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Lacking a political strategy

Interview: Shamil Shams June 20, 2016

Bangladesh has launched a security operation against Islamists, who have been accused of murdering secular activists. Analyst Siegfried Wolf tells DW a comprehensive political strategy against terrorism is still missing.

Bangladesch Polizei Symbolbild
Image: Getty Images/AFP/M. Uz Zaman

In the past week, Bangladeshi authorities have arrested nearly 11,000 people as part of a sweeping crackdown on the country's Islamists. The rights groups, however, accuse the government of arbitrarily arresting political opponents and using the terrorism pretext to tighten its control.

Despite the criticism, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina vowed last week to crush "each and every killer" behind a wave of brutal "machete attacks."

Some 40 people have been killed in the majority Muslim country by jihadists over the past three years, police say. The South Asian country, which appears to be at a crossroads in its efforts to preserve the secular nature of the state, is witnessing an unprecedented surge in violence. Recently, a secular teacher, two gay activists and two Hindu citizens were murdered by Islamists who want to impose Shariah law in the country.

Hasina blames the upsurge in violence on the main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), and the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), although both groups have denied having any links with the attackers.

In a DW interview, Siegfried O. Wolf, the director of research at the Brussels-based South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF), says that Bangladeshi authorities should have acted against Islamists much earlier, although he notes that it is still not too late.

Siegfried Wolf
Siegfried O. Wolf: 'The international community should bring PM Hasina and opposition leader Zia closer'Image: Siegfried Wolf

The expert also believes the police operation will not be sufficient to defeat extremists, and that the government must develop and implement a comprehensive political strategy to counter home-grown and international jihadist groups.

DW: The Bangladeshi government has finally stepped up efforts against the killers of secular writers and activists. Is it too little and too late?

Siegfried O. Wolf: For the past two years, PM Sheikh Hasina has been heavily criticized for her government's inaction against extremists. Her administration has been accused of creating a culture of impunity in the country. I believe that if the government had taken this action earlier, many lives could have been saved.

As such, the crackdown is not too late, but it is also vital that the government develop and implement a comprehensive strategy to battle home-grown and international jihadist groups. Only the security clampdown won't solve the problem; the state must look for a political solution as well.

The opposition has accused the government of using terrorism as a pretext to tighten its control. Do you agree with the claim?

I agree with it partly, but one has to put the current situation in the right perspective.

It is an unfortunate fact that the use of force against opponents is a trademark of Bangladeshi politics. It therefore does not come as a surprise that the opposition parties are accusing PM Hasina of using the jihadist threat as an attempt to extend its political control.

But in my opinion, the recent crackdown is a result of increasing international pressure on Dhaka. On June 7, the European Parliament debated the issue of killings in Bangladesh, with MEPs demanding that Hasina act swiftly to protect Bangladeshi citizens, especially the vulnerable minorities. Keeping in mind that Bangladesh depends heavily on international aid as well as European markets for exports, the policy makers in Dhaka couldn't ignore the European pressure for long.

Bangladesch Festnahmen nach Razzien in Dhaka
Bangladeshi authorities have arrested nearly 11,000 people as part of a crackdown on IslamistsImage: Getty Images/AFP/STR

Having said that, we must also not forget that the opposition BNP is allied with a number of Islamist groups. The country's biggest Islamic party, the Jamaat-e-Islami, is one of them, and it is not a secret that the JI maintains close links with "Islamic State" (IS). Hence, the opposition is worried the security operation might weaken its position in Bangladeshi society.

Hasina's government continues to downplay the IS threat. Do you think the security clampdown is finally an acknowledgement of the group's presence in the country?

The government finds it difficult to confess, or even acknowledge, the presence of foreign militant groups in the country. It is also in denial that domestic jihadist organizations are receiving support from abroad.

This denial is a result of Bangladesh's traumatic experiences during the "war of liberation" against Pakistan in 1971. It took the country several decades to bring the Pakistan-backed Islamists to justice, and it also shows the difficulties Bangladesh still faces in dealing with radical Islamist groups. Furthermore, the fact that many of the 1971 "Islamist collaborators" are affiliated with or supported by the BNP and the Jamaat-e-Islami, underpins the highly complex political situation.

The existence of foreign Islamist groups in Bangladesh is seen as a failure of the state to do away with its troubled past. That is why the government, civil society and the media tend to deny it.

Will the operation against Islamists create a sense of security among liberal activists in Bangladesh?

I don't think it will. The reason is that the operation is not being complemented by a comprehensive political strategy.

It is a positive sign that the government acknowledges the Islamist threat now. But it should not limit it to the JI and the BNP; it also needs to focus on the nexus between international jihadist groups like IS and its local collaborators.

IS is expanding in Bangladesh. It is using Pakistani soil to carry out activities in Bangladesh. The denial of this fact is going to backfire.

Bangladesh: Intellectuals in fear

What are the political reasons behind the rise of Islamic extremism in Bangladesh, and can there be a political solution to the problem?

A rapprochement between PM Hasina and BNP leader Khaleda Zia could reduce the political tension in the country. To battle groups like IS, all political parties need to work together.

Bangladesh appears to be at a crossroads between secularism and religious fundamentalism. What can be done to ensure that Bangladeshi secularism is protected?

The efforts to remove Islam as state religion from the constitution are not going in the right direction. In March, a court in Bangladesh rejected a petition in favor of the move. It was an unfortunate decision for Bangladesh's transition to liberal democracy, as it is clearly against the secular spirit of the constitution.

The opposition BNP must cut ties with JI. It is not good for Bangladeshi democracy if a mainstream political party, which had been in power several times in the past, involves an Islamist group in its decision-making processes.

Last but not least, the international community, especially the European Union, should bring PM Hasina and opposition leader Zia closer. The EU can help initiate a dialogue between the two leaders and urge them to work together to put an end to the politics of violence and hostility.

Siegfried O. Wolf is a researcher at the University of Heidelberg's South Asia Institute. He is also the director of research at the Brussels-based South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF).