The attack on Dr Zafar Iqbal on March 3, only proves that religiously motivated extremism of the violent type, whether manifested in individual or group actions, continues to find its practitioners in society. And we are at a loss to determine how best to combat them effectively. The scourge is not a new phenomenon, nor unique to our country, but it has gained in salience in recent times.
It would be appropriate at this point to dwell briefly on the rise of religious/nationalist extremism in order to put the issue in a broader perspective of the region.
The current spate of this phenomenon is not the exclusive preserve of the Islamists. There are other hues of this exclusivist ideology. Some term it as rabid nationalism or nativism. What has been happening without our knowledge while we have been occupied with tackling Muslim extremists is the growth of extreme nationalist fervour of another kind on both sides of our borders. Even more worrisome is that, while in Bangladesh we can take comfort in the fact that the Islamic groups here have not been allowed to morph into a politically significant force, because of the secular psyche of the majority Bengalis, in both India and Myanmar—India in particular—the liberal and secular way of life is being gradually overtaken by another form of extremism where people in saffron are calling the shots. It cannot be lost on the discerning liberals that extremists in one country take comfort in the rise of their kind in neighbouring countries. That, they think, not only justifies but reinforces their existence. In Myanmar too the “Buddhist bin Ladens” have garnered enough strength to influence the ruling junta. Government sponsorship of these groups is very evident in the fact that when political dissent of any kind is prohibited in Myanmar, thousands of Buddhist monks openly flaunt their pathological dislike for a particular ethnic group boldly, proclaiming that any supporter of the Rohingya is their enemy. These demonstrations, when the Myanmar military is engaged in Rohingya pogrom, are significant.
But let us shift focus to our own country.
The attack on Dr Iqbal, apparently by a single individual, mimics the “lone wolf” syndrome. But in this particular case it is difficult to say with certainty if he was actually acting entirely on his own convictions. If that be so what motivated him to attempt to take another man's life and declare him “anti-Muslim”? One wonders if he has read any of Dr Iqbal's writings or heard his speeches seriously enough to make his conclusion. And even if the narratives did not agree with his views, can he really seek recourse to as extreme an action like killing a man? This is the fundamental question that confronts our society, and it must be tackled immediately. But, can whatever strategy that we might devise, if we are able to put together a cogent workable plan at all, really see an end to the phenomenon completely?
The question is prompted by the fact that combating violence, is not quite the same as fighting violence motivated by ideas rooted in misperceptions and distortions of truth, and projecting narratives from the scriptures totally out of context.
Ideological extremism has the uncanny capacity of self-perpetuation, fed by minds that are at best ill-educated. An uneducated or even half-educated mind is malleable particularly when religion, or misinterpretation of it, to be more exact, is used as the means to bend the mind. And that is more so in the case of individuals who may not belong to any particular extremist or jihadi organisation but is self-radicalised, motivated by what one comes across in the various media platforms and the activities of the violent radical organisations or individuals inside and outside his country. And in the age of the IT, propagation of thoughts, most often distorted to influence the minds of people like Faizur, has become so much simpler. No wonder the internet and the online platforms have added another new dimension to warfare to the already existing three. In addition to land, air and sea, the strategic planners have to factor in the online battle in their plans.
Some experts totally discount the notion of the “lone wolf”. They opine that anyone who is stimulated by any group to resort to violence in the society, makes him or her a part of the group, at least ideologically if not organically. But be what the nature of that link may, that individuals and groups use religion to infuse violence in the society for a political end is enough reason for us to address the issue seriously, particularly how we approach the issue of religion in the context of the phenomenon that we are seeking to neutralise.
The two issues we have to contend with in this regard is the distortion of religion by extremist groups to instigate others to perpetrate violence, and individuals who become the arbiter and the judge, jury and executioner, basing his verdict, as in this case where Dr Zafar Iqbal was declared anti-Muslim by his attacker, on his own interpretation of Islam due to his poor knowledge about the religion.
The question is how we position ourselves best to face this situation. This relates to religion, and one feels that there ought to be open discourse on such matters which should not be restricted to the confines of the mosques or places of worship, or the four walls of one's home, but be a matter of discourse in other social forums also. We need more of open discussions on it, not less.
Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan, ndc, psc (Retd) is Associate Editor, The Daily Star.