Since 2013, Bangladesh has been repeatedly in headline news across the world due to systematic and incessant targeted killings. In the mainstream media, both in South Asia and the West, the focus has been generally on high profile murders of secular and progressive bloggers, e.g., recent worldwide broad coverage of the tragic murder of Xulhaz Mannan, editor of Bangladesh’s first LGBT rights magazine. However, not many know that these killings are only one part of the story. Secularists and bloggers are not the only community under attack in Bangladesh. Unless other pieces of the story are taken into account, the picture will remain incomplete and a meaningful resolution may remain evasive.
A cursory macro-level glance indicates systematic attacks on free thought and alternative voices of diverse backgrounds and ideologies in Bangladesh (see Table 1). In addition to secularists, liberals and atheists, victims also include people of faith, such as those from Shia, Sunni Sufi, Ahmadi, Christian and Hindu backgrounds.
Media reports suggest that militants affiliated with the Islamic State (IS), Al Qaeda in Subcontinent (AQIS), Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), Ansar al-Islam and Jamayetul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) are involved in these attacks. The only groups spared from such targeted attacks are Salafi (Wahhabi) and Deobandi Islamists and their affiliates.
These outfits including JMB, ABT and Ansar al-Islam have strong links to IS and/or al-Qaeda. In recent years, Indian police has made several arrests and found that at least two of the AQIS top leaders studied or were affiliated with the Darul Uloom Deoband, the largest Deobandi seminary in the world where the Deobandi ultra-orthodox movement began in 1866.
Bangladesh has a rich culture and pluralist traditions; it is after all the land of the Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore. With a population of more than 162 million (2016 est.), it is a diverse country in terms of religious ideology. About 87% of Bangladeshis are Muslims, followed by Hindus (12%), Buddhists (1%) and Christians (0.5%). Sunni Muslims mainly comprise of Barelvi (Sufi), Deobandi and Salafi (Ahl-e-Hadith or Wahhabi) denominations while there is also presence of Shias and Ahmadis.
Most Muslims in Bangladesh support democracy respect religious and ideological differences and reject radical Islamist ideology. Radicalization of Sunni Muslims in Bangladesh started in early 1980s with the international recruitment of Jihadists for proxy war against Soviet Union and its socialist allies in Afghanistan. However, the roots of religious extremism can be traced back to 1971 the Jamaat-e-Islami and its activists in Al-Shams and Al-Badar militant groups were involved in the systematic murders of nationalist intellectuals, activists, writers and academics in Bangladesh. Nearly all of Jamaat’s top leaders have been tried and convicted on charges of crimes against humanity committed during the country’s independence war in 1971. Three of those have already been hanged.
The banned JMB was behind a series of attacks on Sunni Sufi shrines and other places belonging to the Sufi and Ahmadi communities between 2002 and 2004. A grenade attack in 2004 on a famous Sufi shrine in Sylhet killed three and left a diplomat wounded. The JMB also was involved in public lynching of left-wing activists and assassinations of judges. In 2005, JMB shocked the country by near-simultaneous bomb attacks in all of the country’s 64 districts. Its top two leaders were arrested soon afterwards and hanged in 2008.
Since many of the JMB militants are found to be affiliated with the Jamaat-e-Islami, the government believes all the attacks are their handiwork, claimed under different names and designed to destabilise Bangladesh.
While the government seems to deny the presence of the IS in Bangladesh, it is true that all of the attacks perpetrated against secularists and persecuted religious communities in Bangladesh are being carried out by groups operating under different names and aliases. However, in their core, the attackers seem to share the murderous Takfiri Salafi/Wahhabi and Deobandi ideology.
A Takfiri is a radical Islamist who considers all those religious groups and individuals Kafir (infidel) and worthy to be killed who do not subscribe to his religious doctrine or political agenda. Salafis are an ultra-orthodox minority within Sunni Islam and are heavily sponsored and funded by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Arab Sheikhdoms. Wahhabi is the Saudi version of Salafis. Deobandis are the South Asian variant of Salafis/Wahhabis, and despite some differences of jurisprudence, align themselves with global Salafi and Wahhabi movements.
As an example, Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qaeda (AQ or AQIS) are primarily Salafi Wahhabi outfits with some participation by Deobandis while Taliban (or TTP), Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and Lashkr-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) are Deobandi outfits with some Salafi Wahhabi participation. In this context, JMB and ABT, not unlike Jamaat-e-Islami, may be seen as a joint outfit of Deobandi and Salafi Wahhabi Islamists in Bangladesh.
