Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Bangladesh - A Power Vacuum Abhors Peace

In the face of official denial, the Islamist-inspired violence which has been leeching into Bangladesh now looks to become a flood. What appears to some as a recent phenomenon actually has its roots in the country's tumultuous birth

It is the latest chapter in what - according to one theory - appears to be deadly competition between Al Qaeda and its even more violent offspring, ISIS, to establish dominance over Bangladesh's jihadist landscape. 
In the past two months alone, there have been four such killings: in end February, ISIS claimed credit for the murder of a Hindu priest in northern Bangladesh. In the first week of April, Al Qaeda claimed credit for killing of a secular student activist. Two weeks later, ISIS claimed they were behind killing of an English professor in Rajashahi, a university town north of Dhaka. 
And then came the killing of Mr Mannan, claimed by Al Quaeda.
David Bergman, a Dhaka-based freelance journalist told NDTV that "it doesn't mean that ISIS or Al Qaeda are operational in Bangladesh, or that they have a base here. But they have some ways of communicating here. It is pretty clear even as the government is denying it. "  
"There is no IS, there is no Al Qaeda in Bangladesh, these criminals are home grown criminals," said AKM Shohidul Haq, Bangladesh's Inspector General of Police, in response to a question from NDTV.

Any which way you look at them, the murders cannot be seen in isolation from the ongoing war crimes trials of those who collaborated with the Pakistan Army during the Liberation War of 1971, causing countless deaths in the months leading up to the creation of Bangladesh. The attacks are but indications of a battle being waged between two sets of ideas on the country’s past, present and future. The first set imagines Bangladesh as a nation born of a struggle against the linguistic and cultural hegemony of what was then West Pakistan, and founded on a commitment to liberal, secular and civic values. The second imagines the country not in civic terms but as yet another outpost of political Islam.

Much as we may argue that Bangladesh epitomises the triumph of cultural nationalism over Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s spurious Muslim nationalism that fetched him a moth-eaten Islamic State whose hate-filled remnant is now in danger of devouring itself, facts point to the contrary. The spirit of 1971 was no doubt overwhelmingly, jubilantly, secular, but it died soon after the Liberation War. It did not even last till Mujibur Rahman’s assassination on August 15, 1975. 
Secularism was indeed enshrined in the Constitution of Bangladesh by Mujib as one of its founding principles. It was knocked off and Islam declared as the state religion by Mujib’s successors who were Army dictators. In a sense, they mirrored Gen Zia ul-Haq’s Islamist zealotry. The Army has since returned to the barracks and secularism has been re-enshrined in the Constitution, but that’s a sham. A secular republic with Islam as the state religion is a myth. 
So to rage and weep over the perceived rise of virulent Islamism in Bangladesh is, frankly, meaningless. Sonar Bangla, as Bangladesh’s national anthem describes the country, has always been a verdant green, literally and metaphorically. This would be confirmed by the most casual reading of history— we tend to gloss over discomfiting realities that do not fit into the commentariat’s dominant liberal discourse and perception.

The main structural weakness that is facilitating the return of extremism is a gaping vacuum in Bangladesh's polity, wherein Sheikh Hasina is wielding a state apparatus that leaves little room for expression of constructive dissent from civil society or unbiased reporting in the news media.
Bangladesh, which once prided itself on its activism and contestation for power, is virtually a one-party state now under Sheikh Hasina's Awami League, which has no serious counterbalancing force. The mainstream opposition, the Bangladesh National Party, did not contest the last elections and its followers feel persecuted, disenfranchised and frustrated.
It is in such a non-inclusive political milieu that Islamist terrorists are finding opportunity and space to reorganise and connect with fanatical sections of the diaspora living abroad.

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