Afriend said something thought provoking recently. He said Bangladesh is in company of Afghanistan and Pakistan as three exceptional countries whose governments are telling the rest of the world that they are infested with terrorists. While Pakistan and Afghanistan cannot claim otherwise as there are deaths and destructions aplenty from terrorism, all reported in the international media the moment they occur, it is a mystery that our own government is projecting us as such where there are neither deaths nor destructions to show nor do we figure anywhere in the context of reporting in the international media as a militant prone country.
It is true though that there are terrorists in Bangladesh. Where is a country that does not? Next door, India and Sri Lanka are reeling under very real manifestations of terrorism. However, these governments, while in battle with terrorism as a daily fact of life, constantly underplay the menace to minimize the potentials for damage such news can have on their international trade, investment and tourism.
The news about the arrest of the Bangladesh born British national Faisal in Barisal with a huge quantity of arms is a case in point. The discovery is worrying but the way it was handled by the government and the media is mysterious. One very senior minister was the first to jump into the fray, seeing a link with the Qaumi Maddrasas that have three million students and quickly identifying them as terrorist outfits. Other ministers joined the fray and together they identified many hundred terrorist outfits in the country and several million terrorists to boot! This information made the butt of many talk show swipes where participants joked about the likelihood of one participant in every talk show being a “terrorist!“
Sometime ago, I wrote a piece in this paper where I said that worldwide, Islamic terrorism is on the decline. Although President Bush has been taken apart for his international politics, one has to give him credit for this declining trend in Islamic militancy. Since then, the situation in Iraq has turned around and Islamic militants are on the run. His war on terror has weakened the nexus of Islamic militancy worldwide. Islamic militants are now concentrated primarily in the no-man's land between Afghanistan and Pakistan where their national politics is sustaining Islamic terrorism.
Historically, Bangladesh is fundamentally different from these countries. Islam here has been tampered by other cultures, and more particularly, Sufiism has made Bangladeshi Muslims tolerant to other religions. In our family and social lives, Islam plays a major part. We are good Muslims and respect our religious leaders. But we have never in a major way backed their political aspirations. The most important Islam based political party, Jamat e-Islami, that has existed amongst us longer than both the Awami League and the BNP never won more than a score of seats in any of our national level elections.
There is however no room for complacency. There are serious potentials for rising Islamic extremism in Bangladesh and in that context the Faisal case deserves most serious attention. Having said these, we must also bring into the equation the fact that in Bangladesh Islamic militancy has gained ground due to sponsorship of the major political parties. The BNP must share the major blame for allowing its Islam based alliance partners, when in power from 2001 to 2006, all the freedom to build a network of armed cadre as payback for their electoral support in the 2001 elections. For political reasons, the BNP looked the other way and allowed the JMB terrorists to establish themselves, and turned a blind eye when the media and no less a person than the then US Ambassador, tried their best to draw the government's attention to the emerging frankstein. The Islam based parties used their political influence to penetrate the intelligence in a major way; a presence that was brought to dramatic focus when the Islamic terrorists managed to blast nearly 500 bombs all over Bangladesh in August 2005 while Prime Minister Khaleda Zia was on an official visit to China in a manner that could have been possible only with direct connivance of the intelligence agencies. Interestingly, although the number and the synchronization that went with these blasts were amazing, only a couple of people were killed and there was no devastation either, suggesting two things. First, these terrorists could carry out the acts because of state sponsorship at some level. Second, their capability to cause devastation like Islamic terrorists abroad was very limited indeed.
When the US Government took a serious view of events and pressured the government to tackle this growing menace, the JMB top leadership was caught in a manner that was almost farcical. These terrorists were later hanged under the Caretaker Government. There was not even a whimper from their cadre, which suggests that once state sponsorship was withdrawn they became innocuous. Since then, with decline in Islamic terrorism abroad, it is only logical to assume that such militancy should be on the decline in Bangladesh.
Why then are we crying out so loud that we are surrounded by Islamic terrorists on all sides for to have millions of terrorists we must surely be rubbing shoulders with many of them every day! The media is also not doing a bad job either in overstating our case. One reason is that our ministers are now behaving like loose cannons when confronted by the media, saying pretty much what they perceive will please the Prime Minister with whom most of them have little or no contact except at the Cabinet meetings. The second reason seems to be coming from the emergence of the need to reestablish secularism in our politics, a move that has official government backing. There is, however, very little coordinated approach in these moves. Those seeking to reestablish secularism feel that Islam based parties are an obstacle. Hence they are trying to establish a fear in the public mind that these parties are creating and supporting Islamic terrorism.
There is urgent need for the sensible people in this government to set things in order for unless they do so, we would end up creating those very conditions that breed militancy; the way things are moving, very soon we could see secularism and Islam come in conflict with disastrous consequences. It was thus heartening to see the Prime Minister meet the leaders of Qaumi Madrassas where there were mutual assurances against terrorism. We should also spare a moment and re-asses secularism which is a western concept that came from the need to keep the Church out of politics. In the Middle Ages of European history, also known as the Dark Age, the Church by the power that Christianity gave it, had turned the lives of nations and nationalities into hell through corruption and degeneration. Islam has no such baggage from history where the secular and religious forces have lived side by side in tranquility. We must re-think about the necessity of taking a western concept that has little relevance in our lives and inject a new element of conflict in our society, more so because we are in no threat of having Islam based parties rule our lives.
We must weed out those who propagate violence in the name of religion. The present government is determined to end Islamic terrorism. It should not be difficult for them to do so because terrorism has thrived in Bangladesh mainly under state sponsorship. However, in overstressing the case against Islamic terrorism, the government is allowing the common and politically based criminals, who cause the people and the country more harm, to re-establish themselves as well as help create an image that could bring disastrous economic consequences for the country. This government has called for establishment of a Digital Bangladesh. In the digital world, news and perceptions travel in the speed of light. We should keep this in mind and reflect upon the dangers of the call this government gave on Mujibnagar day which was “unite to free the country from militancy”. Why are we crying wolf?
The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.