When the enemy is an idea

A humanistic education is necessary to counter the spread of Islamist militant ideology
Ziauddin Choudhury: The people of Dhaka witnessed with grief and solemnity, the brutal deaths of 21 innocent souls in the senseless terrorist attack at a restaurant in Gulshan last year. While the gruesome nature and other particulars of the attack were unprecedented in Bangladesh, such mindless acts of terror were not new for the world at large.

Over the last few years, hundreds of lives have been lost in many such attacks globally, in major cities of Europe and the US.

But the number of lives lost in Dhaka, London, Paris, Brussels, or in cities in the US pale into insignificance compared with lives lost in Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan in the last two years also from terror attacks.
In the latter countries, hundreds of lives perish in a single bomb blast carried out by terrorists bent upon overthrowing the government to establish their kind of world order in the name of Islam.

When lives are lost from terrorism it is not the number alone that shocks people, it is also the act itself, and the motivation of the perpetrators.

The perpetrators — whether they were lone wolves or in a group — declared their affiliation to one or the other Islamist militant groups that seek to change the world order to their ideology and belief.

But terrorism has no religion; even if most of the acts of terror in the last few years were undertaken in the name of Islam.

A different breed
What happened in Bangladesh in July last year in a posh residential area, however, changed the narrative on the growth of Islamic militancy. It showed us that militants were not necessarily products of madrasas or similar religious institutions, as we had come to believe since the birth of the Taliban in Pakistan two decades ago.

It also proved that the new militants are not necessarily a group of under-privileged, unemployed social outcasts. Nor were these militants religious evangelists who are on a mission to preach a perverted understanding of Islam.

These militants had a secular education, grew up in a regular middle-class family with common middle-class values.

Yet they acted and behaved like people who have been programmed in a methodical manner to kill and be killed to fulfill a mission as in a war.

We need a comprehensive curriculum for our schools and madrasas on human values, democracy, respect for life and tolerance

Mulling over the causes
There have been many hypotheses about the growth and resurgence of Islamic militancy both in Bangladesh and elsewhere.

A common hypothesis is attributing the growth to US initiated and other Western countries abetted war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and later to the chaos in Syria. Before that, an easy attribution for militancy was the Palestinian question. The common assumption is that militancy grew as a reaction of a large section of Muslims toward these wars which they perceived as neo-colonialism directed against Muslim countries.

This helped the formation of militant organisations such as al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, Hezbollah, and lately IS, which grew up from the ashes of Syrian civil war.

What these hypotheses miss, however, is that Islamic militancy has been in existence long before the birth of these organisations.

An early proponent of militancy to spread or defend Islam was Syed Qutb, an Egyptian Islamic scholar and a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in the 50s and 60s. With millions of followers in Egypt and beyond, Qutb propagated the idea that rule by sharia law would require essentially no government at all.

He also believed that jihad must be offensive in order to protect Islam.

Qutb was eventually tried and executed on charges of conspiracy to kill the President of Egypt in 1966.

Syed Qutb was one of the early proponents of the current interpretation of jihad that is motivating the new militants, but he is not the only one. There have been quite a few radical Islamist organisations that produced leaders molded in Qutb’s brand.

These organisations thrived by recruiting youths, spreading the vision of a world order based on Islam and sharia law. The way forward, they argued, is to go back to the golden age of Khilafat when Muslims led their lives according to the teachings of the Qur’an and the Prophet.

Thus, they asked their followers to bring back that time and fight anyone who stands in the way, be it their own government or a foreign one.

Missing from the rhetoric of modern day jihadists are other essential teachings of their scripture and the Prophet of Islam: Respect for human life and human values. Without these, the new order they dream of cannot represent Islam as they claim.

Teaching the right values
The fight against terrorism in the coming days cannot be won by simply dismantling IS, or by hounding out the militants as Bangladesh is doing now.

The lessons from the Gulshan terror attack and others in Europe are that militants are not confined to any one section of society, nor are they products of religious institutions alone.

The new militants are victims of a vicious interpretation of Islam that cleverly targets vulnerable youths. They also have a distorted vision of the future based on a false interpretation of religion and history.

Above all, they have a tremendous lack of understanding when it comes to human values, respect for life, and social institutions.

As we attempt to create a safer and terror-free society going forward — one with more democratic institutions and public discussion on Islam and its true teaching — we need a comprehensive curriculum for our schools and madrasas on human values, democracy, respect for life and tolerance.

We cannot stop every human being who wants to commit suicide, but at least we can teach everyone that suicide is not only illegal, but forbidden in Islam as well. What the new militants want us to do is perform mass suicide. And this we cannot allow.

Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.


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