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A wave of targeted murders in Bangladesh since 2013 has given observers reason to believe that the country might be the next victim of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). In a little over two years, Islamist extremists have killed dozens of bloggers, secular activists, members of minority Muslim sects, Hindus, and even a Buddhist monk in Bangladesh. The victims are tied together by their diversity and their subsequent existential challenge to monolithic, orthodox visions of political Islam.
Western governments fear that these attacks mark the spread of ISIS to Bangladesh, with one well-known local Islamist terrorist group having coalesced around the Islamic State’s flag. But William B. Milam, a former U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh and Pakistan, argued in May in The New York Times that “the recent string of vicious killings in Bangladesh is less a terrorism issue than a governance issue: It is the ruling Awami League’s onslaught against its political opponents, which began in earnest after the last election in January 2014, that has unleashed extremists in Bangladesh.”
He’s right that the Awami League has harshly targeted its opponents; this is nothing new in Bangladesh, where politics is usually a winner-takes-all game. Yet the Awami League is not to blame for the recent surge in extremism, which began long before the party took power in 2009.
Two distinct groups have claimed attacks since 2013. One of these extremist groups—the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), which is now affiliated with ISIS—has been active as far back as 2005, when the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) ruled the country. In fact, the JMB was behind a streak of violence in August of that year, which culminated in a wave of bombings.
At the time, the JMB appeared to be operating with support from at least some elements of the ruling BNP. After the bombings in August, the BNP, according to U.S. embassy cables, refused to address widespread rumors that local leaders from the party had recruited the terrorists Bangla Bhai and Abdur Rahman to wage an Islamist war against its political rivals, the leftists. The government did arrest Bangla Bhai’s deputy, Mahtab Khamaru, but he was released early on orders from Tarique Rahman, the son of then Prime Minister Khaleda Zia.
Today, if the Awami League is to blame for the rise in extremism, it is in its passivity in the face of Islamist violence.
Pakistan’s intelligence agency has also allegedly supported the same group. According to Bangladeshi security forces, for example, a JMB member named Idris Sheikh received money last year from a secretary in Pakistan’s embassy in Dhaka. And according to an April 2016 report by the International Crisis Group, Dhaka worked with Islamabad to protect various Islamist extremist groups that supported insurgencies in northeast India and in Myanmar (also called Burma).
Today, if the Awami League is to blame for the rise in extremism, it is not as an “onslaught against its political opponents” but in its passivity in the face of Islamist violence. Many of the victims have been those who support the trials and executions of people accused of committing war crimes in 1971, during Bangladesh’s war for independence against Pakistan, including the leader of Bangladesh's largest Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami. The initial wave of victims were secular and atheist bloggers who staged and rallied demonstrations in support of the trials in 2013. Extremists have not only killed secularists in the streets, they have created an opposing movement. Known as Hefazat-e-Islam, it has bused in hundreds of thousands of people to Dhaka to demand sharia law, bans on contact with members of the opposite sex in public, and death sentences for atheists. The only person so far to have been caught red-handed for murdering a blogger belonged to Hefazat-e-Islam and studied in one of its madrasahs.
Despite the Awami League’s supposed secular credentials, it is desperate to avoid appearing impious.
Yet the Awami League has done little to confront Hefazat-e-Islam. The group has successfully prevented government regulation of its madrasahs and blocked laws protecting women’s rights, such as a proposed law to ensure equal inheritance rights for men and women. As the International Crisis Group noted in its April 2016 report, “It serves as an extremist recruitment pool.”
Despite the Awami League’s supposed secular credentials, it is desperate to avoid appearing impious. As the son of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Sajeeb Wazed, told Reuters, “We don’t want to be seen as atheists . . . given that our opposition party plays that religion card against us relentlessly, we can’t come out strongly [in favor of victims].” Indeed, the government has appeared to blame the victim after almost every murder.
The rise of Islamist murders has not been a direct result of political repression by the government, as ugly as that has been. It has been the result, rather, of a perennial strategy of appeasement toward extremist groups. If Bangladesh wants to enjoy peace, it must take the separation of state and religion seriously to prevent rule by the mob and the mullah.