Bangladesh Confronts Radical Islam
by Raheel Raza
Led by a female prime minister, Sheikh Hasina Wazed, daughter of the first president of independent Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the country is considered a region of tolerance and modernity within the Islamic world, as well as a fountainhead of Sufi mysticism. Yet radical Islam has challenged the Bangladeshi order long before the recent atrocity.
Sheikh Hasina heads the leftist National Awami Party; its main opponent, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, cooperates with totalitarian movements such as Jamaat-e Islami Bangladesh, the local branch of the Pakistan-based Jamaat-e Islami (JI or Community of Islam), which demands an "Islamic state" with exclusive sharia law.
A widespread campaign of extremist bloodshed, targeting secular bloggers and civil society activists as well as foreigners and religious minorities, began in Bangladesh in 2013. In June of this year, a fatwa by more than 100,000 Islamic scholars and clerics was issued, condemning homicidal attacks on free speech. Sheikh Hasina's government has been criticized for answering the violence with appeals for curbing speech about religion, but her administration has stiffened its anti-radical measures.
Terror experts detected the hand of the so-called Islamic State in the Holey Artisan attack, but local authorities discounted the possibility, linking the marauders, who were all Bangladeshi, with local fanatics. The Quartz online news service blamed the assault on the Ansarullah [Volunteers of God] Bangla Team. The group is believed to be headed by a radical Bangladeshi Army officer, Major Syed Ziaul Haq, who was accused of planning a coup against Sheikh Hasina in 2012 but was not arrested. Bangladeshi army officers assassinated Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, her father, in 1975.
Bangladesh is troubled by a legacy of Islamist brutality during the 1971 independence war in which newborn Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan, broke away from West Pakistan. Massacres and mass rapes were prominent features of the Pakistani military response to the Bangladesh insurrection. The rest of the Muslim lands supported West Pakistan, causing a serious humanitarian crisis in Bangladesh.
Aside from the policing efforts of Sheikh Hasina's regime, a grassroots movement of "Radical-Free and Terrorism-Free Villages" has appeared in rural Bangladesh. Because the peasant population is often illiterate, the initiative has been based on distribution of inexpensively-made documentary films explaining the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism, and produced by a Bangladeshi living in Canada, Hasan Mahmud. The endeavor has been supported by a Canada-based moderate group, Muslims Facing Tomorrow (MFT).
The films are presented in the local Bengali language, and have gained the support of numerous imams and Islamic scholars. They concentrate on describing how the tyranny of sharia as public law, the goal of the radicals, has harmed Islam. Mahmud says that with a core team of 26 activists in-country, 25 villages are now "Radical-Free and Terrorism-Free" with 80 more listed as ready for action.
Bangladesh is one of many Muslim states where the battle between radicalism and moderation has yet to be decided. The hideous tragedy inflicted on Dhaka should not obscure the possibility that Bangladesh, as a significant Islamic power, may defeat the radicals altogether, in urban and rural communities alike.
Raheel Raza is President of the Council for Muslims Facing Tomorrow, based in Canada.