Jihadists are exploiting deep-rooted divisions within the countryby Salil Tripathi / July 28, 2016 / Leave a comment
In early June, Bangladeshi police arrested more than 11,000 people it described as fundamentalist Muslims bent on destabilising the South Asian country. The arrests were a response to rising extremism, which has become strikingly visible since the recent spate of murders of secular bloggers, publishers, Hindu priests, Buddhist monks and a few foreigners, many of them brutally hacked to death.
Bangladesh is a secular country with Islam as its official religion; it also has a sizeable minority of Hindus, Buddhists Christians and others. The clash between fundamentalism and secularism is at the heart of Bangladesh’s current crisis. But that narrative is intertwined with two other clashes—over Bangladesh’s identity, whether it is a Bengali nation or a Muslim nation, and whether those responsible for war crimes during Bangladesh’s liberation war of 1971 should face justice or not. These three clashes now threaten the stability of the world’s eighth-most populous nation.
As the incidence of murders rose, foreign governments expressed concern that al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS) had found a foothold in the country. But the Bangladesh government maintained that the threat was homegrown, blaming opposition parties and insisting that it was capable of handling the threat. When bloggers feeling threatened sought government protection, some were told to be careful, advising that in a conservative society nobody should offend religious sentiments. The lackadaisical approach of the government gave the extremists—some of whom had lived abroad and developed links with IS—a sense of impunity.
And then on 1st July Bangladeshi complacency was shattered. A group of terrorists went to Holey Artisan Bakery, a popular café in Banani, a stylish area of Dhaka. Banani is one of the three neighbourhoods in the capital collectively known as “Tri-state Area” (with neighbouring Baridhara and Gulshan); that Americanised reference shows how that area is like an island within this teeming megapolis. There are posher cars, quieter lanes, wealthier homes, expat-friendly restaurants, clubs, malls, embassies and supermarkets. The Holey Artisan Bakery has a lawn facing the lake where children play.