A rally to protest the
bombings in Dhaka: Below Islamic radicals
Countrywide Bombings Promise Bangladesh a Bumpy Ride
Prof. Taj Hashmi
Special to the South Asia Tribune
Canada, August 25: It is very disturbing indeed, that two innocent
people died, hundreds wounded and millions terrorized by a spate
of synchronized bombings in 63 out of the 64 district towns of
Bangladesh, including the capital Dhaka, on the morning of 17th
August between 10:30 and 11:30 am.
400 “home-made” bombs, with not-so-crude electric
timers, came off in government offices, court houses, public parks,
universities, airport, and shopping centers and on roadsides.
Although the number of dead and injured is relatively smaller,
in comparison to the toll of roadside bombs in Iraq, yet the message
is very clear, ominously frightening, for those who do not want
Bangladesh turn “Islamic” or instable for an indefinite
most alarming part of the story is not the first most synchronized
bombing in history, at 400-odd places, but the widely perceived
assumption of direct involvement of some clandestine Islamist
group having links with Al Qaeda in the bombing. Leaflets in Bengali,
and surprisingly in Arabic, were found nearby, which conveyed
an ominous message in the name of the Jamaat ul Mujahideen Bangladesh
(JMB), a party of holy warriors said in part:
who are against Allah are now running the country. The process,
under which the head of the state and other officials are elected,
is not in accordance with the Islamic rule. Neither the Koran
nor the Hadis approves democracy or secularism, formulated by
Kafirs [non-believers] and Mushriks [pagans].”
calls upon the Government and all the political parties of the
country to abandon democracy and adopt the Sharia or Islamic code.
“Otherwise, the organization will resort to Qital [all-out
killing] for the establishment of the rules of Allah on His land.”
This is the message in the most unequivocal expression. It also
prescribes severe punishment for George W. Bush, “the biggest
terrorist in the world”, and Tony Blair and their local
supporters in Bangladesh, including those who run NGOs and work
for the government.
shadowy JMB, banned earlier by the Government for terrorizing
people in certain pockets of northwestern Bangladesh under the
leadership of one “Bangla Bhai”, drew the attention
of New York Times correspondent, Eliza Griswold in early
this year (“The Next Islamist Revolution?” January
23, 2005). Griswold is not the first Western reporter to
draw such an alarmist picture of Bangladesh. In April 2002, Bertil
Lintner wrote a similar piece in the Far Eastern Economic
Review and the Wall Street Journal, that an “Islamic
revolution” was in the offing in this poor, overpopulated
and the most corrupt country in the world.
However, the then US ambassador
Mary Anne Peters registering her anger at the FEER and WSJ for
publishing such biased articles on “a liberal Muslim nation”
demanded an investigation to find out the motive behind the story.
Philip Bowring, former editor of the FEER, also came forward to
criticize the Western “Islam-bashers”, including Dow
Jones, who owns the periodical. Many Bangladeshi academics, journalists
and politicians condemned both Lintner and Griswold for their
stories. The Government continued denying the existence of any
“Bangla Bhai” and his terrorist gang for quite some
After the arrest of some workers
of several clandestine Islamist groups by the Government, including
Dr Asadullah Ghalib, a university professor and one of the top
leaders of the JMB, there have been sporadic bomb attacks on public
rallies, movie theatres and Muslim shrines since early 2005. Attacks
on the minority Ahmadiya Muslim mosques and properties and demands
to declare the community “non-Muslim” have become
endemic as well. Several politicians died of bomb attacks. The
present British High Commissioner and Sheikh Hasina, former Prime
Minister and leader of the opposition, narrowly survived grenade
attacks in public places during the last one year.
From police interrogations of
more than a hundred arrested suspects of the latest bomb attacks,
mostly connected with the JMB, it appears that more than 1500
JMB activists planted the bombs with a view to pressuring the
Government to release their mentor, Dr Ghalib, and to warn both
the ruling and the main secular opposition parties of the dire
consequences of not establishing a Sharia-based government in
The JMB is just the youth front
of the global jihadi network of Al Mujahideen. There are scores
of branches and offshoots of the parent organization in Bangladesh.
They often take new names and banners to evade arrest and detection.
The Harkatul Jihad, Hizbut Tawheed and Shahadat-i-Hikmah have
been some of the offshoots since the mid-1990s.
It is widely known that several
ruling party law makers and a minister are directly connected
with some of the militants in northwestern Bangladesh. It is widely
believed that Islamists of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait (and most probably
Taliban sympathizers from Pakistan) have been indoctrinating,
arming and financing the JMB for quite some time.
