The Real Problem Facing Bangladesh is Not Violent Extremism

The high profile attack in Dhaka’s diplomatic section earlier this month ushered in a period of increased international attention to Bangladesh’s security climate, attention that had already been on the rise as the number of progressive activists and religious figures hacked to death by machete-wielding extremists ballooned in recent months. International and domestic observers alike warn of impending incursions by ISIS (which claimed credit for the Holey Artisan Bakery massacre) and/or Al Qaeda that would cement religiously motivated violence as a regular element of daily life for ordinary Bangladeshis.

At the same time, most prominent media outlets have ignored the larger scale violence surrounding Bangladesh’s recently completed local elections and the deeper political crisis fueling the country’s nascent extremist presence. Over the course of the electoral cycle, which began on March 22 and concluded on June 4, nearly 90 people were killed as a result of violent clashes between supporters of the secular Awami League (AL) and religiously-driven Bangladesh National Party (BNP), the country’s two major political entities. The disputes were fueled in part by the dramatically lopsided results: the AL maintained its overwhelming majority by winning more than seven times as many seats in municipal-level government organizations (known as Union Parishads) as its main opponent. From an optics perspective, the outcome for the BNP was even worse than the numbers suggest, as second place in the elections went not to the BNP but to independent candidates, with the AL’s widely rejected rival finishing a distant third. Not surprisingly, BNP senior leadership has not responded well. Allegations of AL vote-rigging and fraud abound, and AL leaders have responded with implications that the BNP, long affiliated with the Islamist fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami party, bears a measure of responsibility for the spate of machete killings.

The reality is that violent extremism is far from the greatest threat facing Bangladesh today.  To suggest that it is lends undue significance the efforts of isolated radicals and distracts from the ongoing political crisis. After all, any terrorist—from homegrown amateur to battle-hardened international operative—is savvy enough to exploit political turmoil to his/her benefit. As the rift between the AL and BNP widens, operational space for groups like the Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), and even ISIS, which have claimed responsibility for the majority of targeted killings in recent months, expands. To push these groups out and prevent them from gaining support at the local levels, the AL and BNP must come together to jointly denounce them. Moreover, the AL must put an immediate end to its heavy-handed crackdown and campaign of mass arrests or else risk what author and conflict expert David Kilcullen years ago identified as the “accidental guerilla” phenomenon. In this scenario, extremist movements gain popular support not from ideologically aligned fighters but from fathers, brothers, and sons whose innocent family members are injured or killed in widespread government counterterrorism raids launched hastily in the aftermath of high profile attacks.

These dire conditions point to cross-party relationship building as the saving grace of Bangladesh’s political future. BNP Chairwoman and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and AL leader and current PM Sheikh Hasina must show greater willingness to to overcome decades-old interparty feuding and engage in high level dialog. Greater collaborative action against political and religious extremism would suffocate the efforts of both local and international groups to gain a foothold in Bangladesh. Most importantly, it would demonstrate to all concerned parties that contrary to what current conditions suggest, there is hope for the country’s secure and democratic future.

Note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and are not intended to represent the organizational views of Democracy International or its Dhaka-based program staff.

Image: Dhaka rush-hour (credit: Wikimedia Commons)


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