The message in a bottle
The call of 100,000 alems, to denounce terrorism, is important on many counts, and its significance is manifold. It is interesting to notice the rather diverse amalgam of scholars that their endeavour brings under its umbrella - from Awami League slanted Maulana Fariduddin Masud to Hefazat-e-Islam approved scholars and Ahle Hadith Shyakhs, it has been successful in incorporating a wide spectrum of different shades of belief under its fold. Indeed, this can be the beginning of a giant step forward towards our very own Amman Message, where scholars from as many as 50 nations called for tolerance and unity from a conference at the Jordanian capital on November 9, 2004 (27 Ramadan, 1424 AH). Having said that, the call should not limit itself to a one-time affair. The scholars need to take this message of peace and harmony to the grassroots, especially to the hinterlands where such calls are less heard. It will be interesting to see if these scholars go to their respective religious institutions to propagate the message they have so solemnly declared before the public. Friday sermons and religious gatherings like mahfils and halaks can also be used to this end.
Some of the recent arrests suggest that a section of the country's youth is swayed by extremist ideologies. A disproportionately large number of terror accused are not madrasa educated, they have studied in secular institutions; some of them have gone to the best universities in the country. This is alarming to say the least in a country where the majority of the population is under 40, and any large scale disenchantment with the democratic system runs the risk of driving them towards radicalism. It is high time that the reasons were found out and a logical remedy was offered. When it comes to handling terrorism, discipline and punishment is good, but is not the only solution at hand. It is indeed true that there are other avenues of deradicalisation that should be explored to incorporate dissenting opinion. Economic growth alone is not enough to fight terror, it did not work in advanced industrial economies in Europe, and there is no reason it will work in a middle-income country like ours.
It is important to consider the youth bulge and the apparent alienation of the youth in our country. Any society under a dysfunctional democracy works as a willing head-hunter for terrorists. History tells us that in such a situation, giving more space to dissent helps. In this regard, we should seriously consider encouraging the moderate and the pacifist in the lot who espouse to work under the fold of democratic politics. The recent declaration by Islamic scholars is an example that fighting extremism can be a uniting factor too. The worst, in fact, one can do is blame the political opposition and try to reap political dividend from it, which is going to be suicidal for all. A national convention can be called to voice our nation's opposition to violence of all sorts from one single platform. This is especially important as extremist ideas always thrive in a divided and fragmented polity.
There is also no denying that terrorism nowadays is a global problem. Its scope to unleash terror beyond borders, irrespective of the demographic makeup of a society, has been highlighted with the advent of the ISIL. It is now evidently clear that the group's sympathisers do exist in Bangladesh, and worse still, there might be individuals that wish to emulate the group. In such a situation, it is foolhardy to claim normalcy by saying ISIL is a Middle-eastern phenomenon, or just denying their possible presence in our soil. The possibility is all the more pronounced by some recent articles in the group's magazine, where alleged photos of Bangladeshis are shown giving the oath of allegiance to the ISIL leadership. The Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, for its turn, in its videos mentioned Bangladesh's blogger killings and the May 5 incidents of Hefazat-e-Islam.
So far the attacks in the country have been carried out using small and light lethal weapons. However, there are signs of the use of Improvised Explosive Device (IED) and other such weapons, which claimed lives in the attack on Hosni Dalan in the old part of the capital. IEDs are deadly weapons of mass destruction, which was sparsely used by extremist outfits in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen. In a densely populated country like ours, even moderate use of IEDs can claim the lives of hundreds, if not more. It is practically impossible to stop the proliferation of these kinds of weapons: the US occupation of Iraq and the aftermath is a case in point. The best deterrent against such attacks is the unity of the people, which can only happen in a stable democratic society. We must not forget that arresting the terrorists after a certain attack is routine work, preventing attacks is more challenging and this is where we should concentrate on.
Working together with the western nations in intelligence gathering, evidence collection and analysis and sharing deradicalisation experiences is the order of the day. A religious convention of all faiths with local and international scholars can be arranged. Also it needs to be pointed out that the recent spate of attacks has come hot in the heels of the government's successful counter-terrorism drives and the Awami League's total political victory over the opposition BNP and Jamat. The government needs to seriously think what has contributed to the regrowth of terrorism in the country, or if there has been failure in its counter-terrorism strategy all along. We want to point out that an anti-terrorism strategy should be inclusive and transparent.
The writer is author, editor and journalist. He is Literary Editor of The Daily Star.