Bangladesh is slowly but surely descending into anarchy.
The time to reverse the descent is now, or it may be too late.
The carnage at an upscale eatery in the diplomatic enclave in the capital city of Dhaka on 1st July, in which twenty hostages, mostly foreigners, were killed with cleavers and long knives, was only a continuation of the butchery of about 40 secular bloggers, university professors, gay rights activists, writers, publishers, foreigners and members of religious minorities, including Shia and Sufi Muslims, Hindus and Christians, since 2013.
The virus of extremism and religious fanaticism is rapidly spreading, infecting a segment of the population that includes estranged and affluent educated young men in their teens and 20's who hate openly and kill wantonly.
ISIS, the death-cult organization, has taken credit for the carnage. Latest reports suggest that the seven young attackers were driven by the nihilistic goals of ISIS, although they probably received military training from homegrown terrorist organizations like Ansar
al-Islam and Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen.
al-Islam and Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen.
It is a tragedy of gigantic proportion that the Wisconsin-sized nation of 160 million, held up as a symbol of Muslim moderation not too long ago, has become a pawn, perhaps even a player, in the deadly game of global jihadism.
What can Bangladesh do to reverse its descent into the abyss and restore its reputation as a moderate nation?
First, the government must acknowledge that terrorist organizations like ISIS and al-Qaida have planted themselves in Bangladesh, with local fanatics ready to respond to their evil messages with extreme violence. One can fight the enemy only if one identifies who the enemy is. Last month, the government arrested over 11,000 people in a supposed crackdown on terrorism but critics, national and international, complained that many of those arrested were supporters of opposition parties, including the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) that Prime Minister Hasina is determined to undermine under any pretext.
Second, the conditions that foster the growth of jihadist movements must be eradicated with as much fervor and foresight as the jihadist movements themselves. For Bangladesh, this means giving up its obsession with the past and focusing more on the future.
ISIS-inspired killers in Bangladesh did not grow in a vacuum. A major factor in their rise has been the government’s relentless pursuit of Bangladeshis responsible for war-crimes committed during the nation’s bloody war of independence in 1971. While most Bangladeshis supported the idea of their trial, what was not acceptable was the utter lack of transparency of the so-called “International Crimes Tribunal” established in 2010. There was nothing ‘international’ about the tribunal. Filled with party hacks, it resembled a kangaroo court more than it did any genuine dispenser of justice. The tribunal hanged several members of the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami party, including its leader Motiur Rahman Nizami in May this year. This helped radicalize some Bangladeshis who were convinced that Islam itself was under siege by Sheikh Hasina’s government, despite the fact that the prime minister is a devout Muslim herself.
A corollary of this unfortunate development is the opportunity it has given ISIS looking for soft targets around the world after losing territories in Syria and Iraq. It is clear that it has found one in Bangladesh where general lawlessness, corruption, nepotism, violence and partisan politics have combined to make it a prime target for terrorist organizations.
As an American of Bangladeshi origin, I have been visiting the country of my birth every year for the last several years. The reason for my visit is to be with my octogenarian mother battling several physical ailments. Prophet Muhammad taught that paradise lies beneath the feet of mothers. That, combined with respect and gratitude for the woman who instilled in me the importance of having a purposeful life, used to fill me with happiness every time I boarded the flight from San Francisco on my way to Dhaka.
In the last couple of years, however, my attitude has changed. For one thing, it just isn’t safe there anymore. Anything can happen. Family and friends warn me not to venture outside after dark. News of kidnapping, killing, mugging, bombing and assorted violence fill the daily media. For another, the disintegration of the civil society is too jarring to accept. The opening line of the national anthem of Bangladesh reads: “My Golden Bengal, I love you.” For the common man, that Golden Bengal of yesteryear has degenerated into a cruel and callous country where trust, security and honesty seem quaint relics.
The day after the attack in Dhaka, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina gave a speech in which she said: “We will turn Bangladesh into a peaceful state by eliminating the terrorists from their roots. No conspiracy can hinder our advancement.”
For the sake of Bangladesh, and the world, we can only hope that the Prime Minister will take rational, practical steps to keep her promise, instead of resorting to policies mired in the past and driven by the idea of revenge.