For the past year, Bangladesh’s government and political commentators have spent a lot of time speculating about whether the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has a presence in the country. This month’s bloody attack at an upscale café in Dhaka’s diplomatic zone registered telltale signs of the form of terrorism common to transnational terrorist organizations such as ISIS.
While it is still unclear if the attackers had received training or concrete direction from the Islamic State, it is evident that the local militants have embraced its distinctive variant of militant Islam and have established communication with central ISIS. The massacre in Dhaka was followed by another attack at the country’s largest Eid prayer congregation. If the first attack was defined by the strategy of killing foreigners, the second one signals the emergence of a growing sectarianism within various claimants of “true Islam.”
Both of these actions represent the logic of transnational militancy and have altered the frame of terror attacks in Bangladesh. Until the outbreak of such ostensibly ISIS-emulating terror, the broad focus of militant Islamist politics has been targeted killing of “atheist bloggers” in the cities and religious minorities in the provinces. Indeed, the practice of targeted killing itself is a novel phenomenon that emerged only in the aftermath of the Shahbag Movement in 2013.
The role of a transnational militant group in the bombings presents new challenges for the country. A peripheral nation like Bangladesh faces serious obstacles in forging a political response to transnational terrorism; the global “war on terror” is fought almost exclusively on a military plane, often obliterating democratic responses to growing Islamist militancy.
Complicating matters is the often context-free lens through which terror in Bangladesh is viewed from the West. For example, a recent New York Times piece following the Gulshan attack grounded Bangladesh’s vulnerability to the vicissitude of Islamic State policy of expanding outside the Middle East in two broad facts: that the majority of Bangladeshis are Sunni Muslim and a significant part of the population is under twenty-five.
Such context-free interpretation does nothing to help explain how global terrorism spreads, and often ends up assigning the US-led Western bloc the role of primary agent of resistance.
Yet while Bangladesh’s crisis can’t be explained by a simple concoction of statistical figures involving Sunni Muslims and youth or a blanket “war on terror” narrative, the presence of transnational elements in the recent attacks in Bangladesh also invalidates explanations and strategies that characterize the recent attacks as a merely homegrown problem.
The emerging militancy problem in Bangladesh has a history of its own — a history that has shaped and oriented militant Islamism in the Bangladeshi context. To work through this crisis Bangladesh must acknowledge the new reality of global terrorism while also tapping into its own democratic tradition of resisting terror with politics.
The Scars of Liberation
The 1971 Liberation War — in which Bangladesh won independence from West Pakistan — is an event that still grounds the country’s political horizon. For critics, the revolution’s fate is sealed with repressive elements like ethnocentrism, national chauvinism, and so on. The liberation’s champions interpret the same phenomena as the citizens’ love for the “historically oppressed” Bengali people, their language, and culture.
But both sides underplay how the popular sovereignty generated by this revolution — what political theorists call constituent power — continues to impact national politics. As the history of revolutions tells us, constituent power does not vanish with the apparent conclusion of a revolutionary event. It legitimizes the existence of the post-revolutionary state, and that state can never fully control its power.
In Bangladesh, the Shahbag Movement of 2013 reclaimed constituent power, reviving the zeal of 1971 and granting the ongoing conflict between the people and the state an existential dimension.
Following the departure of the British colonizers in 1947, Bangladesh — then called East Bengal — became part of Pakistan. The geographical and ideological distance between Pakistan’s two wings quickly returned Bangladesh to a colonized state, and so the 1971 war was waged in the tradition of anticolonial resistance.
The Bengali nationalists — cutting across the traditional markers of left and right — led a revolutionary effort that coupled the promise of a new national beginning with fundamental socio-economic transformations. During the war, some Islamist parties — most notably Jamaat-E-Islami — emerged as political, military, and ideological defenders of Pakistan. But, while it may be expedient to shorthand this history as another Islamist-versus-secularist conflict, the politics of Islamism in Bangladesh is inextricable from nationalist ideals and notions of counterrevolutionary illegitimacy.
Ultimately, the political system created after the liberation war failed to transmit the revolution’s promises, and the gap between promises and practices has only grown wider. Unsurprisingly, the tension between the constituted power of the state and the constituent power of the people has erupted many times since 1971.
The country’s fragile political equilibrium reached its limit in the early 2000s when Jamaat-e-Islami joined the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) ruling regime. Two of its members — widely perceived as key collaborators in the genocidal Pakistani military invasion — assumed ministerial roles. Many Bengali secularists were furious, and a movement demanding that the government reopen investigations into war crimes — spearheaded by the nascent online sphere — began to gather steam.
In 2008, this popular demand became a part of the Awami League’s (AL) electoral manifesto. Of course the prosecution of Jamaat-e-Islami leaders, who were allied with the BNP, was politically expedient for the AL once it achieved power. Nonetheless popular pressure — not mere political arithmetic — was central to bringing the war crimes tribunal into being.
