Dhaka’s Secular Traditions Have Never Been More Vulnerable
by Michael Kugelman, Atif Ahmad
On July 1, 2016, five militants stormed the Holey Artisan Bakery, a restaurant frequented by foreigners in an upscale neighborhood of the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka. ISIS claimed responsibility, but local officials blamed members of Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), a Bangladeshi militant organization. A 12-hour siege ended with the deaths of 22 hostages, 18 of them foreigners. This tragedy, which generated headlines around the world, was the country’s deadliest single terror attack in recent history. All of a sudden, Bangladesh—long overlooked not just by the international media but also within policy circles in Washington and other key capitals, despite being the world’s seventh most populous country and third-largest Muslim majority country—was on everyone’s radar.
One year later, Bangladesh has faded from the headlines, yet terrorist attacks continue, and the country’s deep secular traditions have never been more vulnerable thanks to Islamist extremists’ increasing inroads into society.
A WAVE OF JIHADIST ATTACKS
Not even a week after the Holey Artisan attack, militants carried out another assault—this one in eastern Bangladesh during the country’s largest prayer gathering for the Eid holiday. There were no formal claims of responsibility, but officials in Dhaka once again blamed JMB. Four people died, prompting an increase in counterterrorism efforts from the government. In July and August 2016, security officials seized large amounts of explosives around Dhaka that they claimed were in the possession of operatives of JMB and also Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), another local Bangladeshi terror group. They also targeted dozens of jihadists, leading to the deaths of nearly 20 militants, including the alleged mastermind of the Holey Artisan attack, Tamim Ahmed. In late July, police claimed to have killed nine militants affiliated with JMB and reportedly planning to carry out an attack similar to the Holey Artisan attack.
After the government crackdown there were no reported attacks until March 17, 2017, when a suicide bomber attacked a camp of the Rapid Action Battalion—an elite counterterror wing of the Bangladeshi police—in Dhaka, injuring two officers. Then, on March 23 and March 24, two suicide bombers struck outside Dhaka’s international airport. ISIS and al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) claimed the bombings, and there were no casualties. On March 25, though, a suicide bomber killed six people, including an army lieutenant colonel, in the northeastern district of Sylhet. It took four days for special forces to eliminate four other terrorists holed up near the area. Both ISIS and AQIS again claimed responsibility for this incident, but the government pinned the blame on JMB.
This flurry of terrorist activity seems to indicate that Bangladesh remains in ISIS and AQIS’ crosshairs—even after stepped-up counterterrorism efforts. To be sure, the country is not as ravaged by terrorism as are some of its neighbors in South Asia, such as Afghanistan and Pakistan. Still, the problem persists.
And society is changing in turn. Until now, the country has been relatively hospitable for its roughly 16 million non-Muslim citizens (about a tenth of its overall population). As recently as 2013, Dan Mozena, then the U.S. ambassador in Dhaka, remarked that Bangladesh was a “moderate, tolerant, democratic country” and “a viable alternative to violent extremism in a troubled region of the world.”
Yet from February to August 2015, four prominent atheist bloggers were killed by machete-wielding assailants. These attacks continued into 2016, with the deaths of over 15 people—including religious minorities, social workers, and USAID employee Xulhaz Mannan. These assaults were claimed by ISIS, AQIS, and ABT, which has close ties to al Qaeda.
Many Bangladeshis condemned these attacks. In all these cases, however, the attackers were locals, indicating the inroads that radicalization has been able to make across different spheres of Bangladeshi society. Local militant groups like ABT recruit from among madrasah students and teachers, while one of the first deadly attacks on a blogger, back in 2013, was carried out by students at North South University, a prestigious Dhaka educational institution. Many of the restaurant attackers in July 2016 were well educated and came from wealthy families. The militants claimed that they were motivated by the alleged defamation of Islam in a case having to do with a prominent blogger, Mannan, publicly supporting LGBT rights in Bangladesh’s first LGBT magazine. The wide scale of attacks on bloggers, social workers, and religious minority groups is unprecedented in the country.
ISLAMIST MOVEMENTS’ IMPACT
Bangladesh government spokespersons have repeatedly condemned recent terrorist attacks. However, troubling developments over the last few months raise doubts about how committed the government is to combating radicalization within society. Indeed, they suggest that the state may be hindering more than helping efforts to tackle extremism—which means that a decrease in attacks on religious minorities and other vulnerable members of society so far in 2017 could be short-lived.
Anti-government voices, including Bangladeshi journalist and writer K. Anis Ahmed, are now accusing Dhaka of appeasing Islamist parties, particularly a group named Hefazat-e-Islam Bangladesh, which roughly translates to Guardians of Islam in Bangladesh. Notably, political leaders allied with the ruling Awami League (AL) party, such as Rashid Khan Menon of the Workers Party, have also accused the government of caving to the demands of Islamists.
Hefazat, which is an activist group, not a formal political party, has gained prominence in recent years, including a 2013 protest known as the Siege of Dhaka. During this day-long event, members demanded government support for a set of 13 demands, ranging from enacting a blasphemy law and cancelling the government’s women development policy to banning the deployment of sculptures in public places and punishing atheist bloggers with death.
This past spring, Hefazat followed up on one of these demands and called for the removal of a statue of Lady Justice from the Supreme Court premises in Dhaka. It organized large protests demanding the statue’s removal, and on May 26 it got its wish. The move sparked counterprotests demanding that the statue be reinstalled, and on May 28, it was—although in a less prominent and central space than the original location.
