Extremism in Bangladesh: Prevention is better than cure strategy?

Extremism in Bangladesh: Prevention is better than cure strategy?

Afsan Chowdhury,

A Bangladeshi tribunal sentenced two people to death for killing Rajshahi University Professor Rezaul Karim Siddiquee in 2016. They are Shariful Islam, a Rajshahi University (RU) student now absconding and Maskawat Hossain Sakib. Four others were sentenced to life imprisonment. All were accused of being members of the banned extremist outfit Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB).

Three other accused Badal, Nazrul and Osman were killed in gunfights with police at different times. Prof. Rezaul Karim, 58, of RU English Department, was killed while waiting for a bus on April 23, 2011. No specific reason was ever found for him being on the hit list. He was probably an unfortunate but randomly selected target to create terror in public minds.

The Gulshan cafe attack wake-up call

Bangladesh has contained its Violent Extremism scenario quite rapidly since July 2016 that is after the Gulshan cafe attack which killed 29 people. There were 20 hostages, 2 police officers, and 2 bakery staff. In the counter attack led by the army, 5 gunmen were killed.

Prior to that incident, several attacks took place, particularly against low profile targets which didn’t inspire much or any police action. Among them were several bloggers, two foreigners, academics and activists who faced the brunt of the first wave of Jihadist attacks. However, due to their lack of significance in terms of perceived threats to the state of Bangladesh and almost no political clout, the law enforcers made no serious move.

That attitude was shaken after the Cafe attack when foreigners died and it damaged Bangladesh’s image which was thought to have economic consequences as well. A study commissioned by a US based RMG outfit and carried out by several Dhaka based academics suggested that its impact would be high including on the RMG sector. This along with security issues had considerable impact and spurred Bangladesh to a hard-line. The result has been a wave of anti-terror actions that has effectively diluted the Jongi presence in Bangladesh. Since the Gulshan cafe attacks no serious attack has been reported.

The law enforcers were advantaged by their lack of legal concerns and huge public opinion against the Jongis. Thus, counter-terrorism operations, though questioned by some on HR issues, ultimately reached its objective. The Jongis had clearly overestimated their own capacity and never expected such a robust response. It does appear that the ‘zero tolerance” for Jongis is a real policy and carried out. For the moment, the enemy is down.

But there is no guarantee that it won’t return to cause damage to high profile targets. Though, Islamist terrorism has no political future in Bangladesh, its capacity to cause violence albeit in a limited scale is accepted. This has led to some rethinking of strategies mixing several approaches.

Violent Extremism prevention patterns

The first wave of interventions have been planned keeping in mind the wider Western led fight with Islamist jihadist groups. In this narrative the focus is more on the international aspect of the campaign with ideology occupying the main space in identifying the opponent. However, the decline of IS has influenced the new thinking a great deal. Local social patterns and realities are also considered along with links with international Islamist wars.

It is also seen that the battle for the gun is best handled by local law enforcers which has been seen in case of Bangladesh. Previously, some of the arguments were too narrowly focused on the Middle Eastern reality. There, both nationalist and Islamist identities were often the same or cross-lapping. In Bangladesh, the lack of social support for the Jongis has led to some rethinking or additional thinking. Thus, addressing issues of tolerance, peace building, community inter-action and media collaboration within the existing societal framework has gained importance.

Several initiatives aimed at creating a more tolerant environment from the micro to the macro level along with conventional programmes is being considered. “Bangladesh has a real problem with distributive tolerance. Lack of unaccountable governance has become a key factor in enforcing power and resource control. Thus, the model of rule of law has not been effectively established but the traditional socio-legal systems meanwhile have also declined. In such an environment, social strengthening against intolerance isn’t easy as across the board consensus is missing”, commented an advisor to the initiatives.

Obstacles to social tolerance 

However, that means the obstacles to reaching a higher level of tolerance is more difficult than envisaged before. To go past that obstacle is necessary if social guardianship against terrorism has to be built. Bangladeshi law enforcers are totally against the Jongis unlike in other countries where dual roles of such players have emerged. However, social activism is being limited by weaker nurturing of tolerance and public participation.

Bangladesh state has an unmixed position against totalitarianism and socially is against Islamist Jihadist. What it however needs is a plan for action to promote the forces which organically counter extremism in society. The problem lies in the political culture that has developed over time rather than the social culture that has been around much longer. This the struggle to prevent extremist tendencies includes not just Islamist extremism but a wider systemic one that runs counter to the values of tolerance and participation.