Though religious extremism in Bangladesh has been put in check under the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League government, the radicals have been trying hard to regain lost ground. In recent months one can see an increase in extremist activity in Bangladesh. Extremists have been involved in a number of killings. They also seem to have widened the range of their targets. While it is true that the Hasina government could have done a better job of containing their activities, Bangladesh and the region is still better off compared to what it was during the rule of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-led four party alliance.
To begin with, extremists targeted bloggers whom they claimed to be acting against Islam. This year, the first blogger to be targeted was Avijit Roy who was killed on February 27. This was followed by the killings of two more bloggers Washiqur Rahman Babu and Niloy Chottopadhay. The Islamists have contended that these bloggers were atheists and wrote offensive blogs against Islam. While it is difficult to justify the killings of bloggers, it is at the same time important to note that many in Bangladesh, including the government, did indeed find some of the blogs hurtful. For this reason, the government suggested that not only was it necessary to check the actions of Islamists but also for the bloggers to exercise restraint.
This attitude of the government has unfortunately resulted in the lackadaisical response of the law enforcement authorities, who did not act promptly to control the situation and bring the culprits to book. The charge sheet in the killing of bloggers has still not been filed. So far, law enforcers have only arrested a few suspects. Unfortunately, in this phase, the government, constantly facing demonstrations from the opposition parties, did not want to be seen as acting on behalf of the bloggers who were presented as anti-Islam.
The Islamists have gradually expanded their scope of targets. After bloggers, they have started targeting foreigners. They killed an Italian aid worker and a Japanese farmer. The killing of foreigners has given the Islamists the impact they wanted to create in Bangladesh. Now foreigners, especially the Western diplomatic community in Bangladesh, are feeling unsafe. Most of these countries, which include the US, European countries and Australia, have issued advisories to their nationals and diplomats to keep their visits to Bangladesh and movements outside Dhaka city to a minimum.
Western countries claim that their intelligence agencies had information that the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, is going to increase its activities in Bangladesh. They also claim that they had informed Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s staff about the threat when she was attending the 70th UN General Assembly in New York. The Bangladesh government, however, says that it did not receive any actionable intelligence from the United States. Moreover, several times in the past, the intelligence provided by the West has been faulty. The most prominent example was Iraq where the US and its allies intervened claiming that Saddam Hussain was manufacturing weapons of mass destruction.
Western intelligence agencies from the so-called Five Eyes alliance, which includes Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the United States, also allege that there is a disconnect between them and their Bangladeshi counterpart. This disconnect is because of the distrust that exists between them. This distrust, some say, is because of the suspected role of the West in the 1975 killing of Mujib-ur-Rahman. Another reason is the cool response of the US to the re-election of Sheikh Hasina in January 2014 and the withdrawal of the special facility by the US to Bangladesh in the garment industry. In August 2015, the United States renewed its Generalised System of Preference (GSP) facility for 122 countries, but Bangladesh was not one of them. Bangladesh had lost these trade benefits in mid-2013 after the Rana Plaza collapse and Tazreen Fashions fire, which left more than 1,200 people dead.
The lack of trust and coordination between the government of Bangladesh and Western countries has allowed BNP leader Khaleda Zia to take the moral high ground. During a recent visit to London in November 2015 she claimed that militancy has grown in Bangladesh during the rule of Awami League and it was the BNP government which had effectively controlled it between 2001 and 2006. Nothing is, however, further from truth. The fact of the matter is that the chief of the militant outfit Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) Abdur Rahman and his deputy Siddiqul Islam alias Bangla Bhai spread their “Jihadi” movement precisely during the period when the BNP was in power.
Lately, the concern in Bangladesh about Islamist violence has increased especially after one publisher was killed and another critically injured. Both were publishers of the writings of the slain secularist writer-blogger Avijit Roy. This has created an environment of fear in the country. The situation has further worsened with Islamists attacking policemen in Ashulia. Once again, ISIS claimed responsibility for these attacks.
The Awami League and Sheikh Hasina blamed these attacks on the BNP and Khaleda Zia They said that these attacks were launched to create lawlessness in the country so that the two war criminals, Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojaheed and Salauddin Quader Chowdhury, could be protected. They also alleged that through these actions the BNP and Jamaat want to stop the continuous and steady growth of the economy.
While there is an element of truth in the allegation of the Bangladesh government, it cannot escape its responsibility for maintaining law and order, which is essential for economic growth and creating a safe environment. There is a general feeling in the country that had the government acted tough and promptly after the killing of the bloggers, subsequent terror incidents could have been avoided. Fortunately, the government of Bangladesh has realized this mistake and is now taking steps to improve the situation. In a special drive to maintain law and order, the joint forces of Bangladesh, comprising members of the police, Armed Police Battalion, Rapid Action Battalion, Border Guard Bangladesh and Coast Guard, have arrested possible trouble makers from a number of districts. This step is likely to help the government improve the law and order situation. The international community should strengthen the hands of the Sheikh Hasina government in its endeavour. It has a proven track record of working against extremists and terrorists. Any attempt to unnecessarily corner this government would prove counter-productive.
(The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author)
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