Islamists can never win Bangla soul

42MurtajaBaseer Courage under fire: Ishrat Akhand with top artist Murtaja Baseer. Akhand was killed because she was not wearing a hijab and was openly defiant.

Two brave Bangladeshis born after the 1971 Liberation War stood up for their liberal values and the ‘Spirit of 1971’ to defeat the jihadi strike on a Dhaka cafe on July 1. Faraaz Hossain, grandson of business magnate Latifur Rahman, could have easily got away by reciting Quranic verses, but he decided to stick by his friends—Tarishi Jain, an Indian, and Abinta Kabir, a nonresident Bangladeshi.

The terrorists killed all three. They let go a Bangladeshi expat family of four because the mother wore a hijab. Then they killed Ishrat Akhand, my dear sister (no blood relation, though) who ran an art gallery, because she was not wearing a hijab and was openly defiant. Faraaz and Ishrat proved in death that the islamist fringe in the country can never win the battle for Bangladesh’s soul.

The Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Jamaat-e-Islami cannot defeat the ruling Awami League electorally, so they bomb buses and derail trains. They have killed 86 Bangladeshis in six months. When the killing does not work, they unleash the jihadis trained during BNP chief Khaleda Zia’s rule (2001-2006).

Bloggers, writers and publishers are killed to demoralise the secular movement that peaked at Shahbagh in 2013. Hindus are killed to complicate bilateral relations with India. Foreigners are killed to drive away aid workers, investors and garment companies outsourcing supplies from Bangladesh.

The jihadis are young, misguided adventurers used by politicians who want to bring down the government, demolish secular forces, Talibanise Bangladesh and take it back to the days before the liberation. Uninformed anchors and half-baked experts may waste airtime debating whether the Dhaka attack was by IS or Al Qaeda, but it is clear that these are homegrown jihadis working for those whom Hasina describes as the “defeated forces of 1971”.

Despite the challenges to its founding principles, Bangladesh remains a moderate Muslim nation driven by a secular vision. The Islamist fringe, backed by Salafist petrodollars, Pakistan intelligence and the cyber ideologues of IS, is trying to undermine this.

Despite 90 per cent of the population being Muslim, Bangladesh has always been a threat to the radical islamist vision of the ummah. The country’s secular politics and culture and the Bengali language present an alternate vision for the foot-soldiers of IS and Al Qaeda and for the sheikhs in Riyadh and Doha who finance islamist schools and hospitals in Bangladesh. It is in Bangladesh that the pan-islamist project is challenged ideologically.

Here is a country where a senior minister, Latif Siddique, rubbished the hajj, saying it benefited the economy of Saudi Arabia, not Bangladesh. Here is a country where a columnist, Kayes Ahmed of, called for an international committee to manage the shrines in Mecca and Medina after the crane crash last year. Here are Muslims who broke up an Islamic republic because it failed to accommodate their liberal and linguistic aspirations.

No wonder both IS and Al Qaeda have called for bringing down the apostate government. The jihad in Bangladesh, which has peaked with the Dhaka attack, is the last trump card for the discredited BNP-Jamaat coalition.

Bhaumik is senior fellow at the Centre for Studies in International Relations and Development, Kolkata.

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