Religion-Politics

Foreign Interference and the Rise of Extremism in Bangladesh


Arifuzzaman Tuhin*

Netherlands, October 27, 2015 (Alochonaa):  The East has become a dangerous breeding ground of “terrorism” and it is fair to say that this has resulted from the Western pursuit of profit. Today, thousands of people are bombed and killed in Afghanistan, Iraq , Syria, and Pakistan, and the elements of terrorism have expanded even up to Bangladesh. Meanwhile, the Western establishment has declared that such Middle-aged barbarism must be stopped, otherwise civilization will be doomed.

However, why didn’t they realize this earlier?

At this point, it is important to understand what has happened throughout the last three decades.

First we need to talk about how the Saudi salafies created the Taliban in Afghanistan with the direct military assistance from the American empire. And then we need to talk about how the West has bombed and captured Afghanistan to get rid of the same Taliban. Afterwards they occupied Libya and Iraq, and continued funding the ISIS to occupy Syria. Without this self-criticism and self-reflection, the turmoil will not stop and the refugee crisis will not go away.

Therefore to understand the rise of terrorism and the killing of atheist bloggers in Bangladesh, we need to contextualize this into the framework of global politics and go back to the origin of terrorism. We need to analyze the political economy of terrorism. Only then we can understand if terrorist elements in Bangladesh are a local crisis or if they have deep connections with international politics and the complex geopolitical set up.

We have to remember that the story of terrorism was written 3 decades back, when in 1976, Afghanistan was occupied by Soviet soldiers and when the American empire aided the formation of the Taliban. To battle the Soviet soldiers, around 15 thousand Islamists from Bangladesh had joined the Taliban along with many other lslamists from around the world. Most of them were members of the radical Ohabist political party Jamat-e-Islami and their student wings. It also included thousands of students from the madrasas – religious schools- mostly funded by Saudi Arabia, as well as UK and the United States fund USAID. We know that at a point, the Soviet soldiers were kicked out from Afghanistan, however, into the ensuing political power vacuum, stepped the Taliban.

Only in the 1960s did women in Afghanistan became a crucial part of Afghanistan’s education and economic sectors. Today, in the same Afghanistan, women become prisoners in their homes and Afghanistan has started walking in a backwards direction. On the other end, the foreign fighters of Afghanistan, who started returning to their respective homes, began to dream of establishing an Islamic republic in their own homelands.

Meanwhile, the Soviet Union collapsed and Western capital needed another rival. The sudden collapse of communism created a vacuum for the West. However, Islam did not appear to be the best rival of the West right away. It took time. The American theorist Samuel Huntington, in his book ”Clashes of Civilization” has predicted, a world free of communism will face a new crisis. The crisis of west vs the east. The crisis of western civilization vs the eastern civilization. The East is Asia and the West is represented through Europe and the United States, the capitalist block. To simplify it more, it was predicted that the conflict of eastern religion with western society would eventually determine the polarity of the new world.

Even a decade before Huntington came up with his theory, Al Qaeda was formed to lead the global Islamic revolution. They started attacking Western embassies and even civilians through out the world. However, as we know, the same terrorists were funded by the West just a few years earlier.

Unfortunately, the real crisis of the world, for say the aggression of capital, the occupation of small country’s market by big capital and powerful countries, all such real problems were overshadowed by such terrorist aggression. Finally the crisis reached its peak with the attack on the twin towers by Al-Qaeda. Afterwards, we have seen outright oversimplification of a complex scenario. They said: “Either you are with the Islamists or with us.”

The battle to occupy Afghanistan began and it was successful.  However, it could not stop the rise of a global jihad. By then the radical islamic organizations made the theory contained with Clashes of Civilization true. They declared an endless war. If we attempt to analyse the situation of Bangladesh in this context, we will see, the 12 thousand Bangladeshi Mujaheddin who fought in Afghanistan were determined to form a Talebanized republic in Bangladesh.

On the other hand, the Middle East and the West had funded the madrassa education system in Bangladesh which contains around 1.5 million young students. Bangladesh has several forms of education systems. It has a Western education system for the rich and local bengali medium education system for the middle class. However, the state can hardly accommodate the children of the very poor families. Therefore the children of the very poor families have hardly any option but to go to the madrassa. And by now the number has reached around 1.5 million which is around 34 percent of total school going children. The remaining 66 percent of the mainstream students get jobs and become involved in various economic activities after they complete schooling. However, the Bangladesh society does not have any accommodation for the madrassa students.  There is no official recognition from the government. And in this way this huge population remain completely disconnected from mainstream society. This huge number of students are also a victim of massive economic discrimination. The government has failed to modernise the madrassa education system. It has no control mechanism over the curriculum of madrassas. There are many evidences that the madrassa curriculum is filled with racist and hateful remarks against the west.

