May 01, 2016

Behind killings in Bangladesh lies a brutal power struggle (Praveen Swami)

The Indian Express - 29 April 2016

Behind killings in Bangladesh lies a brutal power struggle
Understanding the context, reasons for wave of violence against liberal and secular voices

by Praveen Swami

Who is behind the killing of liberal and secular bloggers, writers in Bangladesh?

Ansar-ul-Islam, or Sword of Islam, the Bangladesh chapter of Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, has claimed responsibility for much of the killing campaign against Bangladeshi secularists, which has claimed more than a dozen lives since 2013. The latest killings — those of gay rights activist Xulhaz Mannan and his friend Samir Mahbub Tonoy on Monday — were carried out because of the men’s role in the non-governmental organisation Roopaban, described by Ansar-ul-Islam as “a cult comprised of the lesbians and the gays”. In a statement released earlier this month, Ansar-ul-Islam set out eight criteria for further killings, ranging from those who insulted Allah or the Prophet to those “who oppose the Islamic Shariah [law] by their talks or writings or show insolence towards it or insult it”. In May 2015, the Uttar Pradesh-born head of Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, Sami-ul-Haq — who uses the alias Asim Umar — claimed responsibility for four other murders in Bangladesh: blogger Rajib Haider, scholar Shafiul Islam, writer Avijit Roy, blogger Washiqur Rahman.

Groups affiliated to the Islamic State, too, have sought to take credit for some of the killings. Following the recent killing of university professor Rezaul Karim Siddique, the Islamic State-linked Amaq News Agency said he was killed for “calling to atheism in the city of Rajshahi in Bangladesh”.

The Bangladeshi police, however, insist that the killings are not linked to the Islamic State or Al-Qaeda. They blame them, instead, on members of the Islami Chhatra Shibir — student wing of Bangladesh’s main Islamist political party, the Jamaat-e-Islami. The Islami Chhatra Shibir has a long history of serving as an incubator for jihadist groups, notably the Harkat-ul-Jihad-e-Islami Bangladesh.

Experts are divided on whether Bangladeshi authorities prefer to blame the Islami Chhatra Shibir to discredit the government’s Islamist opponents, or because they genuinely believe the transnational links of the local killing squads are irrelevant. However, there is a growing mass of evidence that Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have gained large numbers of Bangladeshi recruits, notably in the form of propaganda videos.

Does the targeting of Bangladeshi liberals fall into any pattern of Islamist extremism seen elsewhere or among other terror groups?

The killing campaign in Bangladesh is characteristic of similar programmes carried out by terrorists elsewhere, to subjugate anti-Islamist voices. Islamism, from its earliest years, was resolutely anti-communist — something which led the Central Intelligence Agency, in the early decades of the Cold War, to back the Muslim Brotherhood in West Asia, as well as Central Asian jihadists. In essence, Islamists argue that the Enlightenment materialism represented by progressives is irreconcilable with the order of God they seek to build on earth. In countries like Algeria, thousands of progressives — among them, atheists, feminists, and religious reformers — were killed in largescale Islamist campaigns intended to terrorise civil society. Bangladesh’s Jamaat-e-Islami itself, with backing from the Pakistan Army, killed thousands of intellectuals in the build-up to the 1971 Liberation War.

Given the attacks in recent years on LGBTs, Shia/Ahmadi mosques, Christians and Hindus, is Bangladesh witnessing a Pakistan-like targeting of minority communities?

Bangladesh has seen significant levels of violence against religious minorities in recent years, particularly Hindus: attacks on temples and priests, in particular, have been a common feature of an Islamist campaign intended to create strife, and discredit Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government. Largescale violence has, however, not been seen since the 2014 elections, when workers of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Jamaat-e-Islami — both of which boycotted the polls — attacked Hindus, carrying out rapes, arson and killings in several districts. In 2013, the Jamaat-e-Islami carried out similar violence after its vice-president, Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, was sentenced to death for war crimes committed during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War.

Where do the politics of Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League fit in with this rising tide of religious extremism?

The killing campaign in Bangladesh is fuelled by the bitter war between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League, and her opponents on the Right — former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia’s BNP, and its sometime ally, the Jamaat. Headed into the 2014 elections, the BNP had paralysed the country with weeks of protests, demanding that power be handed over to a neutral caretaker government. The Awami League government, though, held fast, leading the opposition to boycott the elections. In 2013, meanwhile, the now-iconic Shahbag protests broke out, with young people demanding the death penalty for Jamaat-e-Islami leaders held guilty of 1971 war crimes. In essence, these twin crises pushed the organised right wing out of the political arena, creating a political vacuum. Though the Bangladeshi police and security services have proved effective at containing terrorism, crushing the once-feared Harkat-ul-Jihad-e-Islami, the fear now is that the political vacuum could be capitalised on by jihadists. The best way of preventing that would be to revive competitive political life in Bangladesh, but the political system remains logjammed, with no end in sight to the Awami League-BNP stand-off.