Dhaka falls to extremists

Within the last month, Islamic extremists in Bangladesh have hacked to death a professor and an LGBT community organizer who worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development.

These brutal murders tell the story of a society that is becoming more aggressive in pursuing its own interests and dismissive of constitutional authority.

Asia’s fastest growing economy, Bangladesh, has been at war with itself since it broke away from Pakistan in 1971. Rocked by corruption, scandal and an uneasy balance between two powerful clans, the political tug of war centers on whether the country is ruled by Sharia Law or a secular, constitutional state where everyone has religious freedom.

The country’s Supreme Court definitively ruled in 2010 that Bangladesh was a secular state, overturning the 1988 notion to remove secularism as a state principle.

If secularism is the accepted rule of political conduct and values, the struggle continues, flaring up in riots, threats and calls for assassination.

The shift toward secularism allowed the ban of Muslim organizations preaching violence. More importantly, the once powerful and largest political party, Jamaat-e-Islami, was banned for crimes of war and genocide, going back to the Bangladesh Liberation War against Pakistan in 1971. In 2016, after a ruling by the Supreme Court, the league’s leader was sentenced to death and hanged.

Beneath the surface, the boiling point of wrath had spurred Islamist extremists to circulate a hit list, targeting bloggers, writers, journalists, professors, actors, a grape shot of categories dubbed “free thinkers” who, in the eyes of extremists, shook the pillars of Islam. They issued a statement calling for the believers to “hunt them down in whatever part of God’s world and kill them.”

Although cold-blooded assassinations of “secularists” have taken place notably since 2010, the latest have occurred in response to the hanging of Abdul Kader Mollah for war crimes in March.

The Islamic State group took credit for the killings. Others have attributed them to Ansar al-Islam, the Bangladeshi division of al-Qaeda. Military and intelligence circles challenge these connections.

These suicidal Muslim extremist developments are essential challenges to the legitimacy of the state as protector of civil liberties, including the freedom of belief.

Violence is an instrument of oppression in the hands of those striving for political power. A trickle of “intellectuals” has left the country. Others have embraced quietism. Still others brave the terrorists. The governing Awami League, in alliance with Muslim partners, and beset by societal unrest, has shown little stomach to directly confront the danger that Muslim extremists pose.

The United States has little purchase in the matter, other than sharing intelligence, providing training and encouraging Bangladesh to be more proactive. Nonetheless, the role of extremism and violence is part of the warp and weft in Bangladesh, and they come into play when state law either is losing its grip on power or abstaining from asserting it.