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EFSAS Commentary

Bangladesh and Pakistan: acting against extremism versus making a show of acting against extremism


They were the same country till 1971, when the overbearance and domination of the Urdu-speaking West Pakistan (present-day Pakistan) over Bengali speaking East Pakistan (Bangladesh) became so insufferable and unfeasible that it catalyzed a popular movement in Bangladesh that eventually won the country its hard-earned freedom. The benefits of that independence have found expression in most facets of Bangladesh’s development, while the truncated Pakistan has continued hurtling down the slippery slope that it began descending much before the war to liberate Bangladesh broke out. This is true also of the attitudes and the policies that the two Muslim-majority countries have chosen to adopt vis-à-vis terrorism and extremism. Bangladesh, without doubt, has had periods in its 50-year existence when it encouraged, sheltered and promoted extremists and terrorists. That is especially true of the earlier phase, when remnants of Pakistani influence lingered. However, the past decade under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina has seen the country pursue a robust and consistent anti-terror regime. Pakistan, on the other hand, has displayed a dogged and persistent determination to remain closely engaged and aligned with terrorists and extremists of various hues. Events over the past week have brought the widely divergent attitudes of the two countries to the fore, and these events need to serve as a reminder to the civilized world that their anti-terror focus and pressure on Pakistan must not cease.

The violence that the radical Islamist organization Hefazat-e-Islam Bangladesh (HIB) had unleashed during the two-day visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Bangladesh earlier this month had formed the subject of the EFSAS Commentary of 09-04-2021. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s denouncement of the HIB for carrying out destruction in the name of Islam and giving the religion a bad name as well as her exposure of the complicity of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the banned fundamentalist Islamist party the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) in instigating the violence had been alluded to. Her assurance to Bangladesh’s parliament that those responsible for the violence would be brought to justice had been underlined.

An Al Jazeera report of 19 April provided an update on how Hasina had acted to make good on her promise to parliament, and it also underscored how earnest and firm her resolve to act against terrorism and extremism really were. The report quoted a Bangladeshi official as saying that hundreds of members and supporters of the HIB, including its influential leader, had been arrested in Bangladesh over the past week. Mamunul Haque, the joint secretary of the HIB, was arrested at a Madrassa in Dhaka’s Mohammadpