As we say goodbye to the year 2012, we might take time out to reflect on our achievements and failures in the year gone by, examine our prospects for the future and the challenges that lie ahead. Religious extremism leading to terrorist activities is one such area that needs to be reviewed. While many South Asian countries are deeply embroiled in the fight against terrorism, Bangladesh had generally been free from terrorist attacks since 2005. As we tended to relax, two incidents in 2012 brought our focus back to the terrorism issue. The first was the burning and looting of the houses and temples of the Buddhist communities in Cox’s Bazar area on 29-30 September. The second was the arrest on 17 October of a young Bangladeshi man caught while planning to bomb the Federal Reserve Building in New York, USA. As the year was coming to a close, the violence unleashed across the country by the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), a right-wing Islamist party, sent us a clear signal of the growing strength of Islamist politics.
These are happening at a time when an avowed secular party, the Awami League (AL), is in power. AL won the 2008 election with a commitment to amend the constitution to restore its secular character. It also promised stern action against all forms of religious extremism and terrorism. Four years down the line, much of those promises remain unfulfilled. Constitutional reform was half-done; Islam remained a state religion. Religious parties are more organised today than ever before. Their student fronts are active in most educational institutions. While Islamists are active on political fronts, more radical amongst them are organising themselves for terrorist activities as and when opportunities appear.
On 16 December 1971, we hoped that Bangladesh would emerge as a modern democratic state. The spirit of the nation was epitomised in the Constitution (1972) that adopted secularism as a state principle and prohibited the political use of religion. The Constitution barred the state from declaring any religion as state religion. However, it all changed after the killing of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and many top-ranking political leaders in 1975. Those who seized power at the time found the Islamists as their political ally and started islamising the society and the state. Islamist political parties, such as JI, started building their party structures. The power elites established thousands of madrassas that produced religiously indoctrinated youths who would be the front-line activists of the Islamist parties. Poor, jobless students from the madrassas became easy target of the recruiters of militant Islamist organisations. By late 1990s we had militant organisations such as Jamiatul Mujahedin Bangladesh (JMB) and Harkatul Jihad Al-Islami (HUJI) that took roots in Bangladesh.
Starting from 1999 to 2005, the militants bombed temples, churches, political rallies, cultural functions, cinema halls etc. The government and the opposition kept on blaming each other for those attacks. Even when grenades attack was made on the AL rally in Dhaka on 22 August 2004 killing 22 people and injuring the AL Chief Sheikh Hasina, the government blamed it on the opposition. The series bombing on 17 August 2005 finally compelled the government to come out of the denial mode and stand up to the terrorist threat. In 2006-07, we saw a series of arrests, prosecution and handing down of sentences, including death sentences, on some of the terror leaders. Since then there has been no major terror attack in Bangladesh, but that the terrorists are active is evident from the frequent arrests of activists and seizure of large cache of arms and explosives from their hideouts.
Bulk of the Islamic militants arrested so far had come from poor rural communities. Many were from the Quomi Madrassa background. However, recent years saw a new breed of extremists called the Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT). HuT members are drawn from children of urban, upper income parentage, educated in the mainstream or English medium schools and colleges. HuT is targeting the cream of our youth, the nation’s future, and therefore, poses a clear danger. It is feared that HuT has penetrated among schools and universities, professionals – engineers, doctors, government officials and even among the security apparatus. Although the party was banned in 2009, its clandestine activities continue in the country. On the political front, JI continued to grow in strength in Bangladesh. The party is small in size, but highly disciplined, well-organised and has a well-defined hierarchy. Jamaat’s aim is to establish a pure Islamic state based on Sharia. The party had opposed the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971 and actively collaborated in the genocide. Some of the top leaderships are now facing war-crime trial.
