THE heinous massacre of diners at a Dhaka cafe by terrorists in the name of Islam has shocked people across the world. The terrorists stormed the café shouting Islamic slogans, and took the diners hostage. They brutally tortured and killed those who failed to or refused to recite verses from the Quran. 20 patrons of the cafe were killed in the bloodbath, and two policemen were also killed. Of the six attackers, five were killed and a sixth has reportedly been arrested.
Rival terrorist outfits have claimed responsibility for the attack - Ansar-al-Islam, affiliated to the Al-Qaeda , and the ISIS. From photographers of the attackers posted by the ISIS online, it appears that most of them are well-educated youth from Bangladesh's affluent and influential families.
The Dhaka café massacre is no isolated instance of terrorism. Bangladesh's Government has had ample warning signs of the dangerously escalating radicalisation and violence by terrorist groups. For the past several years, Bangladesh has witnessed a spate of brutal killings of secularists, rationalists, bloggers, writers, gay rights activists, Hindu priests and individuals from the minority Hindu and Christian communities. Bangladesh's Awami League Government had no effective or purposeful response to these attacks. Instead, responsible leaders of the Government indulged in victim-blaming.
Just a month ago, the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, speaking on the occasion of the Bengali New Year, preached 'tolerance' as essential for development. But in the same breath she said, "But if anyone writes filthy words against our religion, why should we tolerate that? Why should the government take responsibility if such writings lead to any untoward incidents?" Similarly, after Bangladeshi atheist blogger Nazimuddin Samad was hacked to death, Bangladesh Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal had said that Samad's writings "needed to be scrutinized to see whether he wrote anything objectionable about religion." Such remarks, like those of communal politicians in India who want to investigate if the lynch-mob victim Akhlaque ate beef, amount to victim blaming and a rationalisation of bigotry and religious fundamentalist violence.
The roots of Islamic extremism in Bangladesh lie in the Jamaat-e-Islami, the fountainhead of horrendous war crimes during the Bangladesh war of independence. In the period when military dictatorships ruled Bangladesh, the Jamaat-e-Islami was rehabilitated and political Islam instated as a part of mainstream Bangladesh politics. The Jamaat-e-Islami is now an ally of Bangladesh's main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), both of whom make no secret of their espousal of a political Islamism. The Awami League, in spite of its secular posturing, has allowed the Islamic outfits a free rein, trivialising each communal murder as an isolated aberration.
The refusal of Bangladesh's mainstream political parties to nip political Islam and a growing communal discourse in the bud has much to answer for in the unchecked proliferation of terrorist attacks. The only ray of hope lies in the fact that a considerable section of Bangladeshi society continues to be committed to fighting attempts to turn the country into an Islamic state. The Shahbag movement of 2013, a huge popular uprising demanding punishment for Islamist perpetrators of war crimes, also raised its voice strongly against religion-based politics. In spite of the barbaric killings, young activists continue to courageously raise their voices in support of a robust secularism. During the latest terror attack, a 20-year old Bangladeshi man Faraaz Hossain was offered a chance to save his life and leave, after he recited the Quran verses. But he chose, instead, to stay back with his two young woman friends, one of them an Indian teenager Tarishi Jain, and was killed with them. Another Bangladeshi woman Ishrat Akhond, refused to recite the verses and was hacked to death.
The events in Bangladesh must also push us to reflect on the growing politicisation of religion and resultant communal and terrorist violence in the whole of the subcontinent. In India, outfits espousing political Hindutva have killed writers for their secular writings; and murdered Muslims on charges that they 'eat beef.' They have issued threats against all those who refuse to chant slogans in favour of 'Bharat Mata' – India visualised as a Hindu goddess. In Pakistan and Bangladesh, murders and massacres in the name of Islam refuse to abate. In Sri Lanka, the genocide Tamil had a definite core of communal politics, with anti-Tamil bigotry merging with a political discourse of Buddhist majoritarianism. In Myanmar also, military dictators and mainstream 'democratic' politicians alike have appeased Buddhist bigotry and organised violence against the minority Rohingya Muslims.
The Bangladesh Government must be held accountable for the spate of terrorist attacks including the latest attack in the Dhaka café. The Awami League and the Government cannot look the other way and condone killings. We stand with the people of Bangladesh who are fighting the forces of political Islam and demanding an end to terrorism. Secular forces across the subcontinent must speak up and unite against the dangerous forces that are politicising religion and promoting intolerance and violence in the name of religion.