The sharp polarization of the
polity between the so-called secular “pro-Independence”
and the not-so-secular “Islam-loving” groups has been
a contributing factor in the Islamization of the country. Both
the “secular” group under Sheikh Hasina and the “Islam
loving” group under prime minister Khaleda Zia have been
championing the cause of Islam ever since the overthrow of military
dictatorship in 1990. It seems, as if the two major parties, Hasina’s
Awami League and Khaleda’s BNP, have been competing with
each other to prove their Islamic credentials with a view to securing
more votes from the God-fearing Bengali Muslims.
President Ziaur Rahman had formally scrapped “Secularism”
and “Socialism” from the Constitution. His successor,
General Ershad further Islamized the polity by making Islam the
“state religion” through an amendment of the Constitution
in 1988. Three successive governments under Khaleda and Hasina
since 1991 could neither restore “Secularism” as enshrined
in the original Constitution, nor scrap the “state religion”
amendment. Realizing the political importance of Islam in this
backward and predominantly Muslim country, no major political
party champions the cause of secularism by scrapping the “state
religion” clause from the Constitution.
seems, the biggest stumbling block in the way of secularism is
the popular culture of the vast majority of the population. Since
the immediate post-independence government of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman
(1972-75), regarded by many as the founding father of the nation,
miserably failed in delivering the promised poverty free, prosperous
Bangladesh in a “secular” and “socialist”
authoritarian democracy, most Bangladeshis have become suspicious
of secularism and socialism.
while democracy has remained elusive, the average Bangladeshi
Muslim has remained loyal to traditional Islamic and authoritarian
values. The changed circumstances of the post-Cold War era –
the disappearance of the Soviet style socialism and the advent
of market economy and Globalization – also brought Islam
in the arena of global politics. This time it appeared not as
an ally but as an adversary of the hegemonic West, mainly represented
by the US and its allies.
Islamism in Bangladesh has similarities
with its counterparts in Muslim majority countries like Algeria,
Egypt, Pakistan and Indonesia. All of them had gone through secular
National Socialism and autocracies under civil/military rulers
before turning Islamic during the last decade and a half. Islamism
in these countries may be attributed to the failure of the promised
welfare state under pseudo-socialism or corrupt and inefficient
Although Bangladesh emerged as
a symbol of freedom and equality, unfortunately, it is only symbolic
and historical as since its emergence in 1971, the rich are getting
richer, and the poor are getting poorer, far faster than anywhere
in South Asia. Around 50% of the population is very poor and more
than 35% are practically unemployed. The tax evading rich, the
absolutely corrupt politicians, bureaucracy and thousands of bank
defaulters have accumulated more than $60 billion in “black
money” since 1971.
the rich and powerful get their children educated in English medium
schools, at home and abroad, and are the most employable in the
country, the fast disappearing middle class send their children
to Bengali medium schools and the poor mostly send their children
to Islamic seminaries called madrassas. Besides the stream of
the under-employed Bengali medium graduates are millions of unemployed/underemployed
wonder, sections of these frustrated, angry young men have swelled
the ranks of the Islamist militants, including the ultra-extremist
JMB. The situation is very similar to what Algeria and Afghanistan
have been experiencing, the class war between the Western (secular)
and vernacular (Islamic) elites.
anger and frustration are reflected in their demand for the introduction
of the Sharia law, which has several dimensions. Firstly, the
demand smacks of their desire to go back to the utopian Islamic
past in the 7th century, presumed to be an era of peace, justice,
prosperity and tolerance.
besides its spiritual aspect, a Sharia-based state would employ
mullahs as law makers, judges, teachers and administrators. So,
the demand for a Sharia-based administration has pure and simple
secular logic. One has reasons to agree with a Western scholar
that the ongoing Islamist movements in the world reflect the adherents’
desire for modernity. It is too trite an assumption that all Islamic
movements, including the militant ones, are backward looking,
who think that there is something inherent in the Islamic scripture
conducive to the growth of terror, should ask themselves as to
why “Islamic terror” did not disturb the world peace
during the 700 years between the crushing defeat of the Ismaili
Assassins and the Arab-Israeli War of 1967.
is likelihood of missing the forest due to trees. Explaining “Islamic
terror” only in terms of cultural, political and social
factors is inaccurate and subjective. Unfortunately, the most
relevant economic factor is missing in most analyses of “Islamic
terror” in Bangladesh and beyond.
is no denying that thousands of ultra-extremist Islamists do exist
in Bangladesh along with millions of frustrated youths, some resigned
to their miserable fate while others engaged in criminal activities.
