The terrorists are doing their job. The politicians aren’t
Scarcely a day goes by these days without reports of Islamist terrorists setting off bombs and killing innocent people across the world, including and particularly, the Muslim world. However, it is not every day and everywhere that such strikes cause top clerics to not only unequivocally condemn those terrorists, but also lead public protests against them. But this is what happened in Bangladesh.
Sure, the clerics may have waited until it is too late, and many Bangladeshis proud of their tolerant secular society may be dismayed that the debate has shifted ‘within the paradigm of Islam’. But if victory in the war on terror requires the tolerant version of religion to prevail over the intolerant one, then Bangladesh provides the best opportunity for this to come about.
It is hardly surprising that Bangladesh should find itself a target for jihadi terrorists. What is surprising though is for how long and to what extent its political establishment allowed that threat to grow before acknowledging that it was a problem that needed fixing. It is always easy to blame politicians. But in this case, it is also correct. No quarter of Bangladesh’s political spectrum can escape blame for allowing matters to come to such a pass. Prime Minister Khaleda Zia’s BNP government ignored it, her coalition partners connived and the opposition, Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League, found itself unable to evolve a political strategy beyond asking the government to step down. The bad news is that this is quite how things stand even now. The worse news is that it is unlikely to change anytime soon.
The relatively low technology used by terrorists in Bangladesh have led some to underestimate the effort required to eliminate them. Netrokona’s suicide-bombers may have used bicycle bombs instead of the car bombs that terrorists elsewhere use so often, but they have not had any less of an impact. Earlier attacks targeted the opposition Awami League leaders, helping deepen its differences with the ruling BNP. Recent attacks have targeted the general population, demonstrating that Khaleda Zia’s government is incapable of maintaining law and order. The resulting political instability and collapse of governance works to the general advantage of the terrorists and promotes their political agenda. It is due to the inability of the government and the opposition to work out a modus vivendi even on matters of crucial importance that the terrorists find themselves with undue influence. They would like more of the same even after the 2006 general elections.
For Bangladesh to escape a deeper descent into a morass of political instability and jihadi violence it is necessary for one or both of its political formations to break from its usual mould and reach out to the other side. Instead of dangerous excursions into the absurd and the cynical, Prime Minister Khaleda Zia needs to reach out honestly and directly to Sheikh Hasina. And instead of fruitless excursions into the fantastic, the opposition leader needs to reciprocate. India and the international community must twist their arms until they do.