Rising Religious Extremism in Bangladesh

The puritanical version of an intolerant Islam is spreading in Bangladesh as extremist groups infiltrate society, successfully changing the way many dress, practice their faith, and interact with non-Muslims and secular Bangladeshis.

Traditionally people in Bangladesh are Bengalis first and moderate Muslims next, united with common bonds of language, culture and tradition. In 1952 when West Pakistan declared Urdu to be the national language, Bengalis of every faith rose up in fierce protest to defend their mother language. And when West Pakistani soldiers massacred students who took to the streets on February 21, 1952 the Bengali resolve grew stronger. The language movement gave birth to the International Mother Language Day recognized by the United Nations in the year 2000.

The extremist element was virtually non-existent four decades ago when I was growing up and attending Holy Cross College in 1969. My college friends came from all religious backgrounds and included Muslims, Christians, Hindus, and Buddhists. No one, including my mother nor grandmother, was required to wear a hijab (head scarf). However, a discernable evolution has occurred in this densely populated Muslim majority country since then.

In 1970, Bangladesh (East Pakistan) was still struggling in the aftermath of the worst natural disaster in history. A devastating tidal wave and cyclone had washed away villages in the coastal regions and tens of thousands of people had perished. West Pakistan did little to assist in the relief efforts. Bengalis, long suppressed and systematically robbed of their foreign exchange earnings, refused to accept West Pakistani subjugation anymore. And, amid great unrest, demonstrations, and fiery speeches, general elections were held and Bengalis headed to the polls. Awami League, the party of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, won a landslide victory. However, Pakistan's Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto couldn't allow Bengalis to take over power, and a little detail like a legitimate election was not going to stand in his way.

Sporadic violence erupted immediately following the elections and planeloads of Pakistani soldiers began arriving in Dhaka. The deadly assault on the Bengali people began on March 25, 1971 and, in the end, left an estimated one million people dead. Several million people fled to neighboring India and took shelter in refugee camps where they lived under horrific conditions.

President Nixon provided arms to Pakistan for the slaughter of the Bengali People and the Western World largely remained silent until Beatles' George Harrison and famed Ravi Shankar organized a concert, Bangladesh. Madison Square Garden exploded with emotion as many great artists which included among others Bob Dylan, Ali Akbar Khan, and Eric Clapton performed. The tide of world opinion turned and the atrocities committed by Pakistan on the people of its Eastern region were strongly condemned. "Friends of Bengal Movement" spread and forced America's policy of supporting the oppressive regime of Pakistan's dictator Yahya Khan to be re-examined.

My family bears personal scars--my father, a Major was ambushed in his home and taken prisoner. His remains were discovered a year later in one of seven mass graves where five hundred bodies were buried. My mother and little sisters were thrown in prison camp where they suffered many indignities. It was then that Jamaat-e-Islami and their offshoots emerged as Pakistani Collaborators and traitors. Jamaat-e-Islami, the Party of the Indian Muslims who were socially and economically degraded during the British rule of India, now opposed the breakup of East and West Pakistan on the grounds of religious unity alone. On the eve of Bangladesh Independence most of the Jamaat leaders sought refuge in Pakistan and Middle East countries.

Few years later, flush with cash from extremist groups abroad, Jamaat-e-Islami, the most powerful extremist group re-emerged and began establishing many Madrasas (religious schools) where young boys received education and indoctrination.

Since Awami League--Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's party--declared the trials of war criminals as part of its election manifesto, and recently hanged three war criminals who were members of Jamaat, without consistent adherence to the rule of law, Jamaat gained credibility and sympathy from other extremist groups.

Today, systemic intolerance and human rights abuses against all minorities; Hindus, Christians, and Buddhists, as well as secular Muslims and women are on the rise. Religious extremist groups called for public killing of atheists and demanded the passing of blasphemy laws. Atheist blogger Rajib Haider was killed in 2013, sparking nationwide protests. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina reacted by arresting some atheist bloggers to appease the extremist elements sending a chilling message that those who hold independent views are in grave danger. Since then, writers and bloggers with free thinking views have been harassed, threatened, and killed.

The murder of and American blogger Avijit Roy, who championed a "FREE MIND" blog website, by machete wielding men in broad daylight as he walked out of the Dhaka Annual Book Fair with his wife, brought more protests earlier this year. But the targeted killings continued. Another blogger was also knifed to death. And Dhaka University girls were attacked and molested in broad daylight. All Muslim extremist groups suppress and diminish women. Malala Yousafzai was shot by the Taliban in Swat, Pakistan for wanting to go to school and many young girls in the Muslim world have been brutalized for resisting arranged marriages.

The extremists in Bangladesh, like those in Pakistan, are strongly principled and are willing to kill anyone who opposes their philosophy of a distorted view of Islam. And they are willing to die for their cause. Their philosophy makes them powerful and dangerous.

In June 2015 The Hindu American Foundation hosted a Congressional briefing on religious violence in Bangladesh. Their efforts were successful and on July 30 Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard introduced a Resolution on the House floor which highlights the atrocities committed by Pakistan's military during the Bangladesh war of Independence in 1971 and cautions that extremist groups pose a "threat to Bangladesh's stability and secular democracy."

As members of the global community, it is time to take measures to end the rise of extremism in this fragile region.