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Islamic revival threatens Bangladesh's identity

Internal threats more worrisome than external ones as extremists gather strength

Islamic revival threatens Bangladesh's identity

Police detain a couple over suspected links with Islamist extremists in Chittagong in this March 15, 2017 file photo after suspected extremists threw grenades at and opened fire on Bangladeshi officers. (Photo by AFP)

Rock Ronald Rozario, Dhaka
Bangladesh

May 8, 2018

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Four decades is enough for an independent nation to determine its true identity. 

However, recent political manoeuvrings, gradually influenced by a small but strong group of Islamist hardliners and a lethal rise of radicalism in recent years, show the struggle for a true national identity for Bangladesh is intensifying. 

Major political parties vie for power by appeasing hardliners and their supporters, while an increasingly authoritarian government tries to solidify power with unfair policies and laws disregarding democracy and greater public interests.

Militancy has weakened amid a crackdown by the government, but it has not withered as a recent event proves.

A knife attack on Dr. Zafar Iqbal, a prominent liberal intellectual, on March 3 was just a warning sign.

Iqbal is one of Bangladesh's best-known physicists, as well as a popular writer of science fiction and children's books. But he has faced a series of death threats from extremists for supporting religious harmony and rebuking Islamic radicals publicly and in his writings. 

The attacker told police he had tried to kill Iqbal because he considered him an "enemy of Islam."

Ironically, the man had never read any of Iqbal's writings.

In all likelihood, he had become intoxicated by the rhetoric and zealotry by fellow radicals from any of two banned militant groups accused of deadly attacks on liberals and secularists.

For moderate Muslim-majority and fragile democracy like Bangladesh, this is a huge fall from grace. 

It wasn't supposed to be like this.

In 1971 Bangladesh gained independence from a repressive military-backed regime in Pakistan through a bloody war. 

The war defined Bangladesh's national identity. The nation's founding leaders set nationalism, democracy, secularism and socialism as the country's four main pillars in the first constitution of 1972. 

The murderous campaign by militants against secular writers, publishers, liberal intellectuals, academics, religious minorities and foreigners since 2013 seems like a repeat of the December 1971 massacre of intellectuals by the Pakistan army for choosing freedom over religion.

Since the 1990s, Bangladesh has seen three waves of Islamic militancy — former Mujahidins of Afghan war, Taliban fugitives and local jihadists formed them respectively. All had one common dream — establishing Bangladesh an Islamic state like Pakistan.

Militant groups' source of funding remains unknown but they clearly drew their inspiration from global Islamist terror groups — notably the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda.

The government tried to shut extremists down with brute force while failing to uproot their local and international support bases — ideological, political and financial.

Several wealthy, orthodox Islamic countries that want to see Bangladesh become an Islamic state are overseas support base. At home, militants enjoy backing from Islamic political parties and hard-line groups.

So, the real problem lies in the collusion of religion and politics since mid-1970s.

Two military regimes from 1975-1990 changed the charter to impose an Islamic identity on the nation. Islamist politics and parties were allowed to operate and this how Islamist gained a second life.

The reverse journey of Bangladesh is the reason why Islamists are still strong and battle for dominance.

Since 1991, the ruling Awami League and its arch-rival the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) have rotated power.

The BNP is perpetually Islamist leaning as its founder and first military ruler Ziaur Rahman who envisioned uniting the country under one religion. 

The party rose to power twice by allying with Islamists, notably Jamaat-e-Islami, the largest Islamist political party that opposed Bangladesh's independence in 1971.

Both times, Bangladesh saw a resurgence of Islamist militancy.

The Awami League is nominally secular, but in recent times it too has been drawing Islamists into its ranks to solidify its power.

Since 2013, when radicals attacked secular bloggers and writers, the government arrested suspects but also rebuked writers for their critical views on religion, especially Islam.

Several bloggers were arrested and harassed in an attempt to appease radicals, who demanded a strict blasphemy law be enacted and called for the execution of atheists.

There have also been reports of the government "buying" hard-line clerics by offering them money and property in order to "shut them up" so they no longer pose a threat to its power.

In January of 2017, the writings of popular non-Muslim authors were removed from school textbooks and replaced with articles written by Muslim authors.

This answered a long-time call from hard-line groups, who deemed the writings by non-Muslims, mostly Hindus, to be unappetizing for Muslims.

The textbooks were later reprinted after a popular backlash, restoring parity, yet the move showed the creeping influence of "Islamism" on the country's largest political party.

That same year, the government removed the statue of Lady Justice from the premises of the Supreme Court and reinstalled it in a remote corner after Islamists protested.

As Bangladesh heads to a national election, the Awami League would seek another term by any means, even at the expense of democracy, freedom of speech and pluralism.  

Repressive laws have already been set in place to muzzle free speech, so-called atheist writings and also to suppress opposition and critics of the government. 

All of these go against the spirit of the war of 1971 that defined national identity of Bangladesh. 

The revival of Islamists and their battle for prominence shows Bangladesh is still adrift and struggling with its identity — a situation we can expect to intensify and worsen in the near future.

However, what is most disturbing is that the real threat and crisis is internal rather than external, and only few are talking about it.

Rock Ronald Rozario is the Bangladesh Bureau Chief for ucanews.com.

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