Rise of extremism: Struggle for the soul of Bangladesh
How Dhaka’s home-grown jihadis are changing the character of the country.
Bangladesh – and before that , united Bengal – has never been short on heroes and heroines. The anti-British revolutionary movement produced the sub-continent’s first suicide attackers – Pritilata Waddedar of Chittagong and Benoy-Badal-Dinesh of Dhaka who stormed Calcutta’s Writers Buildings. Then came the Bengali language movement of 1952 , the endless movements against Pakistani military rule , finally the 1971 Liberation War and the fierce movements against the Zia and Ershad military regimes in independent Bangladesh. On June 24, Dhaka’s ‘Black Friday’ , two more joined the list of Bengali martyrs .
Faraaz Hossain , barely in his 20s, stood his ground against gun-toting, machete-wielding Islamist militants , refusing to leave his friends, Indian Tarishi Jain and non-resident Bangladeshi Abnita Kabir (a US passport holder). All three were studying in American universities and had gone to Holey Artisan Cafe in Dhaka’s upscale Gulshan for dinner.
The radicals who stormed the café just past 8 local time let Faraaz, grandson of Bangladesh’s business tycoon Latifur Rahman , go when they found he is from Bangladesh and a Muslim. But Faraaz shouted back at them , saying he would only go if his friends Tarishi and Abnita were let off. Finally, one of the radicals killed all three of them.
Faraaz has not only been hailed as a hero on the Internet, but he also punctured a stereotype about ‘rich Bangladeshis being unprincipled and selfish’. Like the stereotype of poor madrasa-educated boys joining the jihad was swept aside in the Dhaka attack. All the radicals who massacred 20 people, including 17 foreigners were from ‘rich families’ and had been educated at expensive private universities in Bangladesh and abroad.
Nibras Islam was known to his friends as a fun-loving Facebooker and footballer , with a crush on Bollywood heroine Sraddha Kapoor. But he followed only 10 Twitter accounts, one of which was @ShamiWitness, an influential handle run by IS propagandist Mehdi Masroor Biswas, who was arrested in the Indian city of Bangalore last year. He liked a tweet by Anjem Choudary, one of Britain’s most high-profile Islamist preachers, that was critical of France and its allies and was posted in January, 2015, shortly after the deadly militant attack on the offices of the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo.
A friend last met Nibras this January in a Dhaka café and was surprised by his formal ‘salaam’. “ Something had changed in this fun-loving boy,” said the young accountant who did not wish to be named.
Changed Nibras had – into a fanatic owing total allegiance to the Islamic State . Nibras’ fellow jihadi on that fateful day was Rohan Imtiaz, said to be the most bloodthirsty among the terrorists who stormed the café.
Imtiaz demolished another stereotype – he was not from a Jamaat or jihadi family, his father is a top Awami League leader of Dhaka, Imtiaz Khan Babul. “My boy used to pray five times a day from childhood, but he never gave any indication that he would be a jihadi,” Babul told HT as he sought forgiveness from India and Tarishi Jain’s family.
Rohan had hacked down Tarishi, Abnita, Faraaz and another Bangladeshi lady Ishrat Akhound in a fit of rage after Faraaz refused to leave and Ishrat refused to put on a hijab or recite from the Quran.A proud Bengali, she never failed to remind people of Tagore’s ‘citizen of the world’. Meanwhile, on Thursday, barely a week after the ‘Black Friday’ attack on the Gulshan cafe, militants attacked a police patrol at Sholokia grounds, killing two police personnel on the spot. The cops had been guarding an Eid congregation.
Those who had seen the upsurge of millions at Dhaka’s Shahbagh Square to demand death for the Islamists responsible for the massacres of 1971 would have no doubt who Bangladesh belonged to .
“ It is a Bengali nation we created with our blood, it will remain a Bengali nation despite these mad jihadis. They are a passing phase, a fringe element in our troubled history,” says journalist-novelist Haroon Habib, who fought as a ‘Muktijoddha’ (freedom fighter) in the 1971 war.
But the Dhaka attack flagged the threat of global jihad playing into local Islamist extremism. “ If they can kill like this, they are as dangerous as the Arabs, Afghans or the Pakistanis,” says counter-Terrorism chief Monirul Islam.
The jihadis may be inspired by IS or al Qaeda and tales of global jihad, but their sponsors, in and outside Bangladesh, have used them for domestic political purpose. The serial murders of secular bloggers, writers and publishers is aimed at demoralising the secular masses. The killing of Hindu priests or Buddhist monks is intended to complicate bilateral relations with India and the murder of foreigners is directly aimed at crippling the economy by scaring away investors, specially foreign buyers outsourcing garments from Bangladesh. “This is a battle for the soul of Bangladesh. We will win that battle again , as we did against the bloody Pakistan army and their Bengali cohorts like Jamaat,” says filmmaker Nasiruddin Yousuff Bacchu. What will perhaps save Bangladesh is the strong Bangali identity that still dominates the imagination of the country.
“Do you believe we Bengalis will surrender our hard-fought independence, our political and cultural sovereignty to some stupid medieval Caliphate. No way,” says Shahriar Kabir, whose movement had forced the government to start the war crimes trials against the mass murderers of 1971.