Behind the Dhaka attack: radical secularisation and Islamist terror in Bangladesh

Beyond talk of an ISIS-inspired attack, the Dhaka cafe massacre’s more immediate roots lie in a crisis of political legitimacy, and religion’s precarious position and instrumentalisation within the national imaginary. 

Mosarrap Khan
12 July 2016
Tribute to victims of the 2016 Dhaka attack. AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Tribute to victims of the 2016 Dhaka attack. AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.The gruesome Dhaka cafe attack earlier this month has been viewed mostly through the lens of ISIS’s perceived increasing footprint in Bangladesh. But this ignores the sliding political legitimacy of a government – Sheikh Hasina’s supposedly secular Awami League – that has assumed the task of stemming terrorism in a country split along religious and secular lines since its very birth in 1971. If you want to understand the Dhaka massacre, you need to trace the ambiguous and contested domain of political legitimacy and religion in Bangladesh, which is largely responsible for the extremist violence the country is witnessing now.

An ambiguous stance toward Islam

Bangladesh won its independence from West Pakistan in 1971 after a protracted and bloody civil war that lasted for nine months, killing and displacing millions. While Pakistan was founded on the basis of Islam, Bangladesh’s Awami League, the main electoral force in the east, never emphasised Islam as the main binding force in East Pakistan. However, its 1970 election manifesto stated:

“The favoured religion of the vast majority of the population is Islam. On this matter the Awami League has decided that there will be in the Constitution very clear guarantees that no law will be formulated or enforced in Pakistan contrary to the laws of Islam well established in the Holy Quran and the Sunnah. There will be guarantees firmly established in the Constitution for preserving the purity of the numerous religious institutions. Adequate arrangements will be made for extending religious instructions at all levels.”

And so the supposedly secular Awami League, led by Sheikh Mijubur Rahman, father of the current prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, made adequate provisions for Islam to be recognised as the primary religion of a Muslim-majority East Pakistan.

Prior to the 1970 elections, a huge cyclone hit the coastal areas of East Pakistan, killing half a million people. Awami League volunteers tried to capitalise on the slack response of Yahya Khan’s military regime. They toured the affected areas, offering help. After one of his tours, Sheikh Mujib addressed a press conference in Dhaka, where he said: “And where are the pillars of national integration, those self-appointed apostles of Islam, Maulana Maududi, Khan Abdul Qayyum Khan, Mian Mumtaz Daulatana, Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan and other West Pakistani leaders today? They have not found time to come even for a day to Bangladesh to extend sympathy and succour to the survivors.”

In his historic speech on 7 March 1971, Mujib speaks of the “economic, political and cultural freedom” of the people of East Pakistan but does not explicitly speak on “religious freedom”. The Awami League maintained an ambiguous position on Islam, even as its larger commitment was towards the idea of a secular republic. However, the Pakistani ruling elite, who sought to use Islam to gain legitimacy for their rule, described demands for autonomy in the East as a ‘conspiracy against Islam.’

After Bangladesh attained independence in 1971, secularism was enshrined in the constitution of the new country. The constitution of the new country pledged "that the high ideals of nationalism, socialism, democracy, and secularism...shall be the fundamental principles of the constitution". In addition, the constitution banned all political activity and political parties based on religion, especially the Muslim League and Islamic fundamentalist parties like Jamaat-e-Islami and Nezam-i-Islami, which collaborated with the Pakistani soldiers during the Liberation War.

While secularism was enshrined in the constitution, it was viewed by people as an “absence of religion” that questioned the sovereignty of Allah. In a rebuttal to such criticism, Mujib said: “The slanderous rumour is being circulated against us that we are not believers in Islam. In reply to this, our position is very clear. We are not believers in the labels of Islam. We believe in the Islam of justice. Our Islam is the Islam of the holy and merciful prophet." However, just three years after independence, Bangladesh displayed a decisive tilt towards promoting Islam, even as the country upheld secularism as one of its constitutional values. This tilt was, in part, an effort to gain legitimacy as Sheikh Mujib started losing popular support. 

After Mujib’s assassination in an August 1975 coup, major-general Ziaur Rahman took power and began a more decisive turn to Islam. The secular principle of the constitution was tampered with: Article 12, which urged eradication of all forms of communalism and political abuse of religion, was removed. And through a ‘proclamation order’, the phrase “In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful” was added above the preamble of the constitution. Moreover, through the Fifth Amendment, the word “secularism” was replaced with “absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah.” Zia’s actions were inspired, in part, by an anxiety over legitimacy.

The religious turn further intensified after general Ershad captured power in 1982 and declared his intention to give Islam a prominent place in the constitution and in the life of the nation. In June 1988, the Eighth Constitution Amendment Bill was tabled in parliament, which proposed that “The state religion of the Republic is Islam, but other religions may be practised in peace and harmony in the Republic.” It was passed by a two-thirds majority (by a nominal opposition), despite protests outside the parliament by even the dogmatic religious parties. While constitutionally Bangladesh was declared an Islamic state, radical organisations such as Jamaat-e-Islami sought a complete transformation of Bangladeshi society and its polity on the basis of Sharia law. During the 2001 elections, Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) entered into an electoral alliance with the Islamist Jamaat, which enabled it to come to power. 

Politics in Bangladesh has always maintained an ambiguous position towards religion, sometimes explicitly wooing the Islamist parties and, at other times, denouncing them, depending on various crises of political legitimacy.   

