Media reports find the law enforcement response baffling insofar as it relates to the scaled up violence of the activists of Jamaat-e-Islami and its militant wing Shibir unleashed against the police and pedestrians in the capital city and elsewhere in the country during the last week. In fact, concern has been expressed about the authority's lack of sufficient will and preparedness to handle the situation. The government has been implored to nip the menace to peace and law and order in the bud before it causes more damage.
To see things in historical perspective, Bangladesh had a share of politically motivated destructive activities, particularly following the arrival of religio-centred terrorism and the unsettling specter of suicide in the not-too-distant past. The only silver lining in an otherwise ominous scenario is that the denial mode insofar as the existence of the bigoted extremists is concerned has disappeared. The unfortunate part, however, is that, as in other sectors of our national existence, we have been disappointingly reactive in responding to the threats of internal security. The approach appears to be ad hoc and on a case to case basis.
We may have to ask ourselves if a perception has developed among the so-called religious extremist groups that the Bangladeshi state is inherently incapable of meeting their challenge and that it has become soft and indolent. We may have to ascertain if quite a few parties have developed a vested interest in a soft state, a weak government and ineffective implementation of the laws. Simultaneously, are foreign funds flowing substantially to various organisations and groups which serve, willingly or unwillingly, the long term objective of some political parties suspected to be aligned or sympathetic to the regional or international terror network?
Since destructive activities of the so-called Islamic extremists have increased, thereby demanding changes in the strategy to counter them, are we ready to seriously study the problem? This is natural because we do not see adequate attempts being made to examine links between terrorist groups, the conditions in which they had spawned, the politician-militant nexus and other forms of patronage these groups receive, the proliferation of small arms leading to the growth of private armies etc. The question is, are we trying to appreciate all the factors that contribute to the "quality and extent" of internal security threats?
Some say that we have not realised that in post-1975 Bangladesh, particularly during the last 25 years, there has been a phenomenal establishment of madrassahs throughout the country by persons and institutions about whose credentials not much is known. Was moral rearmament or spiritual renaissance the predominant factor behind such unusual increment? However, doubts would creep in as we do not see any corresponding healthy rise in public or private morality. So, the suspicion is that while the establishment, the civil society and other activists have remained in the dark about the designs and programmes of the obscurantist elements, the so-called religious extremists have grown in strength and spread their tentacles taking advantage of the ignorance and inertia.
It may be relevant to note that the state claims to stand for enlightened moderation. However, significant parts of the elite have represented the process of fight against extremist activities while some sections of the society have experienced the so-called radicalisation of Islamic thought and action. The focus is on the use of power in pursuit of policy. A section of the public has been converted to this approach. Incidentally, the liberal current of opinion has been significantly de-legitimised in the process.
The heart of the problem is perhaps unresolved conflicts and the increasing cynicism. The requirement is a policy on conflict and support to the agenda for democracy. The goal should be denial of space for radicalised Islam and the militant tendency at its core. The religious extremists shall not be allowed to develop vital stakes in the political system for starting a radical movement in the long run.
In Bangladesh, advocates of radical path appear more determined than liberals or secularists. Secular forces hardly work with intense dedication, much less with a sense of mission. There is a threat in attempts to redefine Bangladeshi statehood in Islamic colours. Initially, there was constitutional faith in state secularism as the defining credo of Bangladeshi nationhood.
A considered view is that the objective should be the restoration of the natural centrism of our politics. We have to remember that the state policy is under attack by religiously mobilised political forces. The place of organised religions in public life should also occupy our thoughts.
There is no denying that in Bangladesh gross poverty co-exists with democracy, a liberal constitution and disorder with functioning polity. Religious and traditional beliefs are far more tenacious than the liberals imagine. The state, at times, has been involved directly in the business of defining religion. Secularism as state ideology is unable to compete with a language of belonging saturated with religion. The compulsions of the traditional obligations of the ruler to protect state religion had to be kept in view.
There is a need to reassert the innate pluralism of our politics. This is significant because the liberal front faces an uphill task in recapturing the political as well as the psychological ground already lost to the so-called extremist quarter. The fear is that such quarter is preparing for further round of aggressive social mobilisation with plans to embark upon politics of confrontation with a view to deriving political capital.
The so-called religious extremist activities are encouraged and sustained by an ideological inspiration. In other words, these activities are not divorced from ideology. One has to look for the said ideological moorings. In this quest, in Bangladesh, it is strongly likely that there will be some accusatory finger-pointing towards some political party. In the event of such a possibility turning into reality, the government of the day has to take tough actions without bothering about the political fallout. That would demand political sagacity of a very high order and may be a tall asking in our perilously polarised polity.
There is no doubt that the battle against extremism would be long. However, since the recent violence of the so-called religious extremists is a manifest attack on the long cherished values of the mainstream, our strategy and thought process may undergo substantial change in the following manner.
Persons or institutions having an apparent religious or ecclesiastical appearance and activity must not be out of bound for the surveillance agencies. Those creating credible suspicions must come within the ambit of threat perception and appropriate legal action shall be started forthwith. Preempting their nefarious activities should engage the uppermost attention of regulatory authority.
The aforementioned surveillance should ensure that no one is allowed to interpret and propagate a distorted version of the holy books. Our inherently religious folks must not be allowed to be misled. The so-called religious extremists committing violence should be treated like criminals and no element of respectability should be accorded to them.
As a nation, we must not suffer from any identity crisis as some mischievous quarters would like to. The Pakistanis thought we were lesser Muslims. Their "Islamisation drive" resulted in a colossal tragedy. It is time perhaps to once again show our true grit and be in real elements. Our politicians must not be heedless.
The writer is a columnist for The Daily Star.