Bangladesh: How to fight Islamist extremism

South Asia Citizen's Wire
The mayhem being perpetrated by Islamist extremists in Bangladesh is so widespread, and the threat of worse to come so real, that there is now a sense of crisis in the air. And it is time too.
An unconscionable degree of complacency at almost all levels of society has so far prevented a hard look at a phenomenon that has been years in the making. Even as of today, one cannot be sure that an adequate understanding of the nature of the peril has yet permeated our society.
Anyone who has observed the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Bangladesh would be struck by the long sorry path that has led us where we are today. The country's slide towards theocracy, or political Islam, is not new; it began some three decades ago. It is well known that the big push came in the mid-nineteen hundred seventies when political parties with overt religious agenda were allowed to operate in what was the new-born secular Bangladesh. That was an enormous boon to an already large body of fundamentalists whose hostility to the very creation of secular Bangladesh is all too well known and whose political agenda it was to make Bangladesh an Islamic state. But the momentum of the slide was also maintained by a complex set of factors, not the least of which was the pandering of political parties to forces of obscurantism. The history of the country is replete with instances of political leaders falling over each other in depicting themselves as the only "true" Muslims, and hence deserving of support of Muslim voters. But what has this to do with the emergence of Islamist extremism? A whole lot, in fact. It is not difficult to gauge the awful logic of the militants. If political Islam is the ultimate goal, they may well argue, why not achieve it now rather than later, and thus hasten divine pleasure? The emerging militant ideology elsewhere in the Islamic world must have added to the urgency and external assistance in the form of both money and skill must also have bolstered the militants. Nevertheless, it is crucial to recognize that the wind of Islamist extremism was sown over all those years when political Islam was being nurtured in the country: it is now time to reap the whirlwind. It will not be easy to destroy the bitter harvest.

The nature of protest that we are beginning to hear nowadays against Islamist militancy should make one wonder whether we are yet equal to the task of defeating it. Some of the recent pronouncements against suicide bombings are not much more than anodynes. Actually, they conceal far more than they reveal.

There have been numerous public statements to the effect that "Islam is a religion of peace" and "does not condone violence." Some of these pronouncements decried suicide bombing as "un-Islamic," even a sin. Others have claimed that this (that is, the extremists' method) is not the way to "establish Islam." Some have denounced the bombers as "enemies of Islam."

These assertions -- some or all of them -- have been made by many segments of the society, the government, the clergy, and the press included. The government reportedly put out propaganda flyers emphasizing the peaceful image of Islam. These, for example, cited a Koranic verse suggesting that killing an individual is like killing the whole human race. Far more importantly, religious leaders have made some of these assertions. Imams at Friday congregations have condemned the militants and prayers have been offered for divine deliverance from the extremist menace.

The usefulness of merely proclaiming that Islam is a religion of peace is highly questionable. To the public at large, its value is minimal; a large majority of them are in any case peace loving people who hardly need to be given a message of peace. To the militants, the message is totally worthless. As far as they are concerned, they represent "true" Islam, and for every verse of the Koran that the "moderates" might quote to criticize them, they could offer quotes that they would say vindicated them. They could also fall back, rather easily, on traditional exegeses of the Koran. The usefulness of a polemical confrontation with the extremists as a way of subduing them is very limited indeed, especially when it remains on paper.

Far more significant is the reported criticism of the extremists from religious leaders that took the form: "This is not the way to establish Islam." Implicit in the statement is, of course, their often declared goal of "establishing Islam." One should have thought that Islam was firmly established fourteen hundred years ago and remains one of the major faiths, espoused by a billion people. The Islamic faith satisfies the spiritual needs of countless millions. What do these leaders mean, then, when they say that they want to establish Islam? Plainly it is political Islam that they want to establish. In other words, their goal and that of the Islamist militants are one and the same.

Let us quickly remind ourselves that it is the relentless progression of the ideology of political Islam in Bangladesh over the past three decades that has nurtured extremist ideologies we are supposed to be fighting against. Now we are being told to continue on that very path. In other words, we have a situation where the "mainstream" Islamists are denouncing the extremist Islamists only to advance their own political agenda. They in effect seem to be all too willing to reap the whirlwind.

This actually leads to some crucial questions concerning the aim of the Islamist leaders on the one hand, and the future of the country as conceived by its founding fathers and its valiant freedom fighters, on the other. The militants have demanded the abolition of our secular judicial system. Hence was their bombing of courts of law and killing of judges.

Would the mainstream Islamists abolish our judicial system? The extremists have demanded a radical transformation of our educational system, with even more emphasis on madrasa education than in the past. Would this be the aim of their more peaceable counterparts? In recent days the radicals have threatened the life of women who do not wear the hijab. We may remind ourselves here that not so long ago their counterparts in Algeria slit the throats of many Muslim women for not dressing "modestly" in public. Would the political Islamists enforce such purdah? And would all of these, and probably much more, be done through peaceful means? History comes up some uncomfortable precedents.

In modern times there have been two radical attempts at establishing political Islam: in Iran and Afghanistan. The revolution of 1979 in Iran established a fully fledged Islamic state. Ever since its inception, it has brutally suppressed dissent and individual freedom, ferociously enforced Islamic laws, and has been utterly intolerant of religious minorities. The Taliban regime in Afghanistan even upstaged the Iranians. Its brutality in suppressing everything that smacked of individual freedom and secular culture has become a legend. Its treatment of women was unimaginably vile.

When Islamist leaders in Bangladesh talk about "establishing Islam," it is political Islam exemplified above that they have in mind. Consider the stance of some of these leaders in defence of it. In not so distant a past, they publicly declared their intention of turning Bangladesh into a Taliban type state. This makes them indistinguishable from the Islamist extremists they now seem to decry. It is worth remembering too that when the Americans put the Taliban to flight in Afghanistan many imams in Bangladesh, including some who are lending their voice against extremist bombers today, wanted to wage jihad against the Americans. The reason behind the protest was of course not that a Muslim country's sovereignty was violated, but that the political regime of the country happened to be close to the protesters' hearts. It is also important to note that none of these religious leaders of any stature has protested the many past bombings of secular jatra stages and cinema halls and even darghahs as unacceptable acts not in conformity with Islam. On the question of the place of the Ahmadiyyas in society, they have either prevaricated or have come down heavily against the sect.

In sum, in fighting Islamist militancy our society should not only resist those who are using terror to further their ultimate goal of establishing political Islam, but must also face squarely all others who share the same goals. It needs unequivocally to reject political Islam, while continuing to guarantee full freedom of conscience to all individuals. For the society to be doing anything less will be to deceive itself. The rejection of political Islam must also be combined with a longer-term effort at free and open discussion on Islam that goes well beyond piety and instills a critical spirit of inquiry among mainstream Muslims in the country. An open society is generally one where shadowy groups find less scope for mischief.

by Mahfuzur Rahman, a former United Nations economist.

Originally published in the Daily Star on December 16, 2005