The attack on a bakery-restaurant in Dhaka suggests that Bangladesh is now facing a challenge that we in Pakistan have been fighting for the past decade. Religious extremism is gradually gaining ground.
In her address following the attack, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajid appealed: “Please stop tarnishing our noble religion ... I implore you to come back to the rightful path and uphold the pride of Islam.”
While these may be sensible words, the problem is much deeper rooted. What we know about Bangladesh is that religious extremist groups have gained ground and that IS has taken a foothold in what was once one of the most secular environments of South Asia. To remove any doubt that this was their handiwork, the IS-linked Amaq news agency said that the IS was behind the attack.
This is not the first such attack. Bangladesh has been reeling from a wave of murders of religious minorities and secular activists by extremists. But those murders generally involved a handful of assailants. The latest attack appears to have been on a much bigger scale and the first time that people were held hostage. It is by far the deadliest of a recent wave of killings claimed by IS or a local al Qaeda offshoot. What most fear is that such attacks will now continue.
Sheikh Hasina’s government needs to wake up to the problem it is now facing. As a Pakistani, one can only sit on the sidelines and give advice based on our own experience. Owing to our shared history, we are possibly the last people Bangladesh will take any advice from. Ironically, what we have gone through over the past decade suggests that we are in the best position to not only give advice but also try and assist.
But as we have seen in the case of Pakistan-India relations, politics overtakes common sense. At a time when as a region we should be jointly fighting the rise in terrorism, we are all playing our little games.
When I visited Bangladesh late last year, what I saw was a thriving country where foreigners could walk freely on the roads. Keeping aside Dhaka’s chaotic traffic, the city was abuzz with activity and commerce. There was great optimism. One could make out from cars on the roads and the buildings that were springing up all over Dhaka, that the country was moving at a fast pace.
But the little games continue to be played. Every day when I opened the daily newspaper, my heart sank. Front page venom against Pakistan. This despite the fact that Bangladesh has been independent for over 40 years The hanging of the Jamaat-e-Islami leaders and the predictable reaction that Pakistan gave to this had only added fuel to the fire.
But Pakistan was only one of many fronts opened by the government. The opposition has been virtually silenced. A visit to the beautiful Dhaka Press Club confirmed my worst fears. The press is under siege. I heard stories of editors being harassed. Of papers being shut down. Of criticism being stifled. At the time of my visit, social media had been blocked.
In the past, Sheikh Hasina’s government had blamed a string of deadly attacks against religious minorities and foreigners on domestic opponents. The government blamed the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party.
Last month authorities, launched a nationwide crackdown on local militant groups, arresting more than 11,000 people, under pressure to act on the spate of killings. But many rights groups allege the arrests were arbitrary or were a way to silence political opponents of the government.
Experts now say a government crackdown on opponents, including a ban on the country’s largest militant party following a protracted political crisis, has pushed many towards extremism.
Announcing the end of the siege, officials said 13 hostages had been rescued after members of a special force took control of the cafe. But while Hasina called the outcome a “success” the security forces later revealed that 20 of those taken captive were killed.
It is time for Shaikh Hasina to take the country into confidence. Neither the opposition nor the media is the enemy. Extremism can only be rooted out if all these forces are on one side, not fighting each other.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 4th, 2016.
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