Bangladesh terror attacks target culture of tolerance

Muslim-majority Bangladesh has long been a bulwark against Islamist radicalism. That appears to be making it a growing target.

Bangladeshi Muslims on April 26 attend the funeral of Xulhaz Mannan, who was stabbed to death by unidentified assailants, in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The banned group Ansar-al Islam, the Bangladeshi branch of Al Qaeda on the Indian subcontinent, has claimed responsibility for the killings of gay rights activist Mannan.

When a Bangladeshi gay rights activist was hacked to death in his home by unknown assailants this week, it was the latest in a growing list of attacks on people connected to the idea of cultural openness or minority rights in Bangladesh.

And when a local group affiliated with Al Qaeda on Tuesday claimed responsibility for the machete attack, the boast had a chilling familiarity. It closely resembled a claim disseminated Sunday by a group aligning itself with the Islamic State, that it had carried out the public murder a day earlier of a university English professor – whose crime appeared to be that he loved music.

The two targeted killings, in a nation with a tradition of tolerating religious and other minorities, follow a string of brazen attacks on secularists and “atheist” bloggers during the past two years. The trend suggests an almost gang-like campaign by rival Islamist extremist groups to attract supporters by outdoing each other in violently defending their views of Islam.

Moreover, the rash of often public executions, most of which have gone unsolved, raises fresh concerns that Islamist extremism might find a growing niche in the Muslim-majority country known widely for a multiparty democracy, progressive advances in poverty reduction, and microfinance.

“We’ve always thought of Bangladesh as an example of a Muslim country with a functioning democracy, where women participate in governance, and the full range of political and human rights are broadly respected and freedoms are expressed,” says Lisa Curtis, a South Asia expert at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center in Washington. “But now we see the threats to that foundation clearly growing as Islamist extremists try to change the orientation of Bangladeshi society and try to Islamicize the complexion of the country.”

Some of the targeted killings have led to large street protests – suggesting that many Bangladeshis are standing against the spread of an intolerant version of Islam in defense of deep Bengali nationalism and respect for religious and other minorities.   

The recent trend of violence can be traced to the 2013 publication of a hit list of 84 “atheist bloggers” that an extremist Islamist group said would be targeted for their anti-Islamic writings, regional experts say. A number of those bloggers, among them secularists and rights advocates, have been slain.

In recent years, international radical Islamist groups have publicly targeted Bangladesh, saying Muslims there need to rise up and reject Western political and social values in favor of sharia law.

In 2014, Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri called on followers of the newly created Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent to use violence to bring Bangladesh into the Islamist fold. Not long after that, the Al Qaeda rival Islamic State (also known as ISIS) announced in its online publication Dabiq that the fight to establish a global caliphate would soon rise in Bangladesh.

Those claims have led to speculation that the two enemy groups see themselves in competition in Bangladesh – and that the recent killings claimed by local groups may reflect that battle for ascendancy.

“Certainly it does seem there is some kind of competition going on among these local groups that are claiming allegiance to Al Qaeda or ISIS,” says Ms. Curtis. “Whether the international organizations are directly supporting the local groups somehow on the ground remains a question, but clearly the local groups are trying to associate themselves with the internationally known organizations to enhance their reputation and image.”

The government has downplayed the role of either ISIS or Al Qaeda in the attacks, and some Bangladeshis agree. ISIS and Al Qaeda “are mostly labels” used for varying reasons, says Shahid-uz-Zaman, a professor of international relations at the University of Dhaka. “The fact remains that there are extremists” in the country.

But many analysts agree that the moderate Muslim government is growing more politically intolerant and is vilifying the political opposition – including more-conservative Islamists. That is driving out legitimate opposition forces and creating fertile terrain for radical Islamists to exploit.

What the rising attacks on bloggers and Bangladesh’s “intelligentsia” really suggest is a “fight between Islamist and secular forces,” says Abdur Rashid, a retired Army major general who is now executive director of the Institute of Conflict, Law, and Development Studies in Dhaka.

An important backdrop to the current violence, he notes, is the ongoing war crimes trials about alleged atrocities during the 1971 war of independence. The trials, which were set up in 2010, have convicted 24 people, mostly leaders of the opposition Jamaat-e-Islami Party.

“The government is increasingly targeting the opposition and closing off its legitimate political activity, but it’s precisely that polarized political environment and limiting of the opposition’s space to participate in the political process that is creating new space for the extremists,” says Curtis.

The government has downplayed the threat in the recent attacks. When English professor and music lover Rezaul Karim Siddique was executed at a bus stop Saturday, a police commander lamented the killing but said the government can’t protect everybody.

But this week’s killing of Xulhaz Mannan and a theater-director friend in Mr. Mannan's Dhaka apartment is garnering more intense scrutiny – largely because Mannan, who was the founder of Bangladesh’s only lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) advocacy magazine, was also a longtime employee of the United States embassy, Curtis notes.

Professor Zaman says that the extremists – whether they are connected to international radical organizations or simply inspired by them – are broadening their targets to maximize their impact.

The sense now is that “anybody could become a target,” Zaman says. “Every morning I walk up across a narrow road and catch the university bus just like the [English] professor. Even this morning,” he adds, “I had a chilly feeling within me [wondering] if it was safe.”

[Editor's note: The description of Mr. Mannan's role with the LGBT magazine has been corrected.]

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