The party, therefore, is on a back foot now, but given the fact that a new election is around the corner, its rank and file might align with the major opposition party to make a bid for power. JI’s student wing, Islami Chattra Shibir (Islamic Students Front), is now a potent student organisation, from schools to universities. The other Islamist party of importance is Islami Oikyo Jote (Islamic Unity Front), a collection of small Islamic parties. Like JI, IOJ also wants to establish an Islamic state in Bangladesh, but there are differences in outlook. IOJ members are exclusively from Quomi madrassa background and more traditional. IOJ has been in the forefront, along with JI, in the movement to declare Ahmedia community as non-Muslims. Present government’s attempt to register Quomi Madrassas and reform their curriculum was thwarted by IOJ’s agitation.
None of the Islamist political parties gave open support to the militant activities, however, many of the JMB and HUJI activists had previously been members of Islamist political parties. The Islamist parties have multifarious social, economic and financial investments. Some of the largest banks, insurance, hospitals, diagnostic centres, schools, universities, coaching centres, and travel agencies are operated undercover by the Islamist parties. The Islamist parties have been gaining in strength in Bangladesh at the expense of the two major political parties – BNP and AL. Both parties at one time or other have been courting these parties in order to gain short term advantage over the other.
Bangladesh government has taken a number steps to check extremism and militancy. Notable among those are: Anti-Terrorism Act 2009 and Money Laundering Prevention Act 2009 as amended in 2011. The two acts provide for deterrent punishment to offenders in case they engage in acts of terror or launder money to support terrorism. Based on a series of dialogues, workshops and seminars, participated by academics, researchers, politicians, parliamentarians, civil and military officials, a national strategy to combat terrorism in the country has been proposed.Bangladesh has banned a total of six terrorist organizations, including JMB, HUJI and HuT. A number of Islamic NGOs have been banned who had terror links, including Revival of Islamic Heritage Society (Kuwait), Rabita Al Alam Al Islami (Saudi Arabia), and International Islamic relief Organization (Saudi Arabia), Muslim Aid (UK). More than 1,300 militants were arrested; most of them belonging to JMB, HUJI-B or HuT. 29 terrorist kingpins have been sentenced to death and many more sentenced to long imprisonment or are awaiting trial.While our police action has been commendable, we did not do enough on the social front.
We need to address urgently the problem of poverty, ignorance, and backwardness. Democratisation of the society is an insurance against extremist ideology. We need to improve governance and provide access to justice for the poor and downtrodden. We need to impart modern education to our youth that prepare them to face the challenges of a fast changing world. A thorough overhaul of madrassa education in our country is long overdue. We need an education system that produce people with high ethical and technical standards, a system that encourages freethinking rather than rote learning. Emergence of HuT points out a lack of pride and a sense of disillusionment among the children of affluent class. This is because English medium schools, where most of the rich parents send their children, follow a curriculum that has no relevance to our culture, history or traditions. Therefore, English medium school syllabus too needs a thorough review.Government must legislate not to allow use of religion to gain political mileage. We need to check creeping ‘Sudiaization’ of Islam. Along with the money from the ME donors, comes the ideological package of Wahhabi Islam which is alien to South Asia. One of the prices we pay for the remittance from our labour force in the ME is the influx of Saudi brand of Islam. How do we de-radicalise these migrant workers is a big challenge for us. Meanwhile, hundreds of extremists who are arrested or under trial must be segregated from other prisoners. At present, these extremists are finding a captive audience 24 hours at their disposal, busy recruiting new ones from among the prisoners. We need to isolate the extremists and start a de-radicalisation program so that when they return to the society they become useful citizen.Our effort to counter religious extremism must be supplemented by regional and global effort.
We need to have close cooperation and coordination between the governments of the region. Border monitoring, passport control, anti-money laundering measures, exchange of information on the movement of suspects, arrest and deportation of fugitives are some of the areas where regional countries could cooperate. Checking of arms smuggling across the porous border is another area where regional cooperation is the answer. In short, a total, comprehensive strategy has to be adopted for fighting religious extremism. If Bangladesh is to emerge as a modern, democratic state, the menace of extremism must be eliminated.