The attack on Dhaka’s Holey Artisan Bakery targeting mainly foreigners, comes in the wake of violence by a section of Bangladeshi Islamists who have adopted extremist methods to target civil society members, religious minorities (Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, Bahais), Ahmadiyas, atheist bloggers and progressive political activists. Nearly a month ago, the local newspaper, The Daily Star, reported that in the last 18 months, at least 47 people had been killed by Islamist extremists.
Out of the 47, eight persons were allegedly killed by the pro-al-Qaeda group, Ansar al-Islam (previously known as Ansarullah Bangla Team), led by the dismissed Bangladesh Army officer, Major Zia-ul Haq. Ansar recruits are from various Islamist organisations such as Ahle Hadith, Jamatul Mujahideen Bangladesh, Hefazat-e-Islam and are usually poor madrasa students. Its areas of operation are generally in northern Bangladesh and it has so far targeted freethinkers, bloggers and gay rights activists.
In contrast, the pro-Islamic State (IS) group, which has taken the responsibility for 28 killings in the last 18 months, is led by a Bangladeshi-Canadian, Tamim Chowdhury alias Shaykh Abu Ibrahim al-Hanif. This group recruits relatively affluent and urban, upper-middle-class professionals. It has close links with a section of Islami Chhatra Shibir, the student wing of Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami. This group primarily targets religious minorities, foreigners and university teachers. It operates mainly in Dhaka and its surrounding suburbs like Savar, Tongi, Gazipur and Mirpur.
If terrorism makes symbolic statements then it is important to note that the July 1 terror attack has occurred in a context where the Bangladeshi government has on record denied the existence of the IS in the country. Moreover, this attack seems to be a violent response to the recent government crackdown on Islamist extremists. It also comes in the wake of a public fatwa, signed by more than 1,00,000 Bangladeshi ulema, condemning terrorism as “un-Islamic” and “forbidden”. They were also clear to state that the suicide squad members of terrorist organisations “will certainly go to hell” and even attending the janaza (religious prayers before the last rites) of terrorists is haram (forbidden).
Understanding Islamist violence
The Islamists specifically target foreigners in Bangladesh to get maximum media coverage from the international press. For them, the Eurocentric model of secular nationalism and neoliberalism implemented by the Bangladeshi elite signifies an ultimate acceptance of the proposition that the way forward to progress and development is the Western path. Islamists argue that ‘progress’ and ‘development’ can be made without borrowing ideas from outside the Islamic tradition, and without taking refuge in any ‘man-made’ laws, ideologies and systems.
Like many Islamist groups, the anti-Western critique of Bangladeshi Islamists is more of a culturalist and politico-ideological one as they never deny the acceptance of Western science and technology for the material benefits of the Muslim population. Therefore, it is ironic that some Islamists use arms and modern technology not for benefiting the people but to kill those who according to them follow and prescribe jahiliya (the ignorant path of non-Islam). While Islamists accept modernisation, they certainly negate the cultural and political baggage of Western modernity like secularism, nationalism and liberalism. Thus, Islamists definitely differentiate between ‘modernisation’ and ‘westernisation’. According to them, the former entails technological, scientific and socio-economic development while the latter signifies un-Islamic systems that are based on secularism and sexual freedom.
Today, Islamist violence is crossing transcontinental borders in a context when the Islamists are encountering an everyday challenge from modern and postmodern lifestyles in an increasingly globalised and digitised world. Such a scale of violence was not possible during the times of medieval freethinkers and the great legacy of Mutazilite philosophy when the Islamic world was an advanced first world. As the Muslim world first lost power to the European colonialists and then to the American and Soviet invasions, the Islamist response became a refracted and de-channelised form of anger towards the ‘Western powers’ and its allies. It is expressed at a time when there is also a crisis of a credible progressive force in the Muslim world that would foreground the livelihood issues of income, education, jobs, health and social security.
Frustration with the status quo
In Bangladesh, the democratic demands of the people linked to deprivation, discrimination and corruption have been ignored. The country, instead, has been locked up in polarised debates on nationalism and does not seem to have moved beyond the war crimes of 1971. In fact, much of the recent Islamist militancy in Bangladesh is in response to the trials of 1971 war criminals by the International Crimes Tribunal. At the same time, the lack of a credible political Opposition in Bangladesh along with the vindictive attitude of the government towards the existing Opposition has resulted in a crisis. It has also created conditions under which a section of the Bangladeshi youth, while getting frustrated with the status quo, is attracted towards violent political ideologies like Islamist extremism.
Terrorism does not believe in democratically mobilising the people and has often taken refuge in armed violence and sensationalism in order to draw media attention. Terrorism is also an act of envy where the terrorists disapprove of the liberties enjoyed by the victims (the terrorised). Terrorism has no concrete demands; it represents a politics of revenge and hatred with no clear objective to uplift the socio-economic conditions and livelihood prospects of the people. Dhaka’s tryst with terror is no exception to this general logic of terrorism. The only way to fight terror is to not be terrorised but to politically isolate the terrorists while mounting an ideological battle against terrorism.
Maidul Islam is Assistant Professor in Political Science at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta.
Keywords: Dhaka’s Holey Artisan Bakery, Bangladeshi Islamists, Bangladesh militant attacks, Dhaka siege, Jamaeytul Mujahdeen Bangladesh, Islamic State