The recent murders in secular Bangladesh echo this country’s founding tragedy, when Islamist militias killed 116 intellectuals in the final days of the 1971 war for independence. Since then, religious extremists here have often targeted intellectuals; however, it is clear from the most recent attacks on foreigners, publishers, moderate preachers and policemen that they are now widening their scope.
The drive to reverse our liberal ideals was institutionalised with the killing in 1975 of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh. His successor, the military dictator Ziaur Rahman (Zia), founder of the Bangladesh Nationalist party (BNP), used religion to bolster his regime; he restored to politics the Jamaat-e-Islami, a party that had opposed the creation of the country and which had collaborated with the Pakistani army. The dictator who succeeded him in 1981 declared that Islam would be the state religion. Zia’s widow, Khaleda Zia, continued an electorally profitable liaison with Jamaat; and as prime minister in 2001 she welcomed war criminals into her cabinet.
The late 1990s saw the onset of violent extremism against targets viewed as un-Islamic, and in the early 2000s Humayun Azad and Shamsur Rahman, two prominent poets, were attacked with knives for their alleged anti-Islamic views.
BNP’s last term (2001-06) saw the rise of terrorist groups such as Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), which was behind the grenade attacks that killed leaders of the then opposition Awami League party.
When one side in our two-party system plays the religion card it threatens our secular values. Since 2001, BNP’s abjuring of any allegiance to such an ideal has been devastating.
Yet our culture of pluralism has so far provided the bulwark against intolerant ideologies: tellingly, in a nation that is 90% Muslim, Jamaat has consistently failed to raise its support above single digits. But culture can withstand only so much assault.
The erosion of liberal values in the political sphere has been accompanied by compromises at social levels. The middle class, previously insulated from hardline sermons, is now saturated by these messages via satellite TV and social media. The intrusion of such sentiments at all levels has led to instances such as an imam in a mosque in the capital referring to Shia Muslims as apostates, or a national cricketer compelled to remove a photo of goddess Durga from his Facebook page after protests that he had offended Muslim sentiments.
In a culture that has long prided itself on its pluralism, such incidents were once unthinkable; now they are greeted with apathy or fear: moderate Muslims are afraid to protest against hardliners, wary of being called un-Islamic themselves.
Indeed, the whole of our society has shifted – not quite to a point of no return – but to a parlous state. Progressives have trusted “culture” to take care of them, without doing enough to take care of culture in turn.
Since returning to power in 2009 the Awami League has bravely pursued an international war crimes tribunal focusing on the crimes perpetrated during the 1971 liberation war. Yet at the same time it has pursued a scorched-earth policy against BNP-Jamaat, leaving those parties with little stake in our country’s future. The rise in extremist violence is in part a result of that breakdown of political space. The trials too have angered and given a focus to disparate extremist groups. The Awami League appears shockingly unprepared for the predictable fallout of its hardline tactics.
The League presents itself as a guardian of secular values, but that claim is wearing thin in the party’s meek response to the attacks blighting our country. The government’s failure to protect targets on public hitlists is bad enough. Its half-hearted pursuit of criminals after the event is worse. But its strategic failure shows most deeply after each terrible incident when some minister moans about the need not to offend “religious sentiment”. Having pushed things to breaking point, the Awami League cannot dodge responsibility by blaming the victim.
The Awami League, which appears increasingly opportunistic in its putative defence of secularism, might have the moral satisfaction of knowing itself to be the ill-equipped firefighter, not the arsonist – but only for so long. Make no mistake: this is a fire that shall leave no one unscorched.
K Anis Ahmed, publisher of the Dhaka Tribune and the Bangla Tribune, is the author of fiction works The World in My Hands and Good Night, Mr Kissinger