Bangladesh seldom makes headlines in international media. But this has changed in recent months as the global spread of Islamist extremism seems to have returned to the Muslim-majority, but officially secular, Bangladesh. We have seen dozens of people being hacked to death, from an ordinary educationalist who never publicly claimed to be a secular, to Christians, a Buddhist monk, members of the gay community, and secular bloggers.
The methods of murder were generally the same, with ISIS or al-Qaeda claiming responsibility due to the victims' alleged disrespect to Islam or pursuit of an 'un-Islamic' agenda. A recent issue of ISIS' English-language propaganda magazine, Dabiq, featured an interview with the group's designated leader in Bangladesh. The growing phenomenon has caused huge uproar both nationally and internationally, leading to the question, as the group loses ground in Iraq and Syria, of whether ISIS will give greater attention to the country.
Secularists express their concerns periodically about the rise of Islamism in the country more broadly. It would appear that Bangladesh is facing an increasingly binary division between secularists and Islamists, with the latter group playing upon public panic about changes in society.
"Bengali culture is known for promoting co-existence, but also for episodes of violence."
Bangladeshi society and politics, and in particular its history, need to be investigated thoroughly to explain the reasons behind such a rise of terrorism in the name of Islam. Here, we need to concentrate on several aspects that might have led to the rise of Islamism in the country. While Bengali culture is known for promoting openness and co-existence of differing thoughts and opinions, violence of different types has also been an integral part its history.
In the 17th century, the region was known to the Islamic Mughal empire as the region was known as a 'house of turbulence.' East Bengal, now Bangladesh, had a significant role in inciting terrorism against the British during the independence movement of the Indian sub-continent. Later in the 20th century when East Bengal was a part of Pakistan, the rise of Bengali nationalism was regarded as primarily militaristic, rather than political, in nature.
So why should this latest iteration of violence be a cause of concern for the country? Recent violence has an increasingly religious character which echoes international trends in terrorism. But in Bangladesh, this category of violence has precedents. Prior to the latest escalation, violence carried out in the name of Islam last rocked the country on 25 August 2005, with an attack that struck 62 of its 64 districts. The perpetrators, of the al-Qaeda affiliated Islamist group Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh, led by Bangla Bhai, were soon apprehended.
"Binary divides exist between advocates of 'secularism' and 'religiosity.'"
The present nature of Islamist violence is different. As we trace a rise in tension in Bangladeshi society, we can see clear dividing lines along the questions of secularism and religiosity. Secularism was not an avowed principle in pre-independence politics in Bangladesh, and its imposition on a conservative and traditional society as one of the state principles created waves from the very beginning. Secularism has remained an urban concept, the meaning of which was dubious as the state continued to patronise Islam and later on, embodied it as a state religion.
The practice of secularism has also been ambiguous. The initial attacks on secular bloggers in 2013 were not explicitly condemned by the government. Instead, bloggers were asked not to write in a manner that would cause offence. The same has happened in the face of the latest spate of murders. State agencies are asking secular bloggers to tone down their 'attack' on Islam and so to respect the sentiments of the Muslim majority.
It is within this vacuum that the new kind of terrorism in the name of Islam is springing up. It is not only a result of increasing political division among the two main parties, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the ruling Awami League, despite the ongoing tendency of accusing the opposition of having ties with, or abetting extremist acts. But it is also a result of a larger ideological crisis around the role of religion in society.
Bangladesh is yet to conduct a national study on perceptions of extremism, but concerns over the 'Arabisation' of Islam in the country are reflected by a secular suspicion of women wearing the hijab or men wearing a beard. This is also demonstrated by the transformation of the traditional greeting of khuda-hafez (good-bye in the name of God) to Allah-hafez (good-bye in the name of Allah), on the grounds that that khuda is a Persian word while Allah is Arabic and, therefore, more Islamic. While these tendencies are not new, the changing outlook on what makes one 'secular' or 'religious' creates a binary divide that encourages the rise of extremism.
These trends show the need to expand our focus, to a growing political culture of mistrust, which has prevented the major political parties from cooperating in countering the rise of extremism in Bangladesh. Imported ideologies, both religious and secular, have disrupted the country's resilient society. 'Secularism' remains a political tool as a means to portraying a 'modern' Bangladesh to the world, but has failed to speak to ordinary people in Bangladesh. Instead, then authentically Bangladeshi form of secularism, which entails accommodation and respect to religious differences, needs to be popularised in order to enable the country to fight rising extremism on its soil.