Three years ago, on August 17, 2005, 63 near simultaneous blasts rocked Bangladesh. One rickshawpuller died from his injury and many more were wounded; Bangladesh woke up to the terror of extremism the presence of which its government had been so vociferously denying. Even though Bangladesh has otherwise been known for religious harmony and tolerance and has always taken pride on its Sufi past, religious extremism on a large scale was first introduced to the world's third largest Muslim population during the Afghan war.
The war, funded by the west to fend off an infiltration of the Soviets in the South asian sub-continent, saw the arming of the Afghan Muslims; the word Mujaheedin reached an iconic status with the photograph of a rocket-propelled-grenade wielding bearded Muslim hitting the cover of the Time magazine and Sylvester Stallone in Rambo joining a gang of Mujaheedins on behalf of the world's 'freedom loving people.' The hills of Kandahar and the lush vales of Herat were soon flooded with angry young Muslims from all over the world. These 'foreign fighters' also included Bangladeshi students who went to study in Peshawar, Pakistan, which borders Afghanistan and especially known for the Afghan refugee camps that dotted the treacherous terrain of the country.
The war eventually ended, the Red Army went away defeated. Interestingly, even before the last Soviet tanks left Kabul, a new ideology was sweeping over the shore of Karachi, Bombay and Chittagong: the gun was about to be refixed at a new enemy--the US and what it stood for. A new front opened and splinter groups, quite independently, started to launch their own little battles--in Kashmir, Ahmedabad and Dhaka. Jamaat-ul-Mujaheedin Bangladesh (JMB), which accepted responsibility for the August 17 blasts, belongs to the latter.
The blasts have been significant in the political history of the country. “Firstly,” says Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan ndc, psc (rtd), a national security expert, “no such large scale near simulations blasts have ever taken place in the country before. It has also proven the organisational capabilities of the extremists.” In fact, that the JMB, through these attacks displayed their strength and agility to carry on with their grisly acts, the group later masterminded a string of suicide attacks on the judges in different court buildings of the country.
The 17/ 8 attacks also brought an end to the state of denial that the Four-party Alliance-led government was in. The then Prime Minister Khaleda Zia cried foul when newspapers carried numerous stories on the presence of extremist outfits, terming it a ploy to malign her government's image abroad. Her Industry Minister Matiur Rahman Nizami, at the height of arrogance, called the news of the atrocities committed by Bangla Bhai, a criminal who led a marauding gang of miscreants in the country's northeast, a figment of imagination of the media. The simultaneous blasts of August 17 put an end to that stance, the wheels of the law, however slowly, started to grind. At the fag end of her government's rule, Khaleda's police arrested the top leaders of the JMB and lodged cases of murder.
The lynchpins of terror were hanged last year. The strengths of the JMB have been reduced significantly, but recent newspaper reports suggest that the group is regrouping itself and its members have recently met a number of times to form new committees in different remote areas. Brig Anam agrees; he says, “They have been significantly weakened. But whether their organisational capability has been blunted is a matter of conjecture. The fact that they could manage simultaneous blasts means they have some core members who propagated the acts and are lying in suspended animation, which in an opportune moment may spring into action.”
In fact, out of the 169 cases filed against the JMB members, the trial of only 37 cases has been completed; investigation of 34 cases is yet to be finished; trial is continuing in 98 cases and all five accused in one case have been given release order by the court.
The literal meaning of Islam, the second largest religion in the world, is peace, it also means submission or total surrender of oneself to Allah. Throughout its history Islam has never propagated violence, on the contrary, the Prophet (Peace be upon Him) always used war for defensive purposes. Islam, which has liberated millions across the five continents from the clutches of feudalism and slavery, abhors violence of all kinds. Extremism of the kind that the perpetrators of August 17 blasts preach, has no place in Islam.
The real war on terror needs be fought on all fronts; the key lies in winning the hearts and minds of the toiling masses who live in abject poverty and deprivation. The imams of different mosques and other Islamic scholars can play a pivotal role in making people aware about the evil of terror. At the same time, the government must make sure that the cases against the terror suspects are dispensed quickly; keeping in mind, too, the universal standards of respect for human rights and rule of law. The new terror cells, which are stemming up need to be nipped in the bud to ensure our development as a free, progressive nation. Bangladesh has never been a hub for terror; we have to be on our guard to make sure it does not become one in the future.