THE recent arrest of the so-called religiously motivated extremists that included four foreign nationals along with dangerous explosives and incriminating materials once again confirms the premonition that serious threats to our democratic pluralist existence are a reality. There is cause for concern because such apprehension comes in the wake of deliberate mischievous attack by suspected extremists on the personnel of law enforcement agency.
The fact that there was a discontinuance of the deadly doings of extremist elements may not be a comforting scenario because their unhealthy growth and harmful rise in our body-politic was not known to the general public. Therefore, the concerned citizens can only guess as to the nature and dimension of the diabolical mischief of the bigots in the days to come.
There is a creeping suspicion that there never was a dispassionate appreciation of the real threat scenario. In other words, was there no effort to pinpoint the threats posed to our democratic polity? These questions should bother us because patriotic citizens of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh must know that.
It is a sad reality that, like the responses to other socio-economic issues of our national life, we have been disappointingly reactive in responding to the threats of so-called religious extremism. The whole approach appears to be ad-hoc and on a case to case basis. Somehow, the establishment had always wished to assure itself by imagining that a hydra-headed monster has surfaced all on a sudden and will wither soon to the relief of a concerned population. Setting a time limit to completely root out the extremist problem gives rise to more questions than it answers. Such utterances do not really create optimism and establish credibility of institutional competence and political sagacity. Similarly, enforcement officials prematurely ruling out any link of extremist activities to foreign sources also betray a pathetic lack of discretion and judgment.
Many of us have not realised that in post-1975 Bangladesh, particularly during the last 25 years, there has been a phenomenal growth of madrasas throughout the country. At the same time many mosques have been built by individuals and organisations about whose credentials not much is known. A question obviously arises in such a scenario. Was moral rearmament or spiritual renaissance the predominant factor behind such unusual growth of religious institutions and places of worship? Doubts creep in as we do not see any corresponding healthy rise in public or private morality. So the reasonable suspicion is that while the establishment, the civil society and other activists have remained indifferent about the programmes and designs of the obscurantist elements, the so-called religious extremists have grown in strength and spread their tentacles taking advantage of the ignorance and inertia.
Bangladesh polity is now challenged by hostile groups that profess a philosophy of life and of government inimical to our own. In fact, we are now facing an adversary that is armed enough to commit widespread violence. In our free society, while our defenses and deterrents are largely prepared in open fashion, our new antagonists have succeeded in building a formidable wall of secrecy and security. So, to bridge the gap and warn ourselves in time, we have to rely, inter alia, more and more upon our intelligence operations. There is a need to break through the shield of secrecy of the bigots. Special techniques which are unique to secret intelligence operations are needed to penetrate the security barriers of the extremist outfits.
Our preparation to combat the extremists cannot wait for evidence of the likelihood of further hostile acts against us. We should, therefore, be forewarned and forearmed. The act of forewarning could itself constitute one of the most effective deterrents to the bigots’ appetite for attack. Intelligence should not be a tabooed subject. What we are striving to achieve should be an advertised fact.
The most serious occupational hazard in the intelligence field is prejudice. While we are all creatures of prejudice, we must be able to avoid bending of facts obtained through intelligence to suit or defeat a particular political viewpoint.
We have to admit that we are not really at peace with the so-called religious extremists because they have declared war on our system of government and life. The reality is that we are faced with a closed, conspiratorial and scheming enemy. We cannot hope to maintain our position securely if our opponents are confident that they can attack us at the time and place of their choosing and without any forewarning.
In the last analysis the most important safeguards lie in the character and self-discipline of the political leadership and the quality of the intelligence service and of the people who work for it — on the kind of men and women on the job, their integrity and their respect for the democratic processes and their sense of duty and devotion in carrying out their important and delicate tasks.
If we decide to operate by the book, we will be adequately informed of the perils which face us. If we do not know the designs of the so-called religious-extremists, then we could well be isolated and our liberties, too, could be in jeopardy. Therefore, we must be ready to deal with all aspects of the not-very-visible war of the bigots with all its ramifications and fronts.
The writer is a columnist for The Daily Star.