Therefore, it is fair to say that the madrassa are the breeding ground of rising terrorist activities in Bangladesh. Interestingly, US government funded USAID has provided millions of dollars to this madrassa system since the liberation of Bangladesh. Also around 10 NGOs funded by the UK and Saudi Arabia are directly associated with funding of such madrassa.

In 2005, a joint report was compiled by Bangladesh’s Special Branch, National Security Intelligence (NSI) and Defence Forces Intelligence which concluded that 10 Islamic charities and NGO’s were helping to promote and finance Islamist militancy in Bangladesh. They listed: Revival of Islamic Heritage Society (RIHS), Rabita Al-Alam Al-Islami (Muslim World League), Society of Social Reforms, Qatar Charitable Society, Al-Muntada Al-Islami, International Islamic Relief Agency, Al-Forkan Foundation, International Relief Organization (IRO), Kuwait Joint Relief Committee and Muslim Aid Bangladesh (UK).

The inclusion of Muslim Aid Bangladesh in the intelligence report was startling as Maulana Abdus Sobhan, the charity’s chairman is also an MP for Jamaat-i-Islami, which was part of Khaleda Zia’s coalition government in Bangladesh. The charity is part of Muslim Aid UK, which has five main sub-branches throughout the world; Muslim Aid Pakistan, Muslim Aid Bangladesh, Muslim Aid Asia (Indonesia), Muslim Aid Australia and Muslime Helfen, which is based in Germany.

Bangladesh continues to teach the world more and more about the collusion between Islamic sharia financial institutions and terrorist organizations.

First there was the revelation that Islami Bank Bangladesh Limited uses zakat to fund terrorists.  Then there was the U.S. Senate’s damaging report about HSBC last summer which highlighted the British bank’s relationships with Islami Bank Bangladesh Limited and another sinister sharia bank in Bangladesh, the Social Islami Bank Limited.

In January 5th, 2014, the Awami league government in Bangladesh returned to power through a voter less election which was boycotted by the main opposition party. Among 300 constituencies, around 153 candidates were elected without even participating in the electoral competition. The rest of the 147 constituencies observed a voter turnout less than 5 percent. Considering the fact that Bangladesh has a total voter of 90 million, overall, the government could not obtain even 1 percent of the vote of the total population. Consequently, the government took a hardline approach in suppressing any opposition opinion or activities.

To control and regulate the press the government lately has come up with a media regulation policy. The government has even passed an ICT law to regulate any criticism of government even in the social media. This particular law has a special clause which gives the police special power to detain any citizen in the case of an ‘allegation’ of criticism against the government. The maximum casualty could be as much as 14 years of jail. It is to be noted that already a number of people were convicted and jailed due to their criticism of the Prime Minister in the social media.

A very large number of people were brought under the court system under the ICT law. During this government, cases of abduction and murder by law enforcement agency are also very common. Not only the main opposition, but also human rights activists, trade union leaders,  journalists and business people are also being abducted. Any opposition or critics of the rampant corruption of the government are under strict surveillance by the law enforcement agency.  Overall its fair to say that a silent emergency rule has been imposed over the country, in which every opposition opinion is at risk.  All the institutions of the state are falling apart.  Gradually, the state is becoming not only vigorously undemocratic but also the fascist elements of the state machinery are becoming increasingly visible day by day. And we believe, this is leading to a fertile breeding ground of terrorism and religious militancy.  Overall it is fair to say that Islamic militancy is set to rise in such a context.

Therefore we believe that the only way such religious fundamentalism and militancy could be tackled in Bangladesh is to reestablish and reclaim the democratic elements of society.

There have been around 1.5 million students in the madrassas of Bangladesh. The government has no control over the curriculum of these institutions. They are almost unaware of what is being taught in this there. The madrassas do not teach essential subjects like history, science, philosophy or mathematics or English. They are only taught Arabic and Islamic teachings. It is well established that these madrassas operate under the direct sponsorship of Jamat-e-Islami, the biggest Islamic party in Bangladesh.

It is well known that the madrasas are being used for political purposes. It is claimed that around 10,000 mujahideen, who have returned to Bangladesh after the Soviet war were somehow affiliated with these madrassas. And these mujahideen have often chanted the Bengali version of pro-Taliban slogans publicly, in different meetings and rallies. These are the same radical people who teach in the madrassas. As we have said before, the US has been donating a huge amount of money to these madrassas for long. We have also mentioned earlier how Saudi Arab and other Middle Eastern states have long donated in these madrassas. While the poorest of the poor continue to send their children to these madrassas to ensure a daily meal.

However, we must not forget that in independent Bangladesh, the government of Bangladesh has not succeeded yet in implementing any real and pragmatic plan to eradicate poverty. And this contributes to the mass enrolment in the madrassas, which ultimately leads to the rise of terrorist elements.