In 2013, the tribunal began to deliver its verdicts. And while the tribunal stood on shaky legal grounds in certain regards, its defenders successfully filled the legal gap by pointing to the clear popular mandate. When Abdul Quader Molla — one of the first Jamaat leaders to be convicted — received a life sentence, activists in the growing movement objected. They argued that the relatively lenient sentence was evidence of a much-rumored backroom deal between the AL and Jamaat-e-Islami and demanded Molla’s execution.
A handful of online activists spearheading this demand occupied Shahbag — Dhaka’s busiest crossroads. The occupation soon snowballed into one of the most influential struggles in recent history. Known as the Shahbag Movement, protesters revived 1971 slogans and narratives and generated unprecedented mass participation. It was perhaps the boldest and most effective public exercise of the nationalist spirit since the end of the liberation war, exposing both the wounds and broken promises of 1971.
Despite its decidedly illiberal demand of enforcing the death penalty, the movement nevertheless staged the tension between popular and governmental sovereignty. Claiming the constituent power of the liberation war, it demanded that the judiciary and the executive bodies submit to what precedes their very existence: the sovereign claims of the people.
Those who identify themselves as pro-1971 have long controlled and shaped the cultural life of Bangladesh. With Shahbag they finally gained political influence as well; in the face of mass protest the activists won their demand (Molla was executed on December 12, 2013). Bolstered by their initial success, the movement pivoted and demanded a ban on religion-based politics.
This call alarmed most, if not all, Islamist parties. But by then, Jamaat-e-Islami had little political capital left to resist. A new political group, Hefazat-e-Islam — first formed in 2010 by followers of the traditionalist Deobandi School to resist proposed education and women’s rights policies — emerged as the new face of Islamist politics and mobilized against the Shahbag Movement.
Because Shahbag presented itself as a pro-1971 movement, its opponents could not resist it on those terms: the nationalist narrative (founded on the event of 1971) is still so hegemonic in Bangladesh that not even the most ardent anti-nationalists will formulate their politics in anti-nationalist language. Instead, the anti-Shahbag intelligentsia portrayed the movement as an assemblage of atheist bloggers.
This maneuver diluted the Shahbag partisans’ populist appeal and led to an open collision between Shahbag and Hefazat. The Awami League–led government took a heavy-handed approach; it brutally ousted the opposing Hefazat protestors, and then forced the Shahbag crowd to decamp soon after.
The AL crackdown ended the movement, but the clash between Hefazat and Shahbag provided renewed energy to various forms of Islamist politics in Bangladesh, and reignited the historical conflict between the nationalists and the Islamists. Since 2013, Bangladeshi militant groups have turned away from their typical focus on the state and public institutions, channeling their wrath toward “atheist bloggers” instead.
The first killing happened during the Shahbag Movement itself, though it was initially unclear whether the victim was targeted because of his involvement with Shahbag or because of his satirical blogging about Islam. The following months would make it obvious that both were essential to the rise of this new violence.
Politics Without a Public
Writings critical of religion have proliferated throughout Bangladesh for a long time. But the well-known intellectuals — often academics — who published articles and books critiquing religious tenets have rarely faced the kind of mortal threat that their counterparts do today.
Taslima Nasreen — whose 1993 novel Lajja, or Shame, told the story of a family caught in anti-Hindu rioting and led the Council of Islamic Soldiers to call for her assassination — garnered worldwide attention, as her book came out against the backdrop of the Rushdie affair. But the protesters against Nasreen still followed certain public procedures, taking to the streets and publicly pressuring the state to ban and prosecute “blasphemous” writings. The current militant groups, in contrast, fundamentally reject the public conditions of politics, choosing an underground strategy of targeted killings instead.
Separating older secularist writers and activists from those working today is the transformation of writing as a public practice. Prior to the mid-2000s, extreme secularist writers had only a limited readership, their books circulating within a relatively bounded, and thus politically acceptable, range. But the internet has forced both sides — the secularists inclined to convert others and a new generation of urban Islamists influenced by the global circulation of Islamist discourses — to confront each other in the same online space.
In characterizing the Shahbag Movement as a movement of “atheist bloggers” Hefazat ascribed the public power of the broader movement to those particular writers. The militant groups felt threatened by the movement’s success and its call to ban religion-based politics. Had there not been a perception that the “blasphemous” writers and activists could pose a real threat to Islamist groups’ political power, it is unlikely that the content of their writings would have generated a mortal struggle.
The sad irony is that these new atheist bloggers lack identification with — and support of — a preexisting public. The traditional secularists of Bangladesh — who maintained a delicate balance of nationalism, secularism, and certain socialist ideals — were quite adept at propagating secular-nationalist beliefs without turning to “blasphemous” activism. Their standard strategy was to neutralize religion by signifying it as an ethical code harmonious with national interest.
But the old secular strategy has run out of steam, and the newer one is nowhere near emulating or reinventing their predecessors, especially with regard to politics. The new generation of atheist activists relies on a debunking strategy to engage and criticize religious ideologues and crowds. The element of persuasion is missing, as is the awareness of the gap between theological and political disputes.
While the traditional secularist forces in Bangladesh still hold considerable political power and are seemingly sympathetic to the perils of bloggers, they cannot meaningfully support them without jeopardizing their own political existence. Chased by machete-wielding assassins and abandoned by the state, the unfortunate bloggers have now become the subjects of human rights.
Their project of scientifically debunking religious beliefs and politics faces an existential crisis at the moment: whether this kind of activism will survive intact or will incorporate lessons from the current struggle remains to be seen.
The State of Violence
Meanwhile, the Bangladeshi state’s response to the assassinations has been halfhearted and ineffective. Often considered a “pro-secular” regime by outsiders, the Awami League government seems more interested in dissociating itself from the victims than in addressing what appears to be a new, violent culture. Despite the fact that the self-identified Bangladeshi secularists widely support AL, the regime is wary of allying itself with marginal bloggers mostly detached from the electorate.
What makes less sense is the regime’s resistance to addressing the problem at least from the perspective of legal and administrative duties. Given the extremely secretive operations of the involved militant group (or groups), the government has claimed its lack of information prevents its intervention. Yet when the police finally captured two militants who were claimed to be involved with the murders, the suspects were quickly subjected to “crossfire.”
In Bangladeshi parlance, crossfire roughly means that law enforcement intentionally kills suspects in custody. The term comes from the generic press notes that claim that the suspect was caught in the crossfire between his accomplices and the police.
Having started as way to counter the underground Maoist movement in the early 2000s, crossfire has since become a generalized strategy for appeasing public concerns about crime rates by extrajudicially killing suspects. Increasingly, it has also been used to suppress oppositional parties.
Indeed, the logic of crossfire seems to have become pervasive, transforming the operations of the state. The acceptance of crossfire as a tactic marks a qualitative leap from the familiar charges of corruption often attributed to postcolonial states like Bangladesh. With corruption, deviations from norms were still seen as deviations, even if most governmental agencies participated in it. In contrast, crossfire politically legitimizes normlessness. In the context of a universally distrusted legal system, crossfire is taken as a pragmatic solution by the ruling parties.
The regime’s responses to the blogger issue and its claim that legal procedures must be compromised for other gains echo the crossfire logic. The point here is not simply that the state fails to abide by the laws and the norms it is supposed to uphold. Rather, by endorsing normless expediency as a preferred strategy for addressing problems, the state is making norms and procedures irrelevant.
The regime’s own priorities certainly exacerbate this expediency: it wants to hold onto power despite being a de facto unelected regime. Wary of the electoral threat that the Hefazat might pose, the government has been prioritizing the appeasement of the Hefazat since 2013. The battle between the militant Islamists and ultra-secular bloggers strikes them as unwanted in all senses possible. It would be risky to appear sympathetic to the bloggers, as that would weaken its effort to assuage Hefazat.
At the same time, the proliferation of militant groups equally jeopardizes its claim to political stability. Devoid of both populist and procedural orientations, the government’s actions lack both consistency and stable objectives.
The Left — admittedly a marginal force in the larger landscape of Bangladeshi politics — has taken a backseat in this hopeless battle. A large segment of the mainstream left has been part of the ruling government since their electoral alliance in the mid-2000s.
While the Left has, by and large, condemned these attacks unequivocally, the issue also poses difficulties for them. Absent any clear connection between the bloggers and a traditional class-based politics, the Left has been unwilling to mobilize their base to support them.
The critical section of the intelligentsia — an important voice in Bangladesh’s vibrant online sphere — finds itself in a different kind of limbo. They simultaneously criticize what they see as the bloggers’ “Eurocentric new atheism” and condemn the assassinations. Their standard response combines denunciations of the bloggers’ elitism and the murderousness of the fringe militants into a critique of an inefficient and undemocratic state as the true source of the problem.
While the state must be held responsible for its self-serving actions — which effectively protect the culture of murder with impunity — it is also evident that the sovereign violence exercised by militant groups cannot be reduced to the failures of the state. As the murders of religious and other minorities in rural Bangladesh, not to mention the attacks on foreigners, have made obvious, this form of violence has assumed a life of its own. Unless it is dealt with as an autonomous problem, it is not far-fetched to say that targeted killings and other forms of terror will continue to consolidate regardless of law-enforcement agencies’ efficiency.
The militant groups that claim responsibility for these attacks have not even attempted to justify their bloody actions as a means toward a certain end — whether it is state power or any other objective. They show no desire to make their contentions public. This makes theirs an extraordinary form of political violence, distinct from the ordinary forms that erupt over material power.
Following the recent attacks at a café in Dhaka’s diplomatic zone and at the largest Eid prayer in Kishoreganj, the incidents of targeted killing are likely to be accompanied by more common forms of transnational terror.
These attacks have also made it impossible for the government to underplay the crisis. Unfortunately, the growing public discontent about militant terrorism is lacking any political platform that would ensure public participation in the resistance.
Unless the fight against militant violence is democratized with the participation of the public who, by and large, oppose the practices of terror, the militaristic solution will continue to be at risk of being subsumed under the “war on terror” framework.
Yet a democratic solution is still possible. The political tension between the founding event of Bangladesh and the politics of militant Islamism provides an opportunity for the concerned activists to resist militant Islamism with the resources of their own history.