When blogger Rajib Haider was killed in 2013, the outcry was tremendous. But, over the next three years, at least 38 more were added to the list of those murdered, which includes writers, publisher, foreigners, religious minorities and LGBT rights activists. There have been reports about alleged IS involvement, and last week, the security forces launched a drive that resulted in the arrest of 194 'militants'. But the collective outrage over people being murdered seems to have mellowed.
It's almost as if there is a general indifference towards those being killed now - there has even been 'doubts' about whether the slain deserved their fate. Of course, most Muslims in this country are not radical in their belief. But certain attitudes towards minorities have made the situation worse. As long as there is an impression that many people find nothing wrong with the murder of those who might have differing beliefs, whoever is behind these killings, be it Hizb ut-Tahrir, Ansarullah Bangla Team, JMB or even IS, are being 'legitimised' in their acts.
A recent article by The New York Times tries to explain the situation. The report quotes the Chief of the Police Counterterrorism Unit, Monirul Islam: “They have tried to pick their targets with care, with the aim of gaining support from the public. . . Their goal was to convert Bangladesh's mixed secular and religious culture to an Islamist one.” The report does not inspire hope. Further comments from Monirul Islam and the reporter run along the same lines: “To a surprising extent, the militants have succeeded in their aim of discrediting secularism”; “In general, people think they have done the right thing, that it's not unjustifiable to kill”. (“Bangladesh Says It Now Knows Who's Killing the Bloggers”, NYT, June 8, 2016)
The killers seem to have achieved what they wanted. They targeted the deep-rooted cultural biases and attitudes of the largely Sunni Muslim population of the country. The moment bloggers of the Shahbagh movement became branded as 'atheists', the public outrage over fanaticism shifted. A pervasive fear has taken hold that Islam is somehow under threat, and eliminating elements that supposedly run counter to the religion need to be discarded. In the week of the police crackdown on militancy, a Hindu college teacher was stabbed in Madaripur, and staff of Ramakrishna Mission received death threats. And yet, the majority of the people remain unconcerned.
And here we must confront some uncomfortable issues. Despite our loud proclamations of being a secularist country, are we truly, by any definition secular? Our Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of speech and safeguards against persecution due to religious belief. Secularism entails official neutrality of the state in matters of religion: that is religion is a personal issue, not a state one.
Yet, our minorities have been marginalised over the past four decades and the country's Hindu population is on a decline (from about 30 percent before '71 to less than 10 percent today). Since independence, secularism as a basic principle of the Constitution was removed, a state religion was ordained, and now we have the conflicting state of both being there at the same time.
Institutions like the Awami Olama League can today demand removal of Hindu ministers and judges with impunity and still operate under the AL banner. Age-old traditions of celebrating Pahela Baishakh are challenged as being un-Islamic. There has been increasing pressure from sections of society trying to impose parochial values and codes on women in the name of religious decency. Just this week a post that sparked a lot of debate on social media exemplified the manifestation of our belief when a woman was abused verbally on the road for driving a car instead of being at home, preparing iftari. The abuse was met with support of the general onlookers, as they berated the woman for not being at home, where she belonged.
Clearly, the state of affairs did not develop overnight; ghosts of unresolved communal issues, stretching from 1971 to as far as at least 1947, and the post-independence coups and countercoups have resulted in a fragile and fragmented society with serious identity issues. We seem to be grappling with the question of who we are. Instead of our identity being based on our roots in this country, with the corresponding effect of apathy and hostility towards not just other religions, but also towards other Islamic schools of thought like those of Shias and Ahmeddiyas. The root of the problem is that increasing number of people, including students, from universities and madrasas, are becoming radicalised.
On top of that, the educated liberal elites' defensive stance on the issue has created further confusion. The Islamophobia in the West, and the repercussion of US foreign policy, has meant that Muslims here have been active in refuting the terrorist association with Islam. But, what they seem to miss is that the Islamophobia of Trump in a country where Muslims are a minority, and the case of a country like Bangladesh with a Muslim majority are not the same. Islam does not promote terrorism and killings in any form. That does not mean that certain schools of thought have not misinterpreted the religion in justifying vile acts. The flagging of all Muslims as terrorists is reprehensible, as is refusing to deal with the fact that in the name of the religion, actions are being carried out that go against its core values.
The previously mentioned New York Times article quotes authorities in Bangladesh as saying: “Only when the leaders are caught will the attacks be stopped, and at that, only for a while if the appeal of Islamic fundamentalism is not blunted.” Collectively, we are indifferent towards those being hunted down and butchered. We refuse to acknowledge the issues that plague our society. Religion is not at fault here. The problem is with how religion is being interpreted by some people; the killers are being used as pawns, while the general people stand aloof. As long as we do not confront our exclusionary beliefs and accept that people with different beliefs than ours live in this country, no amount of anti-militancy drives or constitutional amendments can stop the killings.
The writer is a member of the editorial team, The Daily Star.