Bangladesh’s Deep Crisis and its Origins
Marina Forti 7 July 2016

Reports are clear. Over the past two years, extremists calling themselves Islamists have killed at least 49 people, among them bloggers, authors, publishers, teachers, members of the Hindu and Christian minorities, gay activists, supporters of secularism and at least two foreign NGO workers. These were people attacked because of what they said or wrote, or their social activism. These were individual murders often carried out in the middle of the day using knives and machetes, usually by attackers who then fled on motorbikes; crude, brutal and effective methods. Nowadays critics, intellectuals and minorities live in a climate of increasing insecurity.

The latest attack, involving a hostage-taking in a restaurant patronised by the élite, certainly marks a change of gear: now we see firearms and grenades, hostages and proclamations, not to mention the high visibility target – a diplomatic enclave, western victims. Even the identities of the attackers caused a sensation. If the photographs published on Islamic State’s social networks are accurate (and it appears that they are), these are youngsters belonging to Dhaka’s upper classes, students at the capital’s most exclusive schools. One is even the son of a former representative of the political party now in government, Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League. (One can fully understand the shock experienced by many upper class families, even though this is not the first time that the sons of the élite have embraced extreme causes: after all, even in the Middle East the Islamic State’s recruits do not only include the poor and the marginalised).

There will be discussions about whether this bloody attack should be attributed to the Islamic State (which has claimed responsibility) or to some al-Qaeda off-shoot, or whether it was the work of local groups as claimed by the government led by Mrs. Sheikh Hasina. The fact that IS is trying to expand to Bangladesh is clear in the emphasis present in its videos and in the propaganda circulating on social networks. Al Qaeda too has recently intensified its campaign to strengthen its presence in the whole of South Asia. Islamic extremism naturally also has “native” roots. There is a traditionalist religious right (the Jamaat-e Islami party, formed before India was partitioned early in the 20th century), an influential party although it has never been a powerful electoral force. More extreme factions have emerged over time. It is from the more radical mosques of Bangladesh that volunteers have left for the various “holy wars” in Afghanistan (with the anti-Soviet mujahidin of the Eighties and later with the Taliban or al Qaeda). Here too, albeit to a lesser extent than in Pakistan, the fighters returned from their Afghan adventures reimporting more extremist and “jihadist” interpretations. It is not strange that new generations of extremists, in Bangladesh as elsewhere, have found first in al Qaeda and now in IS a source of inspiration. According to the Bangladeshi government the responsibility for the attack in Dhaka lays with the group called Jamaat-ul-Mojaheddin Bangladesh, JMB. It is precisely this group that recently announced it was Islamic State’s representative in Bangladesh, although the government denies there is any evidence of organisational links. Could the attack on the restaurant have been a gesture to improve their credentials? An episode in the competition between IS and al Qaeda? Many experts on “Islamic terrorism” believe that the key to recent events lies precisely in the rivalry between the two groups, with IS attempting to establish a presence in Bangladesh, and al Qaeda feeling threatened by its presence (which dates back to the Nineties and runs parallel to their establishment in Afghanistan and Pakistan).

Whatever the organisational links between the terrorists and international networks they belong to may be, it is, however, the attack on the restaurant clearly has revealed the vulnerability of security apparatuses in Bangladesh. For months Prime Minister Hasina and Interior Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal have denied the presence in Bangladesh of any group in any way linked to Islamic State. The attack in Dhaka proved them wrong.

And yet, all this is more of a consequence than a primary cause. More than a terrorism problem, be it domestic or international, the crisis experienced by Bangladesh is one of democracy.

Let us take a step back in time. In the course of its brief history, Bangladesh has experienced a bloody war of liberation (from Pakistan, in 1971), a coup d’état (in 1975, when the first  president and founder of the Awami League, Mujibur Rehman, was assasinated), then a long military dictatorship and various waves of social and political violence. Since 1991, when the country returned to parliamentary democracy, two parties have alternated in power, the Awami League, led by Sheikh Hasina (daughter of the murdered premier) and the Nationalist Party led by another woman, Khaleda Zia, the widow of the general who came to power following the coup. Hatred between these two women is profound and personal and has engulfed the entire country. When one party is in power the other boycotts parliament and vice versa; each party in power would puts on trial (usually for corruption or other various abuses of power) the leaders of the party in opposition and vice versa.

