The real face of Bangladesh - moderate, secular
The arrest of 27 Bangladeshis workers under the Internal Security Act is the first instance that a radical militant terror cell comprising foreigners has been uncovered in Singapore. The Ministry of Home Affairs said on January 20 that the authorities had arrested the Bangladeshis between November 16 and December 1 last year for "supporting armed jihad ideology of terrorist groups such as Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda". According to both the Singaporean and the Bangladeshi law enforcers, some of those arrested members are loyal to Ansarullah Bangla Team, a Bangladeshi radical terrorist group that allegedly subscribes to extremist teachings of radical ideologues such as Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni-American radical preacher with ties to terrorist group al-Qaeda who was killed in a US drone attack in September 2011.
While Singaporeans are understandably concerned about this episode and the large number of Bangladeshi workers in Singapore, the truth is that Bangladesh is a moderate democratic Muslim state known for its religious tolerance, liberal values, and communal harmony. Compared to other South Asian counties like Pakistan or India, Bangladesh has been quite successful in dismantling religious extremism. According to the 2015 Global Terrorism Index, Pakistan (ranked 4th) and India (ranked 6th) are among the top 10 countries where terrorism is highly concentrated whereas Bangladesh is at 25th position.
Despite the confrontational nature of domestic politics, the country has made considerable strides in key socio-economic parameters like girls' education, microcredit, women's empowerment, world class NGOs, and is one of the leading apparel exporters of the world. The state of Bangladesh was founded on secularism as one of the fundamental principles. Most Bangalis were exposed to Islamic preaching by the 'Sufis' or the saints, whose teachings were centered on love for the humanity. However, like any other society across the world, a vacuum does exist. The radical narrative offered by the extremists loath the 'Sufis' form of religion which is deemed as impure and not representing the true form of Islam. Religion-based politics and resulting extremism crept into the country in the 1980s and 1990s when militants came back from Afghanistan where they had fought the Soviets.
The rise of modern radical militant ideology is often traced back to the emergence of Wahabism that led to the formation of a kingdom in Central Arabia in 19th century, currently known as Saudi Arabia. The First World War saw Britain and France orchestrate the Arab Revolt that broke through the control of Turkish Ottoman Empire. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the transnational anti-Soviet alliance gave rise to extremism in South Asia as the concept of defeating an enemy through violent struggle started spreading.
As the global spread of radical militant ideology is on the rise, Bangladesh is struggling to cope with the self-radicalisation, particularly of the youth population, fostered by a host of factors which includes the ease and availability of the extremist materials, growing divide between the rich and poor, and the seeming appeal of the grand community or 'Ummah'. The internet has long been a recruitment and propaganda tool for extremist organisations, and the preacher-based model of radicalisation via the web allow close-knit individuals belonging to a group to become self-radicalised.
From the 9/11 attackers to the more recent Boston Marathon bombers, all the individuals belonged to close-knit groups. The terror plot in Singapore reflects the same kind of decentralised structure of the terrorist organisation.
Self-radicalisation is a threat to the security of any state. Yet it is not easy to counter, as individuals who become self-radicalised often have underlying discontent over existing social, economic or political factors in their home society.
Regional terrorist networks operating across South Asia also sought to expand their base in Bangladesh. The rise of Jamaatul Mujahidin Bangladesh (JMB), which aims to replace the current state of Bangladesh with an Islamic State based on Sharia law, has unleashed a new wave of terrorism in Bangladesh. The government has been responding by suppressing these terror groups.
For Bangladesh, countering radicalisation is a multi-faceted effort that goes beyond the state. It has an active civil society and media which have come together with the government to address issues that are fuelling terrorism via self-radicalisation within the society. It is quite likely that ISIS and other terrorist groups will have eyes on Bangladesh, the third largest Muslim majority country of the world. In September 2015, the Bangladeshi Prime Minister raised her concerns as several British Bangladeshis were arrested as recruiters of ISIS and asked Prime Minister David Cameron for "more steps on the ground" from the British government. The Singapore incident is a poignant reminder of the importance of cooperation between national and international actors to combat terror groups.
Singaporeans are known for their tolerance and acceptance and the Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam very aptly commented, "How our non-Muslims treat our Muslim brothers and sisters will decide what type of society we are. If we behave with suspicion and negativity, then our Muslim population will be further pushed. The harmonious society that we have built will be at risk." For the Bangladeshi workers, he gave an equally strong message: "They have come here to work to benefit their families, stick to that. As long as they stick to that, they will be protected and nothing will happen to them". Bangladeshi migrant workers and students have a critical role in the country's development and Bangladesh needs to further strengthen its efforts to prevent import and export of radical extremist ideology.
While the deportation of the Bangladeshis underlies the importance of being vigilant and closer cooperation between the intelligence and law enforcing communities of the two countries, it is equally important not to let the extremists negatively influence socio-economic relations and resulting opportunities for people of both the countries.
The article was first published on January 25, 2016 in The Straits Times, Singapore.
The writer is a Professor at the Institute of Business Administration (IBA), University of Dhaka.