The presence of violent religious extremism is as old in Bangladesh as it is globally. The first attack of this nature in the country took place in 1999 on a cultural troupe, not long after the first Al-Qaeda strikes on US embassies in East Africa in 1998. Several attacks have followed since then in fairly consistent succession, on writers, on Bengali New Year celebrations, on artists, on minorities, on mystics, on shrines, on women’s education and more than one serious attempt has been fielded to replace the People’s Republic with an ‘Islamic’ one. The 2016 attack at Holey Artisan Bakery and Cafe, the country’s deadliest terrorist attack, claimed by Daesh, is a clear indication of how Islamists everywhere are keeping up with an evolving ideology. And though the Republic of Bangladesh has thus far succeeded in thwarting larger scale attempts by local and international outfits, contentions that the Bangladeshi state is an aberration until it conforms to a particularly unique take on shariah make this an issue that cannot be taken lightly.
But these are not new circumstances. Bangladesh never quite made peace with the strains of Islamism that were injected into its political corpus during the 1971 war of liberation. The term ‘Islamism’ was not used in those days, of course, and is controversial in any case because of the aspersions it casts upon the word ‘Islam’. Still, in lieu of a satisfactory substitute it serves to describe an ideology which, though basing itself on Islam, is often thought to have departed considerably from the religion’s spirit.
So why did tensions arise between Bangladesh and Pakistan in the first place? After all, East Pakistan, as Bangladesh was then known, belonged to a political arrangement that placed Islam, and by extension political Islam, at its centre. And although the conflict had nearly nothing to do with ideology, the underpinnings were apparent from an early stage, which were given voice in convenient arguments made by the religious right, manifested at the time as the Jamaat-e-Islami. These arguments placed Pakistan on the side of Islam and Bangladesh on the side of forces hostile to Islam.