“TARGETING FREE THINKERS”
IN just over two years, Bangladesh has lost five dynamic, assertive, free thinkers to gruesome acts of deliberate violence. Ananta Bijoy Das joined the ranks of Oyasiqur Rahman, Avijit Roy, Professor Shafiul Islam, and Ahmed Rajib Haider, in paying the ultimate price for practicing their universally recognised rights to freedom of thought and freedom of speech. Bangladesh mourns them, so does the world, in the shared conviction that the value of liberty for which they have fallen is the foundation of society, progress, and civilisation. The murderers may be ignorant pawns dispatched to terminate the lives of thinkers whose writings they may never have seen. Their masters, however, are calculating minds that have long departed from any adherence to shared universal values. Their crimes, in Bangladesh and elsewhere, are part of a conversation and a competition within their own world of radicalism. Understanding the extent of their divergence with the rest of the world is crucial in order to contain, and ultimately reverse, the looming danger.
The history of today's radicalism is that of modernity misfiring. Where it was meant to foster freedom and progress, it engendered a call for religious regimentation. By challenging the world's superpower, al-Qa'idah (AQ) stood as the flag-bearer of this international radical fight. From Afghanistan to Algeria, Iraq to Yemen, franchises were authorised with the dystopian illusion that the world economy would be toppled, the international political system destroyed, and a totalitarian order would be erected. It was evidently not meant to be. Instead the world fought back, fragmenting AQ's core, and forcing its subsidiaries to seek new venues.
One of them, the Iraq franchise, effectively sought to commit matricide. The mother organisation seemed ready to be inherited; it had lost its founding father, Osama Bin Ladin, and his second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, a hesitant leader, lacked the charisma and traction of his predecessor. Thus was born the claim of a caliphate, a global lordship, from Iraq. With military prowess, social media savvy, and Hollywood-style production quality for its prolific and ascendingly cruel releases, the new "Islamic State" in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was a potent contender, claiming the allegiance of many factions and individuals across the AQ universe. To stop the bleeding, with much fanfare, AQ proclaimed a new, presumably major, franchise, consolidating assets close to Zawahiri's elusive headquarters in Pakistan: al-Qa'idah in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). Bangladesh, the subject of previous reflections by Zawahiri, was presented as an integral part.
However, while ISIS expanded and captured the headlines of world media, the impact of AQIS remained virtually nil. In an endeavour in which the appearance of success is a considerable part of the achievement of success, AQ was thus at a distinct disadvantage. AQ and ISIS represent two different methodological models in the pursuit of the radical dystopia. AQ seeks a revolution, while ISIS is based on conquest. The allure of ISIS, sapping away self-radicalised militants, deprives AQIS from implementing its cell-based web approach in preparation for local or national takeover.
For AQ, in general, and AQIS in particular, ISIS constitutes a severe operational and methodological challenge. What Bangladesh has witnessed over the past months is AQ's best effort to articulate an exit strategy out of the impasse.
The 2013 Shahbag protests in Dhaka revealed the power of a mostly-urban, mostly-young, deeply secular popular force under-represented in party politics. It also revealed, in the form of the Hefazat counter protests, the existence of cultural fault lines in the nation, with opposing sensitivities displayed against blasphemy and assaults on the right of free expression. The murder of Ahmed Rajib Haider represents the culmination of a process of "distance radicalisation" through which local militants assimilate and practice the radical values system — one with no tolerance for dissent and in which human life is expendable.
Capitalising on the polarising effects of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons and murders, AQIS has found its calling in seeking to be branded the defender of the Prophet against any blasphemy. Recognising the "achievements" of Bangladeshi grassroot radicalism, AQIS has adopted its actions as a template. The murders, in relatively quick succession of Oyasiqur Rahman, Avijit Roy, and Ananta Bijoy Das, represent AQIS's embrace of the Bangladeshi militants and their assimilation into its network. With the killings, AQIS gains subject matter for its international image crafting — providing AQ with some hope to slow its erosion towards ISIS — while establishing local presence in Bangladesh in line with its original revolution approach.
In addition to such primary operational objectives, AQIS expects that the defiant reactions from free speech advocates will display some excess that may contribute to characterising the demarcation line in Bangladesh is one between Islam and secularism, or Islam and atheism — a sought-after presentation that has so far eluded the proponents of radicalism in this deeply pious deeply secular nation.
Religious teachings can be excerpted and reconfigured to justify many actions. The murder of Ananta Bijoy Das, and many before him, may be portrayed as anathema to religious precepts by most, but could be presented as conformation to a version of them by some. This would be an ill-directed debate. Bangladesh is a country of law with a social contract that enshrines the fundamental rights to life, freedom of thought, and freedom of expression. While also constituting an assault against these universal values and rights, the AQIS murders are committed primarily for the "street cred" that AQ has been lacking in its new radical neighbourhood.
The Bangladesh authorities will evidently pursue all venues to apprehend and punish the perpetrators. Bangladeshi civil society, and in particular its active blogosphere, ought to ensure, through measured and principled responses, to deny radicalism any insidious gain from its crimes.
The writer is Principal, Middle East Alternatives, Washington DC Special to The Daily Star.