However, the mere existence of Islamist terrorists in a country
does not necessarily lead to an Islamic Revolution. One may apply
Lenin’s classic theory of revolution in rejecting the over-simplified,
alarmist views of Lintner, Griswold and others, with regard to
their “impending Islamic Revolution” theses.
to Lenin, there are three prerequisites for a revolution: a) mass
discontent; b) gradual infiltration of ideas and c) a weak government.
A well-organized party to lead the people is also a requirement.
The partial existence of only the first and second prerequisites
does not make Bangladesh a good candidate for an Islamic Revolution
Without going into details of
Iran, the Sudan and Afghanistan with regard to their respective
Islamic Revolutions, the existence of a free press, the semblance
of democracy, the existence of scores of Islamic organizations
having diverse views, and above all, almost the total disregard
for the mullah as their potential rulers by more than 90 per cent
of the voters (as reflected in all the parliamentary elections
during the last 35 years), Islamists have absolutely no hope of
staging a revolution or a sustainable military coup d’etat.
what is possible and most likely is the recurrence of more attacks
in the future. Since one single factor did not lead to these attacks
overnight, there is no single solution to the problem either.
Nothing would be more futile than trying to find out a cultural
solution of terrorism, bypassing the growing economic disparity
between the rich and powerful (corrupt and insensitive) and the
weak and poor of Bangladesh.
marginalized and politically disenfranchised poor and lower-middle
classes must be given better sustenance, including education and
healthcare, dignity and respect before someone tries to find out
a solution of terrorism. The inverted pyramid of solution, built
by liberal-democrat politicians and intellectuals, both within
and outside Bangladesh, must be reversed in the following order:
economic-social-political-cultural or religious, not the other
who expect normal behavior from sections of the indoctrinated
terrorists, must isolate them from the vast majority of the not
yet infested hoi polloi, not by resorting to counter-terrorist
measures, which are effective in the short-run, but by establishing
real democracy ensuring real participation by the vast majority.
This, however, does not mean that democracy would only guarantee
people’s right to elect their representatives, but they
must have the sense of belonging to the state by active participation
in the governance. This would eventually narrow the gap between
the rich and poor.
There is nothing utopian about
this. By curtailing and eventually crushing corruption at every
level and making everyone accountable to the law, this can be
achieved under a group of dedicated leaders. Bangladesh having
better land-man ratio than Japan and South Korea has no reason
to remain poor. The dedicated young leadership, if and when emerges
from the corner, can easily reverse the process of going downhill
since 1947. It is really a big wonder and the biggest tragedy
for Bangladesh that the region, which in 1949 was richer than
all the countries in Southeast and East Asia but Japan and Singapore,
now is on par with the poor to very poor countries in per capita
In the short-run, unless the “liberal
democratic” parties and most importantly, the civil society
come forward in unison to fight extremism instead of calling names
and vilifying each other as “terrorists and murderers”,
there is no remedy against terrorism. Only lip service to secularism
and the “holier than thou” attitude of almost all
the political leaders of the country will not de-terrorize the
already terrorized polity. Since terrorism is a global factor,
its symptoms cannot be eliminated in Bangladesh unless there is
a global attempt to contain it.
sum, we should always keep in mind that terrorism is all about
money-power-respect. When individuals or groups, who do not believe
in resigning to their miserable fate by turning fatalist either
by joining devotional religious groups – Sufi, mystic orders
– or, by taking drugs and other intoxicants as modes of
escaping, resort to violence.
scale violence at local level, not in the name of any ideology
– religion or liberation of motherland, Palestine, Kashmir
or Chechnya– is called robbery or extortion. When there
is an ideology behind such violence we call it “terrorism”.
In short, terrorism is a reaction to exploitation, oppression,
expropriation and humiliation of people not strong enough to retaliate
for Bangladesh, the bulk of the exploited/expropriated/disempowered
people have still remained fatalist either by becoming religious
– by joining one of the scores of Sufi orders or the pacifist
Tableeghi Jamaat – or, by just remaining passive/drug addict
to escape the suffering and pain, waiting for death or the paradise
to get their respective nirvana. If nothing positive is done to
reverse the table, more “fire works” are in the offing.
Brace yourself Bangladesh for a long bumpy ride, if not a disastrous
writer is a Professor in the History Department, Simon Fraser
University, Vancouver, Canada. He is a PhD in modern South Asian
History and has taught at universities in Australia, Bangladesh
and Singapore and is presently teaching modern history at Simon
Fraser University. He is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society
of Great Britain and on the Board of Editors of the Contemporary