Written by: PARVEZ ALAM – It is difficult not to be shocked by the photos of the terrorists that participated in the recent Dhaka attack; they are grinning from ear to ear with automatic rifles in their hands as the black flag of IS can be seen in the background. Photos of five young homegrown Bangladeshi IS fighters responsible for the recent Dhaka attack was published by the Site Intelligence group and since then have taken their place in the global media. Shock, disbelief or disgust, whatever you feel doesn’t matter to them as they are dead now, nor did it matter when they were alive and were posing during their photo sessions. For them and their ideological comrades, these images represents nothing but sheer courage and heroism, and their utter lack of concern for life in this world. No matter what kind of emotion they invoke in your heart, these photos will only further encourage potential jihadists.
The Bangladesh Government is claiming success in their dealing with the hostage crisis, but it was surely a success for the terrorists themselves as not only did they manage to kill most of the foreign hostages who were their prime target (‘crusaders’ in their jihadi term) but they also generated plenty of media attention. It was not only a shortcut to paradise that they longed for; they also desired wide media coverage. Like the Charlie Hebdo attackers, whom Slavoj Zizek described as ‘the worst’ full of passionate intensity by quoting from William Butler Yeats,those who attacked the Holey Restaurant in Gulshan were radicals engaged in ‘active nihilism’. They were ready to risk their own mundane lives, willing to go out laughing, or at least that is what they seem to have wanted us to see. And that was the purpose of their photo shoot.
There is little doubt that IS and their Bangladeshi affiliates got everything they wanted. They got live coverage from CNN and front page coverage in most of the international media. But who does it help and what does it do for Bangladesh? Both this act of terror and its worldwide coverage make the country’s diverse international affairs – from its textile industry to labor export to the game of cricket – quite vulnerable. The textile industry was still usffering from last years attacks by IS affiliates who killed several foreign nationals and there is now news in the media that major fashion brands and aide organizations are reconsidering their investments and involvement in the country. Thus covering Bangladesh as one of the next big frontier of IS doesn’t help Bangladesh in anyway. On the other hand, extensive media attention enjoyed by terrorist organizations and terrorist attacks ends up encouraging more such attacks, as has been shown by recent research. To make it clear, I am certainly not suggesting that the global media should remain silent. Almost uninterrupted transmission of information is what the contemporary global media promises, and I am not against that. But an increased sensibility and cautious approach is certainly needed. There also needs to be a show of solidarity with the world standing up with Bangladesh, as it did for Paris, Istanbul and Orlando. But covering it without much sensitivity, at a time when the country needs everybody to stand with it, will be a fatal blow to this already-crumbling nation. Therefore, one must ask, how do you plan to stand with Bangladesh?
The country has been featured well in the global media lately, which is a bit odd for a country that generally gets little or no attention in the western media unless there is a killer cyclone or a collapsed factory killing thousands. The very name of the country, Bangladesh, has come to symbolize utter doom and calamity to many Westerners. For a long time it has been seen as nothing more than an over-populated land where thousands die from natural disasters that will eventually just sink into the Indian Ocean as the climate continues to warm up. But recently, it is the recent news of individual deaths that came to the forefront, when atheist, homo-sexual, hindu or Buddhist priests and those belonging to religious minorities were killed at regular intervals by Islamist extremists. The project of ‘Covering Bangladesh’ in the Western media, however, remains faithful to its character; it is mostly coverage of calamity and doom. This time it is Bangladesh’s secular democracy that is facing an existential crisis as Bangladesh now seems to simply represent the tragedy of a country born with secular and democratic principles sinking under the threats of terrorism and autocracy.
Bangladesh is no different from many other countries that have become a frontier of Salafist ideological expansion since the 1980s. While as a poor country, Bangladesh depends heavily on Saudi Arabia for its labor market, it is also the victim of its spreading Salafism in Bangladesh. Like Bush and Blair, Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is guilty of participating in state terrorism in the name of a ‘war on terror’. Like some of the Western leadership who promised to stand with Bangladesh after the Gulshan attack, Sheikh Hasina is allied with Saudi Arabia, whom Bangladesh recently joined in a military coalition.
Saudi Arabia indeed has a dubious relationship to terrorism. Salafism is its official religion and Al Qaeda and IS both espouse the Salafist version of Islam that has its roots in the rise of the Saudi Monarchy. It was actually borne out of an 18th-century movement in Hijaz, which is actually very similar to the movement of IS. It is a well-known fact that Salafism is being exported through Saudi Arabia’s funding efforts and its substantial influence around the world. Saudi Arabia and IS have a complex love-hate relationship. However, the differences between the Salafist who supports the Saudi monarchy and opposes IS, and the Salafist who supports IS and opposes the monarchy are more technical than ideological. Many are currently asking how Western powers can support Saudi Arabia as they fight IS at the same time. Sheikh Hasina’s newly forged close ties with the kingdom will only make things worse for Bangladesh. Not only will Bangladesh become a more fertile ground for Salafism but it will also become a more attractive target of global jihadism. It is not very pragmatic to think that the world that stands with Saudi Arabia can also stand with Bangladesh in fighting terrorism. It didn’t work in Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria. It will not work in Bangladesh either. The best way to defeat terrorism is to stop taking part in it, as Noam Chomsky noted. Not an easy task when you consider Bangladesh’s current political situation and its position in the current world order. All the terrorists who participated in the Gulshan attack were homegrown, so were most of those who participated in the Paris attacks, but both are extensions of the war that is currently raging in the Middle East. If you really want to help Bangladesh then it’s vital to talk about the influence of global politics in Bangladesh and the neo-colonial power relationships that bind this country with numerous global forces rather than just talking about the hopeless situation the Bangaldeshi people face.
Since the spate of target killings of secular writers, publishers, professors and people from diverse religious minorities began in Bangladesh, the Western media has been keen to describe Bangladesh as ‘a country with a 90% Muslim population’ as if those murderers and 90% of the population of Bangladesh belong to the same religion. Like Christianity, Islam is a diverse religion; especially in the case of Bangladesh, where the population whom we are calling Muslim is very diverse in both beliefs and practice. Many of those killed thus far have been religious Muslims themselves, guilty of not following the same version of Islam as Al Qaeda or IS. Recently, the country has also been described in the global media as ‘a 90% Sunni Muslim country, which is a potential area for the growth of IS’. However, Sunnism as an identity is largely nonexistent in Bangladesh, explicitly espoused only by a very small group of political or jihadi islamists. No historical context of conflict exists between the Sunni and the Shiite in Bangladesh, certainly nothing akin to what we currently see occurring in Iraq or Syria. The anti-Shiite attacks in Bangladesh over the past few years was a mimic of what has been occurring throughout much of the Middle East, as perpetrated by the adherents of Salafi extremism. It should also be noted that the Muslims who were recently attacked or murdered in Bangladesh did not only belong to Shiite, Sufi or Ahmedia communities, but many were also followers of traditional versions of Sunnism. Boxing the country into the comfortable categories only helps the media, not the country. Is it the best way to stand with Bangladesh when it faces such a mortal enemy?
Another recent media trend that we can see in covering Bangladesh is calling it a country consisting of a largely ‘Moderate Muslim’ population. Let me make it clear, putting the Bangladeshi people in some black, white and gray boxes like liberal, moderate and extremists will in no way help the world to understand the situation in Bangladesh. It is the very diversity of religion and ideas that enriches Bangladesh which is currently in crisis. Never have terms like ‘Islam’ become so monolithic as they are currently being applied in the age of the internet. Trying to draw a homogenous picture of Bangladesh’s population will in no way improve the current situation; instead it will simply make the ‘diversity’ of religions and ideas in Bangladesh more vulnerable, which is already pretty much the case.
It is not only the terrorists who are responsible for transforming the lives of Bangladeshi’s more and more into ‘bare life,’ to borrow a term from Giorgio Agamben. Many people were killed by various law enforcement agencies over the past few years – people who had little or no connection to terrorism. Not only has the Hasina government robbed the people of their democracy and created the space for extremism to operate, but it also has policies that in an effort to confront extremism simply ended up escalating it.
Even last month almost 15,000 people were arrested by the police in a crackdown on terrorism. Only a handful among them had any connection to extremism and most of them were either common goons or activists belonging to political opponents of the ruling party. Such actions simply foster more grievances and the growth of terrorism itself. As we saw in Iraq, jails provided terrorist masterminds a valuable place for recruitment by turning them into Jihadi Universities. Terrorist campaigns often ride on a popular wave of dissatisfaction against the ruling elite.
So one should ask, how can the world stand with the people of Bangladesh while simultaneously also standing with the government of Sheikh Hasina? It is true that Hasina’s government is responsible for confiscating the people’s democracy and failing to preserve peace and development in return. But no external intervention or internal coup at this moment will restore democracy and peace in Bangladesh. We have seen these same kinds of efforts fail in Iraq, Syria and Libya. Any sudden change in political power will result in some other kind of autocracy, or provide a larger space for organizations like IS to grow. It’s indeed a very sensitive situation. What needs to be done is to help the people of Bangladesh create a more inclusive political space where debates and dialogue between various sections of the society can take place and people can participate in the processes that control their lives.
Therefore, what needs to be done, without any doubt, is to stand with the people of Bangladesh who refuse to become ‘bare life’ that can be killed either by the terrorists or by the police or abandoned by the world at large in their time of crisis. It is people like Faraz Ayaz, who, according to the account of another hostage in the Holey Restaurant on the fateful night of 2 July, sacrificed his life by refusing to abandon his non-Bangladeshi and non-Muslim friends, deserves a lot more coverage than the black-clad terrorists. He did not undergo months of psychological preparation before offering his life like the terrorists did. He did not have a desire for some shortcut to paradise. Yet, when the moment came, he did not heistate to risk and ultimately sacrifice his life for the others. There are many more young people like him in Bangladesh than those slaughterers who follow IS. Yet it is the slaughterers who received most of the coverage.
And why does Bangladesh only get media coverage when it is drowning, literally or figuratively? What about its triumphs? What about the villagers of Bashkhali who stood up against corporate and government oppression and were shot down by the police just a couple of months ago? Didn’t they deserve a lot more attention than those who kill innocent people in a suicide mission? What about the garment workers of Savar who were recently shot by police for protesting for salary? What about the activists who are still fighting to save a mangrove forest and the tigers living in it in such a volatile and oppressive national political situation and continue to chant for ‘life’, ‘nature’, and ‘ecology’?
If you really want to stand with Bangladesh, do not only stand with it after a tragedy, but also with those who struggle so heroically. Don’t just cover Bangladesh when some villains commit a crime, but also when activists and ordinary people perform tremendous heroic acts. Ahmed Sofa, a prominent Bangladeshi thinker once said: we are living in an age when we have to think by giving blood. People in Bangladesh still need to think by giving blood, these days more than ever in its history since independence. Yet they have not stopped thinking, speaking, writing or fighting. It is imperative to understand that the people of Bangladesh should not simply be portrayed as unfortunate ‘objects’ who have no option but to become the victims of political, industrial or natural tragedies. They should also be portrayed as political subjects who are constantly struggling not to become bare lives. Only when there is a change in perspective can the portion of the world that stands for peace and democracy find its ally in Bangladesh and stand with them. This world should also remember that their best ally in Bangladesh might not be considered liberal by contemporary Western standards (and that liberal from a Bangladesh stand point may always look different from the familiar Western definition). It is true that the progressive forces in Bangladesh can still learn a lot from the Western liberals. but then again, it also tells us that the ‘bests’ in Bangladesh are not at all devoid of passionate intensity, something the Western liberal lacks so much of these days.