THE brutal murders of two bloggers by extremists, one in full public view and the other in broad daylight, in a residential area of the city in disturbingly quick succession have understandably created a wave of fear amongst the people. Activists as well as academics have wondered as to why the menace of so-called religious extremism continues to raise its ugly head. Some have lamented the absence of a holistic counter-terrorism strategy.
But such lamentations would be of no avail if we don't take a hard look at the factors behind religious extremism and prepare for pervasive counter preparations. We need to look beneath the incidents and beyond it.
Extremist activities are always invariably secretive and protected, and often 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 grievance but a broader supra-national agenda or ideology. The initial recruits for extremist cause may have been petty criminals and students from religious schools, but with time, a significant portion of the new recruits seem to be better educated; some of them even hold professional degrees in medicine, engineering and computer science.
Upon scrutiny, one would find that a large number of the country's imams belong to the Deoband school that promotes an uncompromising, puritanical and exclusive fundamentalism. It is relevant to note that the Deoband Madrasa, founded in 1866, denounced music and dancing and distanced itself from things considered progressive in the Indian society. It shunned the British Law Courts and retained jihad as a central pillar of faith. The focus of this jihad was “on the promotion of Islamic revival and identity through the principle of the immutability of Shariah, the oneness of God and the overarching, guiding authority of the Ulemah.”
Deobandism waged a ceaseless war of words against Shias, Hindus and Christian missionaries. It also issued fatwas on almost all subjects. The Deoband Madrassa condemned the activities of Syed Ahmed Khan of Aligarh as 'un-Islamic' and banned Muslims from joining his Patriotic Association. This writer suspects that our imams, largely influenced by the doctrinal claims of Deoband School, tend to believe that anti-militancy sermons are actually the handiwork of anti-Islam schemers of the West. Such presumption, does not, however, preclude the suspected inertia of people in authority to properly arrange a communication session.
Sub-continental experience indicates that the more the establishment provides space for politicisation of Islam due to its own strategic compulsions in both foreign policy and domestic contexts, the more the disparate Islamic elements seek 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 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.
An important issue is whether the authorities have been able to agree to the contents of a historically credible and religiously correct counter-narrative to confront the extremists. Should we not project Islam as being just as rational as any western system? We should be able to demonstrate that Islam was and is the most rational and advanced of all the confessional faiths; that strict monotheism of Islam had liberated humanity from mythology. Our narrative could also emphasise that the empirical spirit that had given birth to modernity had in fact originated in Islam.
We need to project that Muslims have a vital mission to witness the divine dimension of life, not by retiring from the world to engage in contemplation or indulging in suicide-bombing, but by an activism that implements the social ideals of Shariah. We also need to realise that politics had never been a secondary issue for Muslims.
The counter-narrative needs to recognise that politics had been the theatre of religious quest of Muslims. Salvation for them does not mean redemption from sin, but the creation of a just society in which the individual could more easily make that existential surrender of his or her whole being that would bring them fulfilment. The polity for the Muslims was, therefore, an aspiration that required a jihad, a struggle that could find no simple outcome.
The counter-terrorism strategy's narrative should be able to effectively dispel the misgivings about fundamentalism that gives the impression of its being a violent form of Islamic religiosity. It needs to be stressed that fundamentalism is a global fact and has surfaced in every major faith in response to the problems of modernity. In fact, of the three monolithic religions, Islam was the last to develop a fundamentalist strain when modern culture began to take root in the late 1960s and 1970s.
While eradicating or controlling militancy, it should occur to us that in Bangladesh the advocates of extreme path are more determined than liberals. Liberal forces hardly work with intense dedication, much less with a sense of mission. One has to remember that in Bangladesh secularism as state ideology finds it difficult to compete with a language of being saturated with religion.
One has to recognise the socio-economic reality of Bangladesh where gross poverty co-exists with democracy, a liberal constitution and disorder with functioning polity; the religious and traditional beliefs are far more tenacious than the liberals imagine. The state has, at times, been involved in the business of defining religion. Significantly, the compulsions of the traditional obligations of the ruler to protect state religion have to be kept in view.
The area of action to counter militancy is a battle of ideas, challenging the ideological motivations that extremists believe justify the use of violence. Successful prosecution in the courts, based on gathering of necessary evidence and apprehending those involved in planning acts of terrorism before committing of mischief should be one of the principal approaches of countering militant activity.
The writer is a columnist of the The Daily Star.