A programme for radical secularisation

Prior to the 2008 election in Bangladesh, current prime minister Sheikh Hasina’s son, Sajeeb Wazed Joy initiated a roadmap for radical secularisation. He co-authored a paper in November 2008 with Carl Ciovacco, a veteran of the Iraq war, “Stemming the Rise of Islamic Extremism in Bangladesh,” in which he laid out plans for a radical secularisation programme in Bangladesh. Apparently, the piece was written in the context of “troubling new signs of a shift towards a growing Islamism that could jeopardize the sanctity of secularism in the country.” A military caretaker government had taken over power in Bangladesh at the end of Khaleda Zia’s previous rule from 2001 to 2006, as the country became mired in Islamist violence. 

Sajeeb Wazed offers a comprehensive roadmap for the radical secularisation of the country. While strongly advocating the cause of an Awami League-led secular government, Wazed and Ciovacco reiterate the common apprehensions about a Muslim country experiencing a rightward swing:

–      Modernise the madrasa system of education.

–      Build secular elementary schools.

–      Military recruitment must be from secular academies.  

–      Rehabilitation of known extremist clerics.

–      Reduce poverty and illiteracy among the masses.

Once the Awami League came to power following the 2008 elections, it adopted a comprehensive plan to hold Jamaat-e-Islami accountable for its past war crimes during the 1971 Liberation War. By deploying a discourse of Islamic extremism and war crimes (as outlined by Sajeeb Wazed), the AL government has supposedly tried to unleash extreme secularisation in order to garner support from western regimes in the post-9/11 landscape. As scholar Md Saidul Islam writes: “The regime’s utilization of international trends and narratives — and willingness to play the terrorism card — is indispensable to its long-held and systemic objective of eliminating Islam from the country’s political and social landscape.” 

Action and reaction

Since the war crimes tribunal started prosecuting Islamist leaders in 2010, Bangladesh has witnessed a reverse spiral of violence against atheist bloggers, who started writing critically about Islamic fundamentalists in the mid-2000s, when Khaleda Zia’s government allowed Islamists to wreak havoc in the country. Since 2013, the backlash against secular thinkers and bloggers has hastened a complete downwards spiral in the battle between Bangladesh’s secularists and Islamists. 

On 15 January 2013, atheist blogger Asif Mohiuddin was attacked by men with machetes. He survived the attack and fled to Germany. The next month, blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider was attacked in a similar fashion and killed because he was critical of fundamentalists. In 2014, a television personality, Nurul Islam Faruqi, and a professor of Rajshahi University, Shafiul Islam, were killed for criticising fundamentalists. On 26 February 2015, Avijit Roy, an atheist and founder of the webzine, Mukto-Mona (Free Thought), was hacked to death in Dhaka. The attack also left his wife Rafida Ahmed badly injured. A month later, another blogger, Washiqur Rahman Babur, was killed. On 12 May 2015, Ananta Bijoy Das, was attacked and killed in Sylhet for writing on science and rationalism. On 7 August 2015, assailants broke into blogger Niloy Neel’s house in Dhaka and hacked him to death. 

Since then, the Islamists have attacked religious minorities, a gay activist, and foreign nationals, culminating in the gruesome Dhaka attack. Writing for the New Humanist, Samira Shackle neatly sums up the context of these earlier attacks: “The [war] trial came to a head in late 2012 and early 2013, and it was at this point that fundamentalists turned their attention to atheist writers.” The climate of discontent is now being exploited by international terrorist organizations such as ISIS, which has openly claimed credit for almost all of the attacks in Bangladesh so far.

Avijit Roy’s widow, Rafida Ahmed, reiterates the perception that the local killings in Bangladesh have their roots in the global rise in fundamentalism, which has further fuelled a severe political divide in Bangladesh between the Islamists and the secularists. Ahmed tells Shackle: “My friends are very angry that justice hasn’t been done. I just keep thinking this is much deeper than you think. It’s not about catching two people. It’s a global phenomenon which has roots very deep. So what am I going to do with justice for these killers?”

 A schizophrenic nation

While the Dhaka attack might have been inspired by the global resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism, its immediate roots lie in the vanishing political legitimacy of the ruling power, the contested place of Islam in the national imaginary, as well as the instrumentalisation of religion by democratic and autocratic rulers. 

Bangladesh never had a fair shot at democracy and rule of law. Interspersed with military rulers, two dynasts – Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia – have been far busier settling personal scores than improving the quality of life in one of the poorest countries in the world. Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League came back into power in 2009, after Khaleda Zia’s BNP boycotted the election on charges of corruption and sabotage. The Awami League won an uncontested election and formed a barely legitimate government. Sheikh Hasina is a hero in India and in western countries for her determined fight against Islamist terrorism. But her position in Bangladesh is precarious, in part because of her handling of the trial and hanging of war criminals, conducted with barely any regard for proper judicial process.

Political illegitimacy has deepened national schizophrenia in a volatile country, which has otherwise been religiously moderate, despite the presence of the Jamaat and other Islamist groups. It is this very crisis of political legitimacy, coupled with the Awami League’s ambiguous position on religion – sometimes taking the shape of radical secularisation for the purpose of gaining international support, and at other times flirting with Islamists – which has made the situation in Bangladesh explosive, and ripe for extremists and terrorists alike to flourish. 

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData