Friday, May 6, 2016
BANGLADESH: THE RADICAL RELIGIOUS RATIONALE by Ziauddin Chowdhury
In 2007, Maulana Fazlullah, leader of a Frontier-based militant Islamic organisation known as Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (who later became the leader of Taliban-e-Pakistan) established a parallel government in about 59 villages of Swat Valley in Pakistan and introduced Sharia Law. This came not in one fell swoop, but after a long run in with the Pakistan government and its feckless law enforcement agencies in that part of the country that began with US operations in Afghanistan in 2002.
Maulana Fazlullah, also known as Radio Mullah -- because of his broadcast over clandestine radio in the Malakand Agency (where Swat valley is) -- began propagating Islamic jihad against the Pakistan government and its allies for the establishment of Sharia Law in Pakistan. His ultimate success in driving out Pakistan government forces from Swat valley came after years of threats, both verbal and real, to the people in the area who dared to oppose him and his armed militants who continued to swell in number.
He would be the supreme leader of the region for close to two years until the Pakistan Army, mainly under pressure from the US, which was worried that the rise of another militant group and its sway over the area close to Afghanistan would stymie its efforts to eradicate the Taliban from Afghanistan.
During Fazlullah’s reign in Swat Valley, he not only drove out the Pakistan law enforcement but also civilian agencies, and established his own laws that he termed as “Sharia” inspired laws. Some of the draconian measures he took in the name of Sharia were closing cinema halls, DVD shops, banning music, and, incredibly enough, his supporters attacked barbershops for their “un-Islamic” practices (because barbers shaved beards).
Sufi mystics and dancing girls were killed and dumped in the city square, and girls were not allowed to go to school. Fazlullah later issued fatwa against Malala Yousafzai, the girl who bravely stood up for girls' education, and had her shot by his supporters even after he had been ejected from Swat Valley. Fazlullah’s rise was enabled by a government that ignored the early signs of his group’s growth, in part but largely because of indulgence of radicalism by succeeding Pakistan governments by way of coddling religious leaders and religious institutions in preference to progressive and liberal institutions, purely for short-term political goals.
The government of Ziaul Huq sowed the early seeds of radicalism through thousands of madrassas that he helped grow ostensibly to feed the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan. He and his successors used the products of these madrasas later to form the Taliban group who would, in future years, topple the Afghanistan government and rule there. The break-up of the Taliban in 2002 by US intervention drove their leaders to the mountains, including the North West of Pakistan, and lead to the formation of a diverse group of religious militants in Pakistan, including that of Maulana Fazlullah.
While the US was busy eradicating Afghanistan of the Taliban, they and their ilk would find shelter in Pakistan, more precisely the Pakistan Army, which had helped the original Taliban grow in the first place. Maulana Fazlullah and his armed militants thrived because the Pakistan government, at that time, was headed by a president (Asif Zardari of Pakistan People’s Party) who was busier defending his presidency against political foes than defending his country from religious militants. His government was one of compromise, in particular with the powerful Pakistan Army, and he dared not take the army to task for their apparent unwillingness to tackle the rising religious menace in Swat Valley.
What this all means for Bangladesh
The discussion on Fazlullah and his group is relevant for Bangladesh, not because there is such a figure on the horizon of Bangladesh, although there was such a threat some years ago posed by a militant in northern Bangladesh. It is relevant because leadership for religious militancy and terrorism does not have to originate locally. The attraction that IS or its affiliates have on youths inclined to similar views can come from anywhere.
Their proliferation can also happen in many countries, where youths are easily brainwashed or misled from parochial and illiberal education, biased interpretation of religion and its message, and paranoid ideas about the world where one is led to believe that their co-religionists are subject to a worldwide persecution. These ideas are further cemented in a country that has weak law enforcement, lack of personal security, and absence of good governance. In such societies, a section of youth can be easily deluded to believe that a strong government can only be enforced through religion and a religion-based system. Anybody who opposes this is an enemy of religion and has to be eliminated.
There has been a string of murders in Dhaka and other places of Bangladesh in the last two years. The victims were people from a cross section -- some were writers, some publishers, some foreign nationals. Quite a few were from the minority section. There has been no arrest, let alone any conviction in these murders. What we have instead is speculation about the reasons for these murders from our political leaders and persons in authority. But more importantly, we have assertions of responsibility for these murders (at least the majority of them) from affiliates of radical Islamic groups that are rooted thousands of miles away from Bangladesh.
But strangely, these claims are refuted by our government leaders because admitting these assertions would be acknowledging the presence of militant groups with foreign loyalty in our midst. The rise of Fazlullah and his group in Pakistan and the menace they caused and continue to cause was possible because of political exigencies. Bangladesh now does not have any known exigency of the kind Pakistan went through in the 80s and 90s that contributed to the rise of religious radicalism in that country.
What we have here are instances of some horrific murders that, till now, have remained unsolved but clandestine groups claiming loyalty to foreign-inspired militant organisations have reportedly claimed responsibility for these crimes. There is no proof of these claims, but the apparent similarity of the victims (they were either bloggers of liberal thought, writers with secular reputation, or minority community members), should give hints to our law enforcement agencies that these murders are not random acts. These acts may be pre-planned and the perpetrators could be organised militants.
I do not know when or if at all the perpetrators of these murders will be arraigned. But I do know that a first step to close the gap could be the acknowledgment by our government that these murders are not necessarily the shenanigans of their political opposition to embarrass the government.
To embarrass the government, a political opposition has many other weapons in their arsenal other than killing bloggers, writers, and foreign nationals without any rhyme or reason. Let us start from the assumption that the murders could be the handiwork of a group of fanatics who want to establish their laws in the country by terrorising people and anyone who opposes their belief.
see alsoTen key questions (and answers) about the attacks on atheist bloggers in Bangladesh
Bangladesh: Post Poll Politics and Attacks on Minorities - A Compilation of reports, editorials, commentary and statements
The Broken Middle (on the 30th anniversary of 1984)