The Battle for the Soul of Bangladesh

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The Battle for the Soul of Bangladesh

The deadly attack on a bakery in Dhaka may have ties to ISIS, but its roots stretch deep into Bangladesh’s history.

The Battle for the Soul of Bangladesh

Students hold placard and candles as they pray to show solidarity with the victims of the attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery and the O’Kitchen Restaurant at Dhaka, Bangladesh, during a vigil in Agartala, India.

Credit: REUTERS/Jayanta Dey

The gruesome siege of a restaurant in Dhaka’s upmarket Gulshan area on Friday—an attack claimed by the so-called Islamic State (ISIS)—was a dramatic escalation of the low intensity jihadist threat Bangladesh has been facing over the past few years. Since 2013, jihadists in Bangladesh affiliated with a number of groups have targeted secularists, atheist and agnostic writers, religious minorities, and foreigners in individual attacks.

There is debate in the Western press as to what the attack on the Holey Artisan means, as it took place amid a global uptick in violence directed or inspired by ISIS.

Some observers opine that the Dhaka attack is part of an effort by ISIS, having faced significant territorial losses, to assert itself internationally while also avoiding the ire of Sunni Muslims by sparing them from its attacks.

But there is, at this point, no clear indication of the extent to which the ISIS central leadership was involved in proposing and planning the attack, in which Muslims were largely let go by the six gunmen. The Islamic States’ news service ‘Amaq’ was the first to report that 20 hostages were killed by the terrorists. It also published images of the attackers taken before the attacks. So ISIS central was in direct or indirect communication with the terror cell that targeted Holey Artisan Bakery at some point during or preceding the attacks. It is possible that the ISIS central leadership was aware of the plot well in advance of its occurrence. But, for many reasons, we must resist the urge to reflexively make a direct connection between Dhaka and Raqqa.

One, the attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery is the continuation of a pattern of jihadist activity that preceded the emergence of ISIS-linked groups in Bangladesh. Small jihadist cells pledging allegiance to al-Qaeda’s South Asia affiliate (AQIS) have targeted secular activists and bloggers in brutal hacking deaths beginning in 2014. The victims of Friday’s attack in Dhaka were also brutally hacked to death.

Two, while attacks by groups claiming linkage to ISIS in Bangladesh have veered from the al-Qaeda modus operandi, for example, by targeting ordinary religious minorities, the actual boundaries between al-Qaeda and ISIS-linked jihadist groups in Bangladesh are quite blurry. In some instances, individual jihadists have claimed affinity for both groups. We see similar confusion in Pakistan, where a May 2015 attack on Shia Muslims in Karachi has been linked by local security officials to both al-Qaeda and ISIS.

Three, attacks on secularists and non-Muslim minorities go back to the birth of Bangladesh, which was born out of the bloody divorce between the two halves of Pakistan, a country founded on Muslim nationalism. During the course of the civil war between what was then West and East Pakistan, both Bengali intellectuals and Hindu civilians were attacked in a deliberate and organized fashion.

While the young, privileged, and educated men who perpetrated the Holey Artisan attack may have been inspired by the specter of a rising ISIS, the attack points toward a battle closer to home—a battle over the idea of Bangladesh.

Bangladesh has never truly recovered from the trauma of 1971. The country’s ruling party, the Awami League (AL), was led by an East Pakistani and ethnic Bengali nationalist politician, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, who pushed initially for autonomy for the eastern half of Pakistan, and later for secession. But many in East Pakistan, especially those affiliated with the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) party, supported remaining within the Pakistani federation. They directly supported the Pakistan Army in its counter-insurrection campaign, often through violence, including the targeting of Bengali intellectuals and Hindus.

Mujib founded a secular state on the basis of ethnic nationalism and banned JI. Secularism, was, in fact, listed in Bangladesh’s original constitution as one of the country’s four founding pillars. But that clause was removed from Bangladesh’s constitution after a military coup in 1975 deposed Mujib. The military rulers who followed pivoted the country away from staunch secularism, modestly reincorporating some Islamic elements into its constitution and making Islam the country’s official religion. Also, in 1975, JI reentered Bangladeshi politics following a military coup that deposed Sheikh Mujib.

Since returning to office in 2009, Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of Sheikh Mujib, has aggressively confronted both the opposition and their idea of Bangladesh. She has not only targeted Islamists, but also the center-right Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), moving the country toward a one-party state. Part of Hasina’s campaign has been readdressing the events of 1971 and reopening their wounds—punishing alleged perpetrators of war crimes, often through shoddy trials. Supported by secular activists, Sheikh Hasina has intensified her campaign against the JI in recent years. In December 2013, Dhaka executed Abdul Quader Mualla, a JI member and former parliamentarian. This year, the head of JI, Motiur Rehman Nizami, was also executed. He was accused by the Bangladeshi government of having served as the head of the pro-Pakistan Al-Badr militia in the civil war. But he had subsequently served in parliament and was the head of JI Bangladesh at the time of his death.

With a rich linguistic tradition and cultural homogeneity, Bangladeshi nationalism is on solid ground. But the question of the role Islam should play in public life is still contested. Sheikh Hasina and her supporters have not only suppressed Islamist actors in her country, but she has also reinstated secularism as a pillar of the county in the constitution. And some of her supporters have proposed removing Islam as the state religion.

With the Islamists and their ideology under fierce attack, a campaign against non-Muslims and secular thinkers has renewed. With brute force, the jihadists are contesting the idea that Bangladesh can be a secular country based on ethnic nationalism, a country where Hindus and Muslims are part of the same nation. So, irrespective of whether and to what extent ISIS was involved in Friday’s attack, it was an event conceived and born in Dhaka, not Raqqa.

Hasina’s government, unfortunately, has been in a state of denial about the jihadist threat in Bangladesh, preferring to blame the political opposition. The country’s information minister blamed the BNP and JI this spring for recent attacks attributed to al-Qaeda and ISIS.

Dhaka could be correct in its assessment that the reports of ISIS in Bangladesh are greatly exaggerated. The roots, motives, networks, and indeed, the style and methods of the violence are all local. But the continued targeting of the BNP and JI will only strengthen the hand of jihadist forces affiliated with AQ and ISIS. Bangladesh—which has remained immune from large-scale, complex terrorist attacks, in contrast to other South Asian states—may not be so fortunate in the future.

Arif Rafiq (@arifcrafiq) is a fellow at the Center for Global Policy (www.cgpolicy.org) and president of Vizier Consulting, LLC, which provides strategic guidance on political and security issues in the Middle East and South Asia.