A Battle for the Soul of a Nation

Seth Oldmixon
Founder, Liberty South Asia

The terrorist attack at Holey Bakery in Dhaka earlier this month deviated in important ways from the previous trend of assassination-style attacks against specific individuals in Bangladesh. The perpetrators targeted a group of random individuals, prolonged the attack to maximize media exposure, and engaged in an attack that provided little hope of escape. However, these developments are only the latest evolution of a long-existing effort to reverse the secular democratic principles on which Bangladesh was founded.

Bangladesh earned its independence in 1971 following a brutal war of secession from Pakistan and quickly established itself as a secular democracy that prided itself in its indigenous syncretic culture. This cultural nationalism was a direct challenge to the radical pan-Islamist ideology promoted by the Pakistani state, and Islamists have been fighting to undermine it ever since.

While Bangladesh first faced Islamist terrorism at the hands of Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) during the war of independence, it was in the 1990s that modern Islamist terrorism began to rear its head in the country as militants began to return home from jihad in Afghanistan. This virulent strain of violent extremism integrated into mainstream politics as political parties – particularly the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) – took an accommodationist approach that expanded Islamists power in exchange for support at the polls.

Over the next decade, through their political alliance with the BNP and support from Pakistani intelligence, Islamists in Bangladesh were able to spread their ideology and expand their networks throughout the country. The outcome was not only a propagation of radical Islamism, but a rise in religious violence through politically connected militant groups like Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and Islami Chhatra Shibir, an armed wing of JI.

Islamist extremists finally came under pressure after the JMB carried out a nationwide bomb attack in 2005, but even then it wasn’t until the BNP-JI alliance was out of power that serious efforts to root out terrorism replaced “the facile assurances of the previous BNP-led government that there was no evidence of involvement by government or party officials,” according to leaked State Department cables. Following the interim government’s crackdown, Islamist terrorism briefly declined but by no means disappeared. Often targeting Hindus and other religious minorities, attacks were largely led by JI cadres and rarely received attention in the international media.

Islamists efforts reached a fever pitch in recent years as the current Awami League government worked to make good on election promises to vigorously defend the country’s secular identity. Unable to defeat the Awami League at the polls, the BNP-JI alliance boycotted the election and carried out a systematic terror campaign intended to prevent religious minorities from participating in civic life. At the same time, Bangladesh was coming to the attention of transnational groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State that  began calling for jihad against the Awami League regime, which they accused of being anti-Islamic in their propaganda.

In recent years, Islamists have become increasingly emboldened. In 2013, radical Islamists carried out violent demonstrations demanding draconian blasphemy laws, ending “foreign cultural intrusions” such as free speech, and executing anyone found guilty of “maligning” Islam. In March of this year, Islamists in Bangladesh vowed to wage armed jihad against the state if the Constitution’s original secular language was restored.

Prior to the attack at Holey Bakery, international media often reduced militant attacks in Bangladesh to “blogger killings,” an overly simplified characterization of the situation. In fact, targets were much more diverse. International attention has focused on foreign victims such as Avijit Roy, and American blogger; Kunio Hoshi, a Japanese farmer; and Italian aid worker Cesare Tavella. But attacks have also targeted a number of Hindu priests, and even Muslims who don’t subscribe to fundamentalist Salafi interpretations of Islam. The underlying trend points to a campaign to cleanse the country of its indigenous culture of secular pluralism.

While the Dhaka attack stands out for many reasons, it is also a continuation of this trend. The perpetrators were radical Islamists who specifically targeted a restaurant popular with Westerners where they separated Bangladeshis from foreigners and released those who could quote a verse from the Quran. Those who failed this test were slaughtered. The one exception was Faraaz Hossain, a young Bangladeshi Muslim who refused to abandon his non-Muslim friends and was murdered along with them.

As with the machete attacks that preceded it, the Dhaka attack was clearly designed to deliver a message to Bangladeshis that anyone who resists the Islamists’ radical ideology does so under threat of death.

Without a significant change in course, Bangladesh will continue to suffer increasingly vicious attacks as Islamists pursue their agenda of transforming the country into an Islamic state. Preventing Bangladesh from becoming the next Pakistan or Afghanistan will require intelligence sharing and law enforcement training. But improving security capabilities is not enough. The country’s political parties must also abandon the practice of making alliances with religious extremists for short-term political gain and unite behind the country’s founding principles. It is unclear that Bangladesh’s political leaders realize this. Until they do, attacks will continue.

The Author is Seth Oldmixon

Seth Oldmixon is a public affairs consultant who served as a US Peace Corps volunteer in Bangladesh. He is the founder of Liberty South Asia, an independent, privately funded campaign dedicated to supporting religious freedom and political pluralism in South Asia. Follow him on Twitter at @setholdmixon.

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