Confronting extremism & militancy

SICSerajul Islam Chowdhury
Patently, the Islamist militants in Bangladesh are a political, and not a religious, outfit bent upon making a profession of gathering money and power. And like many other entities in this country, they are a poor and miserable lot drawn from the particularly backward segments of the community, bereft of sophistication in respect of both ideology and organisation. These militants have been operating with covert political support from powers that be and thriving on the backwardness of the society.

Confronting them should not, therefore, be as formidable as it appears to be, provided there is political determination in the ruling classes, and more importantly, in the people themselves.
The immediate task lies, of course, with the government itself. The leading militants must be apprehended and put on public trial by a special tribunal set up for the purpose. Their connections both financial and organisational must be fully exposed. The government should have risen up to this responsibility much earlier, giving up the practising of deception on its own self as well as on the public that the militants did not exist.

The unearthing of the militant outfit and the trial should be allowed to proceed without political interference. The media has done on excellent job in exposing the militant activities and thereby bringing pressure to bear upon the government to go the whole hog, which it is yet to go.

But there is more to the matter than is visible. The militancy-leadership has confessed to having connections with elements in both political and administrative sectors of the government. That seems to be the truth at one level, but underneath there are economic and social maladies working as the ready and fertile breeding ground of Islamist militancy. Almost all the so-called jehadis have been to the madrashas, where they gained a sense of self-righteousness without acquiring the aptitude for, and skill in, productive work. The young recruits did not have any prospect of employment and were easily persuaded to take up their jobs on worldly monetary payment and otherworldly promises of everlasting rewards. These marginalised men have had their rages too, arising out of the sight and experience of inequality and injustice all around them, and militancy provided them with an outlet to avenge the wrongs they thought they had suffered.

Had there been a strong mainstream secular political movement for achieving real democracy in the state and society many, if not most, of these angry young persons would have been pulled into it, swelling the secular ranks.

Ideologically, the state of Bangladesh came into being through a struggle for national liberation, which was essentially secular in character. Discarding the two-nation theory based on religion, the liberation movement accepted language as the primary basis of nationalism.

That acceptance was embodied in the constitution of the new state in the form of secularism. But secularism has been withdrawn from the constitution, and, what is more, the military dictatorship of Hossain Mohammed Ershad has incorporated Islam as the state religion. War criminals have got away with impunity, most of whom have been rehabilitated in the political life. Religion-based political parties have been allowed to operate freely, and two of these are part of the government at the moment. Secularism could not have been easy to establish, particularly because of the long tradition of the use of religion in politics; it is now in recession because the main-stream politicians do not want it to flourish.

They have their own political axes to grind, and in that activity find the use of religion helpful. This recession of secularism has encouraged the Islamist militants to grow. The public, of course, does not like them; and to the society at large they are no better than criminals. But the public cannot speak out; it does not have a voice.

Then there is the question of identity. The founding of an independent state had given the Bengalis of East Bengal a sense of pride and achievement the like of which they had not enjoyed ever before. But with the rise of political anarchy, failure of the state to eradicate poverty and ensure security of the citizens and the neo-imperialist aggression all over the world to which the Muslims feel they have fallen a prey, the secular Bengali identity seems to have lost some of its value; and to some the Muslim identity has turned into a refuge to fall back on. The injection of petro-dollar into the economy has had its impact on the feeling of identity.

Moreover, the Bengali language has not been given the place it was expected to occupy in the national life. Bengali speakers are the fourth largest group of people in the world to-day; but in the very state where it is the state language, Bengali is not used at the highest echelons of the judiciary, education and administration; the richer sections of the community do not use it with the care and attention it deserves.

This failure to give Bengali the status and function so very necessary for us in our onward journey of progress and prosperity has contributed to the recession in our secular national pride and patriotism. Language goes beyond the divides of class and religion; and the fact that Bengali is not being used in all spheres and levels of national life is a clear indication of the persistence of, indeed of the rise in, class separation between the rich and the poor. And this separation also helps Islamist militancy in its growth — the militants are poor and they take pride in calling themselves Muslims, downgrading their Bengali identity.

The militancy we are discussing is a disease, but it is, at the same time, symptomatic of a graver malady in the state and society. The problem is political, and has to be confronted politically. Whereas the immediate task should be to bring the culprits to book and justice; much more will be necessary to do and achieve. Because the breeding ground itself has to be destroyed. And for this the objectives must be clearly set out. The most important of which would be restoring secularism as a state-principle and make it both effective and productive in political and social life. Political use of religion has to be prohibited; and the idea should be allowed to gain ground that religion is a private matter and therefore, its mingling with the running of the state would be counter-productive. Attention has to be given to the prevailing education system, and urgent steps taken to introduce a single and uniform system with the mother tongue as its medium. As the state language, Bengali has to be used in all spheres and levels of personal and collective life. Equally important is the elimination of inequality and eradication of poverty. Indeed, these two go together, the society must be made a better place to live in, and men and women should be helped to gain back their sense of pride in secular national identity and to contribute, as patriots, whatever is in their power to the promotion of collective welfare.

These goals are not easy to reach, to say the least. Nothing short of social revolution will do the job. In fact, that is what is needed, and what the people have been waiting for during their long struggle for liberation, dating back to British colonial rule. The state has changed in size and name, but the society has remained almost the same, and the malady it suffers from has produced many evils, of which Islamist militancy is one.

This has happened because the ruling classes have, in promoting their own interests, hindered and not helped the social revolution. Both the leading parties are at the moment making political use of religion in their competition to procure votes — although to different degrees. The BNP does not believe in socialism, and the Awami League has not shown much interest in restoring secularism to the constitution which they had originally written. Given the way things are moving, it will not be surprising to find the BNP-Jamaat coalition transforming itself, ideologically, into the Muslim League of the late sixties, and the Awami League returning to what it was before the 1954 election, namely, the Awami Muslim League. That, of course, would be a sad thing to happen.

But it is no use losing heart; for the people remain. They are patriotic in commitment and secular in outlook, and have been more powerful than the rulers. The hope lies in strengthening and deepening the people’s movement for liberation. True, it has slowed down; and also true that the ruling classes will be happy to see it disintegrate; but it would be the duty of all who feel and think that we must move ahead to join in and not stand aloof. We must not let the state and society slide backward, as it is doing now, quite palpably.

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