Bangladesh was born in a paroxysm of violence in 1971. A declaration of independence from Pakistan (Bangladesh used to be called ‘East Pakistan’ after the division of the former British Raj into India and Pakistan in 1947) brought a brutal response by the Pakistani army that led to anywhere between 300,000 and 3,000,000 deaths. The war of independence only ended in December of that year following India’s intervention and the new state joined the UN in August 1972 (it took Pakistan another two years to grant recognition).
The South Asian nation is the world’s fourth largest Muslim polity (following Indonesia, Pakistan and India) and has had a rough existence. Monsoon rains, a series of coups and economic challenges have long cemented the country’s reputation among many in the West as a basket case, although this is unfair. Adding to the uncertainty has been an ongoing tiff between the ‘battling begums’, two leading female politicians who have swapped power over the past two decades (and tend to charge the other with a variety of crimes once in office).
As if this is not enough, Bangladesh has been beset with terrorist attacks over the past years. These incidents tend to be small-scale in nature – assassinations of people labelled ‘enemies of Islam’ by violent extremists – although the Holey Artisan Bakery attack on July 1, 2016 (masterminded by a Canadian on OUR national day to boot) killed 20 people, mostly foreigners. The victims in other plots have included Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, LGBTQ activists and converts from Islam (for a comprehensive discussion on this scourge see chapter 4 of my latest book The Lesser Jihads). This was a very scary time for Bangladeshis.
Has it returned?
A few days ago (June 11), a ‘free-thinker’, Shahjahan Bachchu, was killed by four men on motorbikes in Munshiganj district, just outside the capital city Dhaka, by shooting him in the chest at point-blank range. Police are investigating and not yet willing to call this a terrorist attack – yet. This has not stopped at least one op-ed writer from doing so. The victim was a known critic of religion and had voiced concerns that he would be targeted by extremists for his openly-expressed views.
This attack does bear the hallmarks of a terrorist incident. It shares many characteristics of earlier ones: those with ‘unpopular’ opinions are targeted; the plot is low-scale and low-tech, and; there is a desire to strike fear into those who do not bow to the narrow extremist Weltanschauung. And yet, as my readers know, I am very hesitant to label an act terrorist in nature until we know a lot more information. Hell, I still reserve judgment on the truck attack in Toronto last month despite the unwavering – and nasty – beating I took on social media for not calling Alek Minassian a terrorist right away.
So, no, we don’t know yet exactly what the motives were behind the murder of this Bangladeshi citizen. I await the police investigation, as should you before you jump to conclusions. In fact, we have to give the Bangladeshi law enforcement agencies credit – even if some see an overbearing response in some instances. The Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) for one has done a great job to interdict plots and neutralise extremists. As a result we have not seen the same pace of attacks since late 2016.
I for one hope that this heinous crime is not terrorist in nature. Bangladesh has had its share of challenges over the past half century and there are undoubtedly more to come. A return to a spate of Islamist extremism would not be a welcome addition to the trials the country already faces.