We believe that if the U.S.A and Saudi Arabia are genuine in their intention to eradicate terrorism, the entire madrassa education system needs to be seriously changed. Such mass financing of the madrassa education must be stopped and a modern and scientific curriculum must be adopted.

In parallel with such measures, poverty eradication must be the first priority of the government. If poverty is eliminated, it would be easier to weaken the base of terrorism and religious militancy.

Also, the rulers of our country have always attempted to portray themselves as good Muslims, and all political parties in power have contributed to the rise of  Islamic politics in Bangladesh. Atheism was never really an issue in Bangladesh. It is quite clear that the entire issue of atheism has been deliberately manufactured to divert people’s attention from the real issues.

As we mentioned earlier since 2014, when Awami league government returned to power through a voter-less election, severe human rights violation have been observed including murder and abductions. The progressive part of the society began to criticize the government. Among them, the journalists and the bloggers played the most important role. It is to be noted that by now around 30 million people in Bangladesh use the Internet. A large number of them have Facebook accounts and are regular blog readers. Therefore, social media has emerged as a powerful alternative platform in the recent years. The blogs have been very vocal over crucial national issues including murder, abductions, extra judicial killings, rampant corruption, low wages in textile sector, environmental pollution and coal plants in the mangrove forest. Through such criticism, the position of the government has been severely challenged in social media.

In February 2013, Bangladesh has observed an unprecedented uprising of the youth based on the secular values of the society. It is fair to say that it is the bloggers and the reporters who contributed greatly to this uprising. This situation took a great toll on the religious politics. After that we have seen the purposeful creation of a religious political platform to counter this secular uprising. They have submitted a long 13 point demands which includes the demand of death penalty for the atheist bloggers. The government was under severe pressure and was forced to form a committee to make a list of the atheist bloggers. This committee had members of various radical religious organisations including those who demanded death penalty for the bloggers. This committee ultimately publicised a list of 84 bloggers and detailed information about them. And right after that the world has observed how these so called atheist bloggers are being murdered one by one in Bangladesh. In the last 8 months 5 bloggers have been murdered, and every time a blogger is murdered, the Bangladesh police fails to find any clue. The investigations are going on without any results. However, every single time a blogger is murdered, a militia organisation called Ansarullah bangla team is taking full responsibility for the murder by declaring it online. Ansarullah bangla team has also been posting their views on facebook and tweeter. In some cases they even contacted with different media houses to claim responsibility for the murder. It is important to note that many believe that Ansarullah is a secret organisation of the Jamat-e-islami.

Now, its important to note that the Internet and telephone users in Bangladesh have been under strict surveillance of the state. Any phone calls can be tapped and traced. However, Ansraullah bangla team, till today remains untouched and untraceable.

The son of our Prime minister, after the murder of one blogger, declared that since we are not atheists, we cannot save the atheist. Interestingly enough our Prime Minister has stated few times that Bangladesh will be run according to Sharia law.

Though the Bangladesh constitution has clearly preserved the right to freedom of speech, the political parties in power have always violated this constitutional right of citizens. And it is quite obvious that Bangladesh government has been utilising this atheist issue to divert national attention to somewhere else. So that the demand for a fair election and the demand for justice for murder and abductions are ultimately forgotten with time.  Many believe that this is the reason why the government has assisted making the list of the atheist bloggers. Ultimately this made a way for the religious fundamentalists to keep murdering bloggers.

If the international community really wants to do something about terrorism, they have to find out the origin of it. And they have to support the process of creating a democratic environment in Bangladesh. It is also important to connect the democratic values of the west with the values of the east. Without such democratic values and institutions,  Bangladesh would very easily turn into another Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria or Libya. If this happens, the West might receive few benefits of the war economy, however, in long term it will be a disaster. This might lead to another refugee crisis, this time from Bangladesh.

And, therefore, it is high time that we deal with elements of terrorism before any humanitarian crisis occurs. The West must understand the “on the ground reality” of Bangladesh. They must understand the hardship of poverty and the hardship of the 4 million women working in the textile sector. Only then will they understand why and how the children of poor families end up in madrassas. Thus, we need a combined solution addressing all these issues. Only then will Bangladesh become a genuinely liberal and democratic country. I hope the West wants to see Bangladesh as a progressive, democratic state.

*Arifuzzaman Tuhin is a journalist, writer and activist and is currently a Senior Reporter at Daily Kaler Kantho. 

** Alochonaa.com is not responsible for any factual mistakes (if any) of this analysis. This analysis further is not necessarily representative of Alochonaa.com’s view. We’re happy to facilitate further evidence-based submissions on this topic. Please send us your submission at alochonaa@gmail.com.

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