Just blogging about secular ideas and the country’s founding principles is enough to draw the wrath of religious extremists in Bangladesh. Last week, secular blogger Niloy Chakrabarty Neel was hacked to death by machete-wielding extremists. He is the fourth blogger to be killed in Bangladesh this year. Ansar al-Islam, the Bangladesh affiliate of the al-Qaeda in South Asia, has claimed responsibility for his death. As with the other bloggers killed this year, Neel’s name figured in a list of 84 ‘enemies of Islam’ that Bangladesh’s Islamists had identified in 2013 for elimination. His death must be blamed as much on them and outfits like the Ansar al-Islam and the Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) that carried out the killings as on the state for failing to provide the secular-liberals on that list with protection. Neel had complained to the police regarding the death threats to his life. Their refusal to register his complaint lays bare the lackadaisical response of state agencies to the threat posed by religious extremism. While the clash between religious fundamentalists and secular liberals in Bangladesh goes back several decades, it is in the late 1990s that extremist outfits with links to global jihadi groups proliferated. The latest phase of their radicalism was triggered by the war crimes tribunal, whose work culminated in the conviction and execution of several Islamists for their role in the 1971 liberation war. It galvanised radical Islamist to go on the warpath.
If over the past decade Bangla-desh’s secularism came under pressure from radicals with links to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the al-Qaeda, the present phase is seeing the emerging influence of the Islamic State (IS) as well. Several Bangladeshi youth have been arrested over the past year for acting as recruiters for the IS. This is of serious concern not only to Bangladesh but also, to the rest of South Asia. In neighbouring Myanmar, Buddhist extremism is fuelling radicalism among the Muslim Rohingyas, many of whom have fled to Bangladesh for sanctuary. They could end up getting indoctrinated by Bangladesh’s Islamists and the global jihadis, adding a complicating new dimension to the volatility in the region.
In May this year, the Awami League government banned the ABT. While outlawing extremist outfits facilitates the arrest of their leaders and activists, it does little to weaken their influence as a ban only pushes their activities deeper underground. The Bangladeshi government must supplement the ban with a robust effort to build a culture of tolerance in the country. Else, the killings will continue.