Bangladesh’s Islamist challenge

The death sentence handed out to two students last week for the murder of a secular blogger in Bangladesh marks the first major verdict in a string of cases related to the killings of writers in the South Asian nation. Ahmed Rajib Haider, 35, was hacked to death by machete-wielding attackers in February 2013. The judge at a fast-track court found that the two students and another man were guilty of murder and convicted another five people on lesser charges. Haider’s murder had opened a new phase of violence in Bangladesh’s contemporary history. A number of secular writers have been targeted by Islamists ever since. In 2015 alone, five writers were killed in the country. Bloggers are victims of an ongoing conflict between the country’s secular establishment and Islamist factions. The Awami League government’s decision to open a trial of the war crimes committed during the country’s 1971 liberation war did not go down well with Islamists. The conviction of some of the leaders of the opposition parties such as the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Jamaat-e-Islami made matters more complicated. Extremist sections are steadfastly opposed to the trial, but they lack the political capital to build a popular resistance against it. Therefore, they turned towards violent protests against the war crimes trial, which created serious law and order problems in the country.

It was against this background that right-wing fringe groups such as the Ansarullah Bangla Team started targeting writers. The bloggers, who consistently campaigned against the war criminals and demanded their executions, invited the wrath of Islamists. The government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had initially faced criticism for not doing enough to stop violence against writers. Now, with a relatively fast conclusion of the trial of Haider’s murder case and the passing of the highest possible punishment to the convicts, the government appears to be upping the ante against the Islamists. The government’s resolve to bring the attackers to book is timely. But at the same time there are questions over the worsening security situation which allows the extremists to carry out attacks and, more important, the government’s increased reliance on the death penalty to address the Islamist threat. Dhaka’s primary challenge is to prevent any such incidents taking place again. Islamists have apparently issued a “hit list” of bloggers, threatening to kill them all. Given the recent cycle of violence, Thursday’s verdict could trigger more attacks by extremist groups. The government should not lower its guard. As regards the death penalty, it is worth noting that the hanging of war criminals has done little in weakening Islamist politics in the country. Even in the case of bloggers murders, long prison terms would be ideal which would not only strengthen the government’s moral position in this conflict with Islamist radicals, but will also weaken the latter’s narrative that the state is waging a war against them. Bangladesh needs a comprehensive strategy to fight Islamists, because the latter’s target is not merely writers, but the country’s secular polity itself.

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