Islam. In a nation that has surrendered to the death grip of Islamism, they will be happy to return to blissful ignorance once Iqbal is home. The soldiers will sharpen their knives, emboldened by state appeasement and cheered on by a near-consensus amongst their fellow citizens, echoing their sentiments on the sacred duty of defending the faith.