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Bangladesh Was Founded on the Principle of Cultural Freedom. What Happened?

6 minute read

A worker at a Hindu monastery. A Hindu priest. A Christian. The wife of an antiterrorism police official. All murdered in Bangladesh within a space of five days last week.

The killings, which are only the latest in a list that now numbers at least 20 victims since 2013, are part of a surge in violence against religious minorities, and atheists, in the predominantly Muslim nation over the past three years. What began with a targeting of atheist bloggers involved in the Shahbag movement — a protest to demand death sentences for Islamist leaders convicted of war crimes in Bangladesh’s 1971 war of liberation from Pakistan — soon expanded to others, including an LGBT magazine editor, a Buddhist monk and two foreigners, one Italian and one Japanese.

“This is really one of the most chilling developments that I’ve seen,” Alyssa Ayres, a senior fellow for India, Pakistan and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, tells TIME. “Bangladesh was a poster case for the effects of great economic growth, of moderate society on countering violent extremism, only just a few years ago.”

Another disconcerting fact is that a majority of the murders — most of them carried out by stabbing and hacking the victims to death in broad daylight — have been claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), while several others have been claimed by the AQIS, the South Asian arm of al-Qaeda. The Bangladeshi government led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina strongly denies that these international terrorist organizations have any presence in the country. It blames homegrown fundamentalist groups affiliated with its main political opposition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party or BNP — a view that experts say is misguided and may even exacerbate the growth of radical Islam.

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“The state remains focused upon political culprits rather than those who conduct violence. In this environment, ISIS and AQIS operate with impunity,” says C. Christine Fair, a South Asia analyst and professor at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. “The government ignores this at the peril of the state and its liberal elites.”

Ali Riaz, a Bangladeshi-American political scientist and professor at the Illinois State University, says the country’s Islamic fundamentalists have often had external linkages and affiliations since the 1990s. “To say the militant groups are acting in complete isolation is erroneous and counterproductive,” he tells TIME. “In this day and age, ISIS or AQIS won’t have to be physically present. Ideologically speaking, they have made inroads. The widening of targets and increased frequency might be indications that they are getting closer.”

The government has reacted to the most recent wave of killings with a sweeping crackdown — since last week’s murder of the Hindu monastery worker, thousands have been arrested by Bangladeshi authorities. However, reports say only around 145 out of the more than 11,000 detainees are suspected Islamist militants.

“The crackdown is a bit of a red herring,” says Zafar Sobhan, editor of the Dhaka Tribune newspaper, adding that the government must “radically rethink its approach and tactics” to ensure no more targeted killings take place.

The mass arrests also risk potentially alienating the Bangladeshi public further. “By arresting thousands of people you’re not sending a message that it’s helpful to include communities against militants,” Riaz adds. “I’m sure of all these people there is at least one individual who is completely innocent. What happens to his family? What happens to his mind-set?”

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In a broader sense, experts say, the government’s own lackluster defense of free expression and democratic values is a significant factor that has created a breeding ground for religious fundamentalism in the officially secular nation. While Hasina has condemned the killings, she also said in an interview with TIME last September that free speech “should not hurt anybody’s feelings” and that people “have no right to write or speak against any religion.”

The government’s idea of protecting its citizens is to “get them to shut up,” says Tejshree Thapa, a senior researcher for South Asia at Human Rights Watch, decrying the Bangladeshi leadership’s “appalling” statements. “You cannot say that you’re concerned about these killings and in the same breath say: ‘You shouldn’t be saying this,’” she adds.

For a country created from the erstwhile East Pakistan through the 1971 war, fueled by a desire to establish a separate Bengali nation rather than have its governance primarily dictated by religion, the past few years represent an ominous shift towards intolerance.

“This is a country that’s in many ways founded on the idea of wanting expression for its own language, and wanting the ability to be free culturally,” says Ayres. “To have all these constraints on freedom and expression is a very sad thing.”

Bangladesh’s potential as a fertile ground for groups like ISIS to establish a foothold in South Asia — not unlike the Philippines and Indonesia further east — portends alarming implications for the region. Dozens of Bangladeshis have been arrested and deported from Singapore over the past year, with the government there alleging that they were planning acts of terror in their home country.

“A big part of what is going on is that you have two home-grown groups, one affiliated with AQIS and one with ISIS, and they are fighting a proxy war to establish their dominance,” says Sobhan. “They are rivals, not allies, and the attacks are ways to demonstrate their power, both to the outside world as well as to those they wish to recruit.”

And according to Riaz, that recruitment will only get easier unless the government works to create a conducive environment for democratic expression. “Bangladeshi civil society is a very powerful, vibrant one and can be harnessed for combating the growing militant groups, but they need to have the space to speak out,” he says.

“As of now, the perpetrators have very little support among Bangladeshis, but given the rapidly shrinking space for dissent and enabling environment for extremism there is a fear that militants might find sympathetic ears.”

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Write to Rishi Iyengar at rishi.iyengar@timeasia.com