Written by Sandeep Bhardwaj.

On the surface, Bangladesh has proven to be remarkably successful in combating terrorism in the last year. Its counter-terrorism efforts, which had begun in earnest in early 2016, intensified after the Holey Artisan Bakery Attack in July, which resulted in 29 deaths, including of 18 foreigners. Since then, the government has carried out several raids and has been largely successful in dismantling the terror network labelled “neo-JMB” (Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen) which it held responsible for the July attack. It has also dramatically beefed up security in Dhaka and other cities. It has launched a new civilian police agency, the Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime Unit to investigate terrorism-related incidents. The result has been a dramatic fall in terrorist incidents. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, Bangladesh suffered only nine civilian fatalities in 2017 (until July) compared to 42 at this time last year.

Democracy in Bangladesh has gone off the rails several times in the past and these periods have not always been associated with a rise of Islamic extremism.

However, while able to curb extremist violence successfully, the government is finding it much more difficult to battle the growing radicalization of the society which lies at the root of it.  After a lull in terrorist activity in the country since late 2000s, the current spate of religiously-motivated violence began in 2013. Individual assassinations of secular bloggers, gay rights activists, foreigners, doctors, Sufis, Hindus and Christians began dominating the headlines, eventually culminating in the organized assault on the Holey Artisan Bakery. This development was also mirrored in the rapid radicalization of the population. In a Pew Survey, 82 percent of the respondents supported the imposition of Sharia law in Bangladesh. Another Pew Survey found that 47 percent of Bangladeshi respondents supporting suicide attacks against civilians.

This rise in Islamic extremism developed parallel to the unfolding political crisis in Bangladesh which began with the Awami League Government’s sweeping crackdown on political opposition. The crisis exacerbated with the execution of opposition leaders for war crimes and reached a crescendo with the 2014 general elections and the political violence that accompanied it. The government has continued with its repressive tactics, prompting Human Rights Watch to declare that the country’s prison system is “overburdened by political prisoners”.

The simultaneous rise of religious violence and the weakening of democracy in the country has led many observers to argue that the former has been caused by the latter. However, a direct causal link between the two is difficult to prove. In fact, democracy in Bangladesh has gone off the rails several times in the past and these periods have not always been associated with a rise of Islamic extremism. A more proximate cause of radicalization may be the acceleration of modernizing forces, triggered by the Awami League’s liberal agenda and the advent of the Internet, which are threatening conservative Islamic foundations of the society.

Since taking office in 2009, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has inserted secular language in the constitution, sought to reform country’s education system, including the madrasas, and aggressively championed women empowerment. In addition, the early 2010s witnessed an explosion of internet penetration in the country fuelled by the proliferation of cheap mobile phones. The number of users has jumped from a mere 600,000 in 2009 to a whopping 64 million in 2016.

These rising pressures of modernity have provoked a radical backlash within the Islamic clergy. Most notable example of this is the rise of Hefazat-e-Islam, which burst onto the scene in 2013 with widespread anti-government protests. The movement was led by Sheikh Ahmad Shafi, the rector of Hathazari Madrassah, the oldest Deobandi University in Bangladesh. Unlike Islamist political parties like Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladeshi Deobandis have not been associated with radical Islam. In the past, its scholars, including Shafi, have been a vocal opponent of Islamic terrorism. The radicalization of Hefazat Movement signals a qualitative increase in the number of clerics turning towards extremism.

The 13-point demand put forth by Hefazat Movement revolved around rolling back the government’s modernizing agenda regarding education and women’s emancipation. It also attacked the increasing proliferation of politically and socially liberal ideas on the Internet and the media. Notably, the word “democracy” did not appear in the demands. The movement was not agitating against the government’s questionable democratic credentials.

Seen through this lens, the growing tide of religious extremism in Bangladesh appears to be conceptually closer to the Iranian Revolution of 1979 than Arab Spring of 2011. It is a process unfolding separately, but parallel to, the country’s democratic decay. However, this is not to say that the government’s flagrant violations of democratic norms do not impact on the radicalization process at all. Undoubtedly, the lawlessness of political violence in 2013-14 fed into the rising rates of religiously-motivated assassinations. Moreover, the questionable democratic credentials of the government makes it and its modernizing agenda much more vulnerable to the Islamist critique.

The result of this churning has been a society increasingly embracing a more extreme version of Islam. Consequently, it has become a fertile ground for the global jihadist propaganda of ISIS and Al Qaeda. While the physical presence of these organizations in the country is hotly-contested, there is little doubt that they have made great inroads within the marketplace of ideas. This phenomenon has dramatically increased the risk of self-radicalization among the youth. It is only recently that the Islamic leaders of Bangladesh, including Shafi, have begun criticizing global jihadist propaganda for going too far.

Meanwhile, the government has sought to tackle the rise of radicalization with two approaches. First, it is engaging in a fierce theological debate with the extremist clergy via its own religious organization – the Islamic Foundation. It has encouraged its country’s clerics to sign a fatwa against terrorism, pumped anti-terror propaganda into mosques and banned extremist media channels. Second, it has sought to distinguish between the newly-emerged Islamic forces such as Hefazat and the traditional Islamic opposition to the Awami League such as the Jamaat-e-Islami by compromising with the former. Recently, the government has given into several demands by Hefazat such as the  removal of a controversial statue, unconditional accreditation to madrasas and changes in school textbooks.

In the short term, the government’s efforts seem to have paid dividends in curbing religiously-motivated violence. It may be that the government manages to carry on its balancing act between the forces of modernity and extremist impulses within the society. However, it is more likely that this clash of ideas will spiral out of control once again in Bangladesh.

Sandeep Bhardwaj is a researcher at the Centre for Policy Research specializing in South Asian geopolitics. He writes on South Asian history at revisitingindia.com. Photo Credit: CC by Pacific Air Force Public Affairs/Flickr.

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