The biggest threat — bigger than ISIS — is the suffocation of democracy, pushing people to the fringes and, ultimately, terrorism
The most stupid, cynical statements recently came from Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh and President Recip Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, whose countries last week suffered terrorism — on Tuesday, three suicide bombers attacked Istanbul’s crowded Ataturk International Airport, taking 44 lives with them; while on Friday, at least seven terrorists laid siege to a restaurant in Dhaka’s diplomatic enclave, killing 20 hostages. “An attack during the final days of Ramadan shows the attackers had no regard for faith or values,” said Erdogan. “What kind of Muslims are these, killing other humans during Ramzan?” asked Hasina. As if waiting till Ramzan was over would have been better. There is no calendar for killing. In their defense, Erdogan and Hasina are no less stupid than most other national leaders — be it the new Phillipines President, the two conservatives who bumbingly led Britain out of the European Union, or the next President of the USA. (Indeed, the smartest world leader by far is Barack Obama, who in his final year as President appears to be having a ball.) People get the leaders they deserve.
Two days after the attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka, Bangladesh, people pay tribute to the victims on Sunday. Pic/PTI
Islamic State (ISIS) was blamed for Istanbul and it took credit for Dhaka. Of course, merely taking credit means little if you consider the other terrorism event in June: the gunning down of 49 clubbers at a gay nightspot in Orlando, Florida, by an Afghan-American. Though he phoned 911 and declared allegiance to ISIS, urging the US to stop bombing Syria, the CIA has stated that it found no link between the killer and ISIS. The FBI had earlier questioned him but decided he wasn’t a jihadist. What has gone under-reported is that several of his ex-lovers have claimed to the FBI that he was promiscuous if closeted, and that he was infuriated with several club regulars whom he suspected of transmitting AIDS to him.
In Turkey’s case, ISIS remained silent and took no credit, perhaps for tactical reasons. Erdogan’s government identified the bombers as a Chechen (perhaps an ISIS high-up) and from other former Soviet republics. Turkey this year has suffered several lethal terrorism incidents; the attacks have been correlated with the sealing of the Turkish-Syrian border, a route taken by recruits to join ISIS, along with Turkey’s permitting the US to use Incirlik airbase. Erdogan has been under pressure, for he too follows an impulsive foreign policy that sometimes leads to embarrassment (though he is quick to use his tough-guy reactions to terrorism for domestic political advantage).
In Dhaka, the ISIS having taken credit is hailed by journalists, think-tankers and action-movie buffs as a sign that ISIS has arrived in South Asia, which was hitherto the turf of the rapidly diminishing al Qaeda. Perhaps it has. Western experts point to the killers’ English-speaking background, their use of sharp weapons (like ISIS beheaders) and ISIS’s immediate upload of photos sent in real-time by the killers, as evidence of a intricate web of conspiracy. More likely is that local jihadists have gone ‘copycat’ and hitched their bandwagon to ISIS. (Their first demand was the release of a Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh militant.)
Sheikh Hasina must share blame; this attack has in its background her failings as a democrat and her targeting the religious right, who in turn have been targeting atheists, Hindus, and other minorities. She has been on the warpath for the Right’s pro-State role in the 1971 Independence War, when she should have, as South Africa did to close the chapter on its apartheid-era violence, set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Instead, she has jailed or executed leaders from the Right. Also, her stubbornness led to the BNP-led (Bangladesh Nationalist Party) opposition boycott of the 2014 national election.
When the opposition is denied political space, democracy suffers; and when democracy suffers, citizens in the middle are driven to the fringes. This is unfortunate. Bangladesh has been on an upward trajectory: it performs better than Pakistan economically (though that was also the case in 1947-71); it even scores better than India in textiles and rural development. This terrorism and its ISIS-branding will kill several birds with a single stone.
It isn’t ISIS that is an existential threat to South Asia, considering that in Syria-Iraq it is reeling under US bombs. But given how intertwined Bangladesh is with India — millions live in Assam, and even in suburban Gurgaon, thousands of Bangladeshis reside — any jihadist threat is of concern.
Any Mumbai police official will tell you that such threats are easily countered by effective local policing (like the 2010 bombing attempt in New York’s Times Square.) Governments, however, backed by their swelling security establishments, like to play up the geopolitical threat: the blame shifts elsewhere, even if the threat becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy once you suffocate democracy. It is in government’s cynical nature to create existential threats.
Senior journalist Aditya Sinha is a contributor to the recently published anthology House Spirit: Drinking in India. He tweets @autumnshade. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org