Rise of religious extremism in Bangladesh - Old product in a new wrapping

Published on Thursday, October 1, 2015

I am very emotional about our liberation war and I am sure many of you are also. My emotions are intrigued by the stories I have been hearing from my childhood. I haven't seen the war, but I have lived it in my mind. I have felt the sorrow, the pain and the anguish of the people in those times.

I grew up hating the war criminals of 1971. Sometimes I don't understand whom I hate more: the war criminals or the Pakistani Army! I might hate the war criminals most. My father always used to quote Marx and Lenin; he used to say a revolution is meaningless without any proper follow-up, and by follow-up he used to mean the trial of the war criminals. Interestingly, my parents also taught me about Sheikh Mujib's announcement about the war criminals; I got to read the announcement at a very early age. I have no doubt that Sheikh Mujib never declared forgiveness for all the war criminals. While growing up, I started to understand the nature of these war criminals and the role of Jamaat-e-Islam Party during 1971 in a more profound way. I am from an area where many of the people around me were Jamaat-e-Islam supporters; they still are. When I tried to understand their sentiment, I figured out the key lied in the word 'Islam'. However, it wasn't too difficult to fathom this sentiment if we read books by authors like Humayun Azad. I read his book, 'Pak Sar Jamin Saad Baad' which earned him the ire of the extremists and got him murdered. Things were changing before my eyes, but I was too young to understand everything. Eventually I started to put things together. The bomb blast at the Ramna Botomul during the Bangla New Year celebration, the murder of Humayun Azad, finding weapon caches in different parts of the country, or the rise of many religious organizations dedicated to extremism, they all seemed interconnected to me. It all seems to herald a future Islamic revolution. Jamaat-e-Islam is not planning to turn Bangladesh into East Pakistan anymore, rather it wants to proclaim the country with an ideology they had during 1971: to change the law and the culture in the name of Islam, to feed the controversy of whether Bangla culture is Hindu culture or whether decorating Shahid Minar with flowers is a sin.

Wasn't it the same during '71? What's new? I really don't see anything new except the point that more people are embracing their ideology. I wonder how we came to this stage. Just think about the situation of 1975. Bangladesh was a young nation. It was still fragile and with many of its intellectuals killed during 1971 almost rudderless. Then Sheikh Mujib and his family were assassinated. A new power came and with it came the war criminals who promptly started sowing the seeds of extremism in the heads of poor, hungry, and uneducated people. In time Bangladesh became a fertile land for Hijbut Tahiri or other such militant organizations.

So, I think, our country has given a platform to an idea to grow, the idea of extremism in the form of religious sentiment. However, it really isn't exclusively all about 'Islam'. It's about the power of religion to control people, and showing them a dream. I couldn't agree more with Richard Dawkins with this: this idea of a better future in the afterlife is as powerful as nuclear weapons, or maybe even more powerful than that.

I also see a rise of a group of élite extremists who don't even see themselves as extreme people. They argue with logic and try to indoctrinate others. They have built a strong network in Bangladesh and have different names for their brotherhoods or sisterhoods. They are also active outside the country. For example, I knew some very educated women, employee of well-known organizations, who espoused the idea that Bangla culture is equivalent to Hindu culture. For them, 'wearing tip', instead of a cultural tradition, would be a satanic practice.

Under the influence of these 'intellectual' religious people many youngsters now view celebrating Pohela Boishakh, the Bengali New Year, as something anti-Islamic. These young people may not support the war criminals or even Jamaat-e-Islam directly, but they feel it is their religious duty to oppose all sorts of cultural practices.

So, why wouldn't the Islamic State be interested in Bangladesh? However, I am looking it from a more hypothetical point of view related to religious aggression than, discussing with actual proof of IS conducting their activities in Bangladesh. I don't know where my country is going and I don't know how much I can rely on the current government. When they first introduced the concept of the War Criminal Tribunal I couldn't have been happier. But, later, I realized, its steps towards identifying the problem seemed to be focused only on a few war criminals without digging deep to find the root of the problem. This becomes apparent when it failed to identify the active organizations behind the blogger killings!

So, whom should I rely on? Whom should I look forward to? I hear that Jamaat-w-Islam can get a new license from Bangladesh if they drop their name. Is it really going to solve the problem? What about their old ideology that is spreading aggressively like a poison all over Bangladesh? At the end of the day, after taking into account the current political options, I feel really helpless. Sometimes I think, even though it should have been done forty years ago, at least this government has started the war crime procedure. But then do we need to wait another forty years to see any change towards secularism? Unfortunately, the current events do not make me an optimist.

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