The guilty men of Dhaka terror attack

In the intersection of secularism, an illiberal state and war crimes trials may lie reasons for the recent attacks in Bangladesh.

Written by Gareth Price | Updated: July 6, 2016 12:09 am
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The attack on a bakery in Dhaka — which resulted in the deaths of 20 foreigners — is the most serious in a growing list of attacks in Bangladesh on foreigners, religious minorities and secular bloggers. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (the Islamic State) and al Qaeda have claimed responsibility for some of the attacks but the Bangladeshi government dismisses these claims, blaming instead the home-grown extremist organisation, the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen.

The resurgence in Islamist militancy has coincided with a government crackdown on the mainstream Islamist party, the Jamaat-e-Islami (Jamaat, which some have linked to the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen). Since the government launched a war crimes tribunal, four of its leaders have been executed for war crimes in Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence from Pakistan.

The war crimes tribunal faced some criticism for not meeting international standards, but international opinion has, by and large, been supportive. The intention of the tribunal was to draw a line in the sand about an issue that has split Bangladesh since independence: Support, or otherwise, for Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan. Thousands, if not millions, died in the conflict. While not all of those who committed war crimes during Bangladesh’s war of independence would face trial, the Awami League’s theory is that targeting the senior leadership of the Jamaat will enable the country to move on.

One interpretation of the attacks is that they reflect the death throes of a marginalised Islamist grouping. The Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen had its origins in Afghanistan, but resurfaced in Bangladesh in the early 2000s. In 2005, it detonated 500 bombs across Bangladesh simultaneously. This led to a crackdown and the group disappeared from view until 2013. According to the Bangladesh government, the spate of attacks can be attributed to the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen, or groups like it.

Such a reading of the situation encourages the government to continue its crackdown. But the crackdown has extended beyond extremist groups. The government is set to discuss a bill that would ban the Jamaat, which was a coalition partner in the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) led regime as recently as the mid-2000s.

Some have criticised the government for not doing enough. But following the murder of the wife of a police officer in early June, police rounded up thousands of suspects, including more than 2,000 activists from the main opposition, BNP. Despite its avowed secularism, the ruling Awami League has faced significant criticism for its illiberal ways.

A more plausible interpretation would suggest that the attacks are indeed inspired by pan-nationalist Islamist groups such as the Islamic State. Some of those involved in the bakery attack were well-educated and from wealthy backgrounds. If Bangladesh is facing the threat from lone-wolf attackers, or from small groups of radicalised individuals, better intelligence would seem to be a more effective strategy than the current one of rounding up the usual suspects. Presumably, those who attacked the bakery had not been affected by the June arrests.

The defence that radical Islam does not sit easily with Islam as practised in Bangladesh holds true, but it is also an almost universal truth. The question for Bangladesh — as well as for Belgium and most other countries that have been hit by such attacks — is to probe the circumstances that drive certain individuals to commit heinous acts. In Belgium, the answer could be marginalisation and discrimination. In Bangladesh, it is something else. Most likely, the answer lies in the intersection of secularism, an illiberal state and war crimes trials.

For Bangladesh, the implications are severe. The attacks could have a significant economic impact — which may well have been, in part, the intention. As Pakistan has witnessed in the past few years, economies reliant on textiles are vulnerable. The decision by Japanese clothing brand, Uniqlo, to suspend travel to Bangladesh would, if replicated by other companies, have a devastating effect on the economy. The social implications are also worrying. Societies can start to change fast if institutions and people who promote freedoms are silenced.

What does all this mean for India? In practical terms, more Bangladeshi Hindus are likely to migrate. That may not be a problem for India, but it will certainly be so for Bangladesh — especially for the notion of secularism in the country. Indian fears that Bangladesh will become a base of sorts for attacks on India may turn out to be true in the long term, but for now it appears that the intention of the militants is to undermine Bangladesh and change the nature of debate in that country.

The relationship between India and Bangladesh has transformed over the past few years. The resolution of the enclave issue — that led to the swapping of de facto stateless peoples between the two countries — has allowed increased connectivity and faster access to markets for India through Bangladesh. India can now claim to be Bangladesh’s friend. The Narendra Modi government should be able to raise its concerns with Bangladesh from this standpoint. Offering India’s free and vibrant media and civil society as an example, Delhi should warn Dhaka that stifling freedom is unlikely to help in tackling radicalisation.

India can offer positive ideas on issues such as intelligence gathering — or indeed counter-radicalisation programmes. Most importantly, it should draw on its pluralistic experiences and share tools to build a more cohesive society.

The writer is a senior research fellow, Asia Programme at Chatham House, London.

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