In this vindictive cycle the real victim has been democracy, as it was clear in 2009 when the army took power while the country was in chaos, and organised the transition to new elections. The cycle, however, started again. In 2011 voters brought to power Sheikh Hasina, who in just a few years had dozens of opponents imprisoned and changed the electoral law in her own favour, so much so that in 2014 her rival boycotted the election.

There are of course political and ideological differences, especially in the traditions of these two parties: the Awami League has a popular base and proclaimed secularism, democracy and socialism its core values, while the BNP is conservative. But even these differences pale, also because in the meantime (second half of the Nineties) Bangladesh had embarked on economic liberalisation and tried to enter the globalised economy –  finding for itself a niche as the supplier of very cheap labour in the global textile and clothing industry, which has become the country’s leading industry and its top export  (it is not entirely a coincidence that many of the Italian victims at the Holey Artisan Bakery where entrepreneurs dealing with fashion; Italy after all absorbs about a quarter of Bangladesh’s garment and textile exports). This happened at the cost of tragedies such as the earlier mentioned collapse of Rana Plaza, in 2013, in which 1,200 workers died when the building housing the spinning mills collapsed. All this because competitiveness is achieved cutting costs of both labour and safety.

All this – messy politics and greedy entrepreneurship – is balanced by an active and organised civil society, for which an excellent example is set by the many NGOs that work in the social sector, bringing health care to the most remote villages, organising networks of women workers (for example in the textile and clothing sectors) or microcredit (the famous Grameen Bank was created here). Women’s activism is widespread even in rural contexts; hence the more conservative mullahs have for some time been preaching against the NGOs and social activists who have become the favourite targets of fanatics with machetes.

And so we come to the present. For at least a decade, Bangladesh has seen the growth of fierce fundamentalist extremism, on each occasion underestimated, tolerated or even encouraged. Between 2001 and 2006, the then premier Khaleda Zia allowed the religious right significant freedom, to the point of including in her government ministers from the Jamaat Islami party, in particular three men known for having cooperated with the Pakistani Army against the 1971 independence movement; a real provocation. So since returning to power in 2011, Sheikh Hasina has pressed charges against the “BNP-Jamaat Islami gang” and has had tried and sentenced for war crimes a number of the religious party’s historical leaders. Both women, however, ignored the mullahs thundering against the NGOs and female emancipation, as well as more recently the men bearing machetes who “execute” secular bloggers and authors as well as Hindu and Christian priests.

For the moment Sheikh Hasina’s government has dismissed the attacks on bloggers and intellectuals as isolated incidents and all talk of Islamic State’s penetration as an opposition plot. Only rarely are those guilty of these attacks charged. Even worse, Interior Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal has commented that bloggers “should be careful what they write”, and “not offend religious sentiments”: as if to say they were asking for trouble. The premier herself, Mrs. Sheikh Hasina, has condemned more the contents of the blogs than those who used machetes.

Underestimation? It will now be impossible for the Hasina government to ignore the threat posed by Islamic extremism. It would, however, be appalling to rely only on arrests and police operations. In June, after many protests and appeals to pursue those responsible for attacks on bloggers and writers, the government indeed launched a security operation, with 11,000 people arrested between June 10th and 16th, as observed with alarm by Human Rights Watch, which reported the risk of indiscriminate arrests.

In the meantime, the attack on the elite restaurant in Dhaka is a rough awakening for those Bengalis who still felt safe. “For months, I and many of my fellow Bangladeshis have wanted to believe that the targeted assassinations (…) did not mean that Bangladesh was necessarily on a road to destabilization by violent extremists!” wrote the Bengali author Tahmima Anam (in New York Times). “We felt sure that things must eventually go back to normal — normal being a Muslim-majority country with a secular Constitution and a robust tradition of social justice, diversity and pluralism”, wrote Anam. Instead it is precisely this that is experiencing a crisis.

Translated by Francesca Simmons