The government’s exact role in this affair is unclear, although there’s good reason to believe that Dhaka helped forge a compromise to appease Hefazat and also the Awami Olama League—a religious group that espouses Islamist views and claims affiliation with the ruling Awami League party, and which also wanted the statue removed. In April, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina expressed support for the statue’s removal, saying it was improper to display what she described as a rendering of the Greek goddess Themis (the sculptor denied that it depicted Themis). Hasina appeared to suggest that it was inappropriate to display a statue that depicted a Greek goddess wearing a sari.
Dhaka would have had a strong political incentive to foster this compromise and to seek common ground with Islamists more generally: doing so could help bolster support for the Awami League government from the Olama League and other Islamist parties, perhaps even those from the opposition, ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for 2019. Partnerships with religious parties, by empowering the forces of anti-secularism, portend the possibility of assaults on Bangladesh’s secular traditions.
Just a few days after the resolution of the statue controversy, Hefazat called for the arrest of Sultana Kamal, chair of the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International Bangladesh, after she commented on a television talk show on May 29 that, if no religious structures like the statue should be allowed on the Supreme Court premises, “then no mosques should be on the premises, either.”
Bangladesh’s government has said relatively little about this incident. Its unwillingness to speak on behalf on an eminent citizen like Kamal—a well-known activist—can be taken as a sign that Dhaka doesn’t want to upset those who agree with the views of Hefazat on this matter. These developments followed another example of Dhaka’s apparent acquiescence to Islamists’ agenda: changes to school textbooks pushed by Hefazat have resulted in the presence of fewer texts and other material by non-Muslim authors.
From the perspective of counterterrorism, the Bangladeshi government’s dalliance with Hefazat may not seem as problematic as shrugging off the presence of terrorism on its soil—as Dhaka had done in the weeks and months leading up to the July 2016 restaurant attack. Still, by cozying up to a hard-line organization like Hefazat, Bangladesh’s government is playing with fire. True, Hefazat is not a terrorist organization. However, it espouses a retrograde, intolerant ideology revolving around harsh interpretations of Islam—the very ideology that galvanizes Islamist terror groups. Dhaka, by refusing to distance itself from the ideas of Hefazat, is indirectly legitimizing the types of ideas that can give rise to terror.
In short, Bangladesh’s bedrock secularist traditions are increasingly vulnerable. And more broadly, conservatives and secularists are on a collision course. The fault lines extend far and wide; the battle over the Supreme Court statue is just the latest in a series of showdowns over the last few years. These range from efforts (so far unsuccessful) by secular petitioners to get the Supreme Court to eliminate Islam as the state religion to ongoing war crimes trials that have to this point executed five leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), an Islamist opposition party.
Defenders of secularism may reasonably interpret this battle as an encouraging sign: powerful forces pushing back against threats to secularism. Such a view, however, may be overly sanguine. These campaigns by secularists of late have been relatively sporadic and not as well organized as those of Hefazat and its ilk.
Indeed, the secularists’ most potent days may be behind them. Over a period of several weeks in 2013, protestors took to the streets to demand the death penalty for Jamaat-e-Islami leaders accused of war crimes and to call for banning the group from politics. The Shahbagh Movement, named after the Dhaka neighborhood where the protests began, drew tens of thousands of participants at its height.
Ironically enough, this show of strength by secularists helped propel to prominence the powerful Islamist forces of today. One of the first fatal attacks on a blogger was perpetrated during the early days of the Shahbagh movement by anti-Shahbagh activists. Several weeks later, Hefazat, which had been formed just three years earlier, staged counterprotests that mobilized several hundred thousand people.
Four years later, secularists have seen some of their demands addressed effectively: JI leaders accused of war crimes have been executed, while JI has been banned from elections and suffered from extensive (and frequently violent) state crackdowns. However, their more recent campaigns haven’t come close to approaching the numbers and energy of Shahbagh. By contrast, Hefazat protests today regularly draw large crowds—including at least 100,000 at a Dhaka rally calling for a new blasphemy law earlier this month. And most ominously, the AL has seemingly started to go soft on an organization that seeks to eliminate the very secular traditions that it has long sworn to uphold. The Islamists appear to be on the ascent, with secularists increasingly on the defensive.
The competition between Islamists and secularists may be increasingly stacked in the Islamists’ favor, but Bangladeshi society continues to boast uncompromising supporters of both camps. In time, if left unaddressed, these tensions could explode into open conflict. Already, these social fissures are ripe for exploitation by forces loyal to ISIS and AQIS, which remain clear and present dangers even in the face of government crackdowns.
A DELICATE DANCE
Dhaka has some hard work cut out for itself. It needs to crack down not only on terrorists but also on the ideologies that drive them—ideologies that are propagated by Islamists that hold increasing sway within society. Accordingly, Bangladesh needs to carry out a delicate dance: First, it needs to continue to rigorously combat terror, while not using counterterrorism as a pretext to target nonviolent members of the Islamist opposition.
Second, it needs to take a firmer stand against the positions of Hefazat and its ilk, and offer full-throated support to religious minorities and other vulnerable communities, all the while ensuring that nonviolent Islamists retain the space to operate and channel their grievances peacefully. The ultimate goal should be to reduce the deep polarization within politics and society—rifts that the government has helped exacerbate thanks to draconian and violent actions against peaceful political opponents.
These steps are tall orders, but given what’s at stake, they’re an utter necessity. Bangladesh has achieved so much over the years—from poverty reduction (Bangladesh reduced the number of poor by 16 million people between 2000 and 2010) to the development of a robust civil society—as a relatively moderate Muslim-majority country. It can ill afford to fall into the world’s growing ranks of illiberal democracies.
This article was originally published on ForeignAffairs.com.