In his research on terrorism, Chris Blackburn (2006) notes that the followers of the Deobandi sect of South Asia and the Wahhabi sect of the Middle East (Saudi Arabia) follow an ultra-orthodox interpretation of the Islamic faith, which has often led them on a collision path with other sects who have more pacifist, tolerant and progressive attitudes within Sunni Islam. Blackburn further notes that the Gulf states continue to promote Wahhabism as the main school of thought in the Muslim world- with the Deobandi movement being a close ally.
Thus it will be amiss to treat and analyse the tragic murder of the LGBT magazine editor as an isolated incident. Table 1 offers an account of some of the key incidents of targeted killings in Bangladesh since January 2013 to April 2016.
Table 1. An overview of targeted killings in Bangladesh (2013-Apr 2016)
A common denominator
On the surface, it is hard to find a common denominator amongst these victims. Some of them were practising Hindus or Muslims of Sunni Sufi or Shia backgrounds, others were secularists while a few of them were atheists. Even tiny minorities such as Christians and Ahmadis have not been spared. So what exactly is common in all of these victims?
Instead of finding commonality in these extremely diverse victims, it may be more productive to focus attention on their killers. What is common in all individuals or groups who claimed or were found/believed to be involved in these murders?
What is common in these murderous groups is the radical Salafi/Wahhabi and Deobandi ideology that is extremely intolerant of dissent and pluralism. Any person or community that does not subscribe to their doctrinal beliefs or political agenda of global Islamist domination (Caliphate) is considered fair game for violence.
These events highlight a systematic pattern that is neither bound by time nor geography. The pattern in Table 1 bears hallmarks of radical Deobandi and Salafi outfits such as TTP, LeJ, SSP, IS and AQ.
A recent issue of IS’s magazine hailed the spate of attacks as the “revival of jihad in Bengal” and urged its followers to target foreigners, Shia and Christians in Bangladesh.
It may be noted that Sunni Sufis do not represent a religious minority. In Pakistan, for example, Sunni Sufis are in majority in Bangladesh when compared with radical Deobandi and Salafi or Wahhabi outfits.
Just like Bangladesh, Pakistan has seen the systematic targeting of free thinkers and alternative voices. From Rashid Rahman (lawyer and rights activist) to Shabbir Shah (academic) and from Parween Rahman (social worker) to Sibte Jaffar (poet and rights activist), this radical ideology has claimed countless lives in Pakistan. This ideology has targeted all religious groups and sects across Pakistan. Just a year ago, brutal assassins linked to the radical Deobandi proscribed terrorist outfit SSP murdered Pakistan’s leading progressive activist and micro-blogger, Sabeen Mahmud. Whether it is the Jamaat-e-Islami in Bangladesh or its ideological twin, Sipah-e-Sahaba in Pakistan, the tragic results have been the same. Takfiri ideology cannot thrive amongst vibrant alternative discourses and their only methodology is the brute suppression and elimination of alternative voices.
Beyond South Asia, terrorists belonging to IS and Al-Qaeda/Al-Nusra have relentlessly targeted the indigenous Christian, Sunni Sufi, Shia, Ezidi, Kurd and Druze communities of Syria and Iraq.
The ideology that murdered the LGBT magazine editor in Dhaka cannot tolerate dissent, pluralism or alternative voices. The world is witness the destructive influence of this ideology especially in Pakistan, Syria, Libya and Iraq.
The need to neutralise hate ideologies
The global community must stand with progressive voices and victim religious groups and urge the Bangladesh government to use the force of law to crush the cowardly terrorists who commit these acts of brutality. In addition to chasing these murderous outfits of shifting names and aliases, it is more important to clearly identify and neutralise their hate ideologies.
The global community also needs to wake up from its stupor and come to the realization that those countries and individuals who fund such hatred need to be punished by the civilized norms of international law and conventions. Our conscience must never allow these murders to continue in Bangladesh or elsewhere.
While the government says there is no organisational presence of IS in Bangladesh, that matters little – because there are many local extremist groups which share the same ideology and promote it through violence and target killings. Former Army Brigadier General Shakhawat Hossain said last year: “Every underground [Islamist] outfit has some sort of interconnection because they share the same ideology.
Thus, an urgent crack down on these militants and their clerics, madrassas, literature and media that propagate such ideologies is necessary to protect vulnerable religious communities and secularists as well as the pluralistic fabric of the Bangladeshi state.
Note: An abridged version of this article was also published in The Huffington Post on 28 April 2016.