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August 24, 2016

What went wrong in Bangladesh?

By Habib Siddiqui

I returned from my overseas trip a few days ago. It was a long vacation for me when I spent nearly ten weeks in Bangladesh. On my way to Chittagong, my laptop computer became dysfunctional after it had fallen from my hand in Dubai airport. With very little to do without my computer, I spent most of my time reading newspapers, books and watching TV news programs.

It was no fun though either reading or watching news reports around the world. It seemed that our world has gone crazy. Innocent people are getting butchered everywhere even in places that are not in the midst of any war, and no one seems safe or secure these days.

What shocked me most during my trip, however,was the cold-blooded murders on July 1 inHoley Artisan Bakery- a posh cafe in Gulshan in Dhaka- that used to be frequented by foreigners. Twenty people, most of them foreigners, were killed in that attack on the cafe by gunmen who had stormed the cafe late on Friday night. Two police officers got killed during a shootout at night with the attackers. Next day morning the government commandos moved in and killed five attackers and one was arrested. (A Bangladeshi worker was mistakenly killed by the commandos, and another injured staff of the café died later in a hospital.) Thirteen hostages were rescued.

The terrorist outfit Daesh later released pictures online of five men it said carried out the attack.

It was the worst terrorist attack in Bangladesh’s history. While political violence and unrest is not new to Bangladesh since its liberation from Pakistan in 1971, including killing of its founder (Bangabandhu Sheik Mujibur Rahman with most of his family members) in August 15, 1975 in a CIA-inspired military coup, never in the history of this country have its people seen so much cruelty against foreigners! Even Bangladeshi-born American citizens from Muslim background were not spared by the terrorists.

Far from the flawed and unsubstantiated perceptions that the religious extremists come from the lower rung of the society with madrasa schooling, the café attackers, all in their late teens or early 20s, were identified as children of wealthy individuals from Bangladesh's elite; they had attended top private schools and universities in Bangladesh and abroad. [It was revealed that three of the attackers came from a privileged background, educated with western curricula.One of them Nibras was known as a "fun-loving, in and out of love, and keen on sport". His father was a businessman with two houses in Dhaka, and one of his uncles was a Deputy Secretary to the Bangladesh Government. Two other gunmen went to Scholastica School, which follows Cambridge International Examinations curriculum and is very expensive to attend. Local newspapers reported that both of them had gone missing long before the attack.] Far from another widely held perception that the extremists have had ties with religious political groups like the Jamaat, one of the terrorists has been identified as the son of a politician in Bangladesh's ruling party – the Awami League.All the attackers came from secular families.

On 26 July 2016, police raided an apartment in Kallyanpur, Dhaka killing nine and arresting two, all of whom reportedly belonging to the same group that carried out the Holey Artisan Bakery attack. Apparently, they were planning another terrorist attack.

When Muslim religious scholars condemned terrorism vociferously all across Bangladesh, a subsequent attempt on the life of the prayer imam Fariduddin Mas’oud (who pioneered a fatwa campaign denouncing their un-Islamic activities) and other musallis attending the Eid al-Fitr prayer service in Sholakia, Kishoreganj was reportedly made by a terrorist group. [It is worth noting here that Sholakia has been holding the largest Eid congregation prayer in the country with nearly a quarter million people gathering for the prayer service.] OnThursday morning of 7 July 2016, half an hour before the Eid prayer was to begin, a bombing near the site killed two police officers and a civilian. A gun battle with the local police ensued in which several people were injured, and one attacker was captured alive. Although there was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, the attackers are believed by the government agencies to be part of the same group that carried out the café massacre.

American invasions in the nearby Afghanistan and Iraq have created a gargantuan mess in much of the Muslim-majority countries around the globe. Many Muslim youngsters have felt the urge to challenge that Yankee-led neo-crusade; some even joined various rebel groups to fight and die for their cause of resistance. As events in Europe have shown, many misguided youths are getting brain-washed by the Internet propaganda of Daesh, and are creating their own sleeper cells to strike at soft targets.

For too long, Bangladesh was an oasis of relative safety in South Asia, beingable to keep herself away from the toxic and deadly embrace of Daesh-type of terrorism. Not any longer. In the aftermath of the Holey Artisan café terrorist attack, there is no denying any more that many of her youths are getting indoctrinated by the deadly ideology of Daesh who are willing to die for their convoluted ideology and evil methodology.

What is also so unnerving is that the terrorist attack in the café happened during the holy month of Ramadhan and came almost half a month after top ranking ulamah (scholars of Islam) and muftis(those with authority to issue religious edicts) in Bangladesh condemned terrorism and suicide attacks calling suchharam or forbidden. The fatwa, or religious decree, was signed by more than 400,000 Islamic scholars, legal experts and clerics, and presented by Maulana Fariduddin Mas’oud, chairman of Bangladesh Jamiatul Ulama (BJU), a national body of Islamic scholars. [As hinted above, he was apparently the target during the Eid prayer service.]

In presenting the 62-page fatwa along with 30 volumes of books, each carrying over 3,300 signatures, Mas’oud said he began his campaign because terrorists were launching attacks in the name of Islam. This, he said, was leading to misunderstanding of the religion's tenets.

“As they are indulging in the violent activities, they are terming them jihad and they say that they happily want to become martyrs through jihad. But, Islam stands against such violent terrorist activities. While Islam is based on peace, love and compassion, they are presenting it as a religion of the uncivilized and terrorist people,” Mas’oud told VOA.

The message was distributed in a pamphlet, through preaching in mosques as well as online and through social media like the Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp because ofthe realization that the young generation gets so much misleading information on online platforms.

Confirmation of the fatwa coincided with the fourth day of a nationwide anti-militant drive during which police said they arrested 3,115 people, bringing the total arrested over the short period to more than 11,300.However, opposition group, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) claimed that 2,100 of its activists were arrested in the crackdown and accused the government of using the crackdown as an opportunity to suppress political dissent. Many political observers also saw the government crackdown as its attempt to kill two birds with a single stone!

Whatever may be the true government motivation for the crackdown preceding the Gulshan attack something has gone terribly wrong as to how terrorism is either becoming or has become more attractive for its new recruits who are willing to die for it.

As their acts showed, they came from all walks of life, mostly from rich, secular, affluent families, even with ties with the current government. They had a secure and comfortable life with the access to all the modern amenities of our time, let alone computers and iPhones. They attended private schools. Seemingly, they had all the positive things going for them. And yet, they preferred violence over peace, and death overlife. Why?

It is difficult to believe that the attackers came from broken families or that they suffered from acute depression or hopelessness, seeing no future for them once they graduated from their colleges/schools. It is fair to suspect that they were dissatisfied with the current system, and felt rebelling against it. The Internet had a major role to gravitate them to extremist websites and poison their minds, and provide the necessary links to interact/conspire with fellow dissidents. Then they became ‘missing’ from their family members – some for months, and some more years – before they reappeared to do their evil acts of terrorism. Of course, in between, they were brainwashed for their task and learnt the use of deadly weapons.

Their parents feel betrayed, and have, thus, refused to claim their dead bodies from the morgue for burial, where their corpse continue to remain. That is the level of shame and embarrassment that they parents feel about those terrorists. They have also apologized sincerely for the crimes of their boys.

People in Bangladesh are talking and are serious about avoiding a repeat of that sad event. That is a good sign. They know that defeating terrorism won’t be an easy matter, since it is a global phenomenon today. Thanks to the Internet, we are all connected in a web; what happens tens of thousands of miles away can have a devastating effect inside Bangladesh! People’s capacity to filter or process information vary widely though, and some psychologically vulnerable individuals may fall into the trap of extremist messages, considering that it is their duty to right the wrong or take revenge on a tit-for-tat basis for events that happened in the past or in a place that is far removed from the venue of the killing.

That is the difficult challenge that the people in Bangladesh (or for that matter the entire world) have facing terrorism today. Thus, it would be foolish to ignore, dislodge or disconnect the link between the crimes of the NATO forces in war-torn places like Iraq and Afghanistan and the drone attacks inside Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia with those of the Daesh or their brain-washed sleeper cells around the globe, or the murder of a Bangladeshi Imam and his assistant in Ozone Park, New York with a comparable event in a Muslim country. Trying to solve such problems in isolation would be equivalent to going after symptoms and not the root cause.

As a global phenomenon, terrorism needs a global solution to defeat it, which would require 100% sincerity and not hypocrisy, from all parties involved - something that is short in supply in our time, esp. amongst the powerful nations. The latter have a holier-than-thou worldview of arrogance, which provides the very fuel that the non-state terrorists are looking for to keep the flame of hatred burning. Before we all get engulfed in this inferno, it is wise to rethink and adopt prudent measures that are fair, just and long lasting. Otherwise, we have to live with what we sow.

From all the debates inside Bangladesh, two particular messages have come loud and clear, which are that the parents need to get more engaged and know what their children are doingbehind the close doors in front of their computers. While such may not guarantee complete success, these could surely discourage their children from getting into bad company. One life saved from the insinuation of the mischief makers who poison the mind is surely a good starting point to reduce the curse of terrorism.

An African proverb says, it takes a village to raise a child. In our time, living in a global village, a better proverb probably is – it takes a world to raise a child! Not forgotten there is the fact that the starting place to rear the child must be its home, starting with the parents. In Bangladesh’s resolve to defeat terrorism, apparently they are going back to the basics.

Dr. Habib Siddiqui has authored 11 books, five of which are now available through His latest book - Devotional Stories is published by A.S. Noordeen, Malaysia. Dr. Siddiqui is an alumnus of the prestigious University of  Southern California, Los Angeles, where he earned his Ph.D.