THE apparent calm in an uneasy society that concerned citizens are witnessing now may lead the gullible public to believe that they have become free from the ravages of the violent hate spewed by extremist political elements that have so far taken cover under the banner of constitutional politics. The ruling establishment may have chosen, for its own reasons, to eschew interdicting the mischievous quarters despite plentiful evidence of the threats posed by the so-called religious extremists.
Incidents of November/December last, however, have proved, if proof was required, that there are organised elements with pronounced political views for whom violence and destruction alone justify their existence. To such elements, protests are 'jihad,' thus providing a religious overtone to recruit people, raise funds and justify acts of violence. A closer scrutiny would likely reveal a clandestine but extensive and collusive network of terror, duplicity and religious extremism that runs through the activities of organisations that are outwardly religiously benevolent and public-spirited. Appearances, however, could be deceptive and dangerous.
It needs to be noted that the extremist activities are always invariably secretive and protected and flourish under the guise of various charity organisations and trusts. A distinguishing characteristic of the so-called religiously motivated activities is that they are not driven by any domestic agenda or grievances but a broader supra-national agenda or ideology. The initial recruits for extremist cause may have been petty criminals and students from the religious schools, but as time passes a significant proportion of the new recruits are better educated with some holding professional degrees in medicine, engineering and computer science. The number of criminals joining extremist outfit, however, remains a constant feature of recruitment.
Informed sources opine that the philanthropic exterior of suspected extremist group has, over the years, quietly facilitated in usurping considerable space from the State. This has reportedly created significant political and social capital for the extremist ideology and may be helpful in manipulating political gains.
The power and influence of the extremists was dangerously reflected in the recent political violence. Those wishing to take a deeper look into the matter may find it interesting that in times of political crisis the leadership extremist group has ventured to create a parallel narrative of hope and strength for expanding their political capital. There is, therefore, cause for concern because if mainstream political process slips into deeper levels of despondency, extremists will definitely dominate the political stage. The question is, should we be concerned about the growing political and social influence of extremist groups that could transform the polity into radicalism?
While delving into the above query, we may perhaps cite the example of Pakistan where problems of nation-building persisted as the society experienced long periods of unrepresentative rule. The ruling set-up there found Islamic ideology as the way out of the perceived challenges to its legitimacy. In Pakistan, popular sources of legitimacy based on a mass mandate started to lose their relevance and, almost as a corollary, divine sources of legitimacy were articulated and cultivated by the ruling elite.
In Pakistan, the power of the Islamic idiom undercut the intellectual idiom of the society in general. Thus, debates about democracy, economy, education, culture, women's issues, human rights issues as well as the functioning of bureaucracy, judiciary and army drew heavily on the divine sources of morality, authenticity and accountability.
Sub-continental experience indicates that the more the ruling establishment provides space for politics of Islam due to its own strategic compulsions in both foreign policy and domestic contexts, the more the disparate Islamic elements sought to shape the country's ideological discourse according to their own priorities and preferences. Religious groups have sought to define the State through street agitation, lobbying, networking and vote politics.
We have to understand that if we have a relatively mature institutional base then the extremist movement would neither be represented in the mainstream politics nor would it be able to carry out terrorist activities in various localities. We would not be subjected to hate politics along sectarian lines with its attendant human cost.
The military elite of Pakistan sought to activate the divine sources of legitimacy during the Afghanistan war in partnership with the American military might and financial muscle. In the process, the extremist and the obscurantist elements got strengthened beyond all proportion. Sadly, the agenda for democracy lost its momentum in Pakistan. We in Bangladesh surely do not want to jeopardise our democratic pluralist existence by not recognising the potential and actual threats from the so-called religious extremists.
The writer is a columnist of The Daily Star.