Bangladesh is a country born in the paroxysms of violence 45 years ago and one that is teetering on the abyss of more bloodshed day by day. As the country finally deals with the massacre of thousands in the early days of independence through the trials and, in some cases, executions of the perpetrators of the slaughter it is now faced with a series of brutal murders of anyone seen as an “enemy of Islam”: secular bloggers, non-Muslims, LGBT advocates and others. The latest slaying was of a 70-year old Hindu priest on his way to prayer.
Those allegedly responsible for the murders are all over the Islamist extremist map: Ansar al Islam, Hefazat-e-Islam, Jama’at –e-Islami, Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh and more recently Islamic State. The usual justifications are given – Islam has been insulted, the victims were in contravention of Islamic law, the country must rid itself of non-Muslims, etc., etc., etc.
The Bangladeshi government has stated that it now knows who is responsible and why. It says that Ansar al Islam and Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh are behind the killings and that the whole campaign started when some bloggers called for a division of religion and state and for the murderers of 1971 to face justice. Well, that is a start and one hopes the beginning of effective action on the part of authorities, because their response to date has been anything but encouraging.
Bangladesh has been mired in the “Battle of the Begums” for years. Two women presidents (odd for a predominantly Muslim nation) have traded power, and insults, back and forth as each has used the office of president to crack down on the other. The political situation is essentially a stalemate.
Furthermore, the government has done two things that are not helpful in light of the killings. First, the president, while condemning the violence, has been quick to add that certain things should not be said or written (i.e. things that can be construed as insulting to some Muslims). In addition to blaming the victim for being beheaded (so far machete attacks have been the normal MO), it undermines the principles of free speech. Secondly, the government has repeatedly denied the existence of Islamic State on its soil, despite the repeated claims of responsibility by the group.
It may very well be that IS does not have a significant presence in Bangladesh, although a recent issue of its online zine Dabiq stated that a Canadian was its emir in the country, but it is likely that there are fans or followers of the group on the ground. After all, there are IS members and wannabes in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, so why should Bangladesh be exempt? It is also probable that there are Bangladeshis fighting with the group in Iraq/Syria and some may return home one day to wreak havoc.
The approach adopted to date by the Bangladeshi government is inadequate. Statements partially supportive of the quashing of free speech do not inspire confidence. Ignoring the possibility that IS has allies in the country strikes me as whistling past the graveyard. We should not be surprised if more deaths occur in the coming days, weeks, and months.
Bangladesh is adamant that it has uncovered the masterminds of these atrocities and will take swift action to stop the violence. Let us hope so even if its actions so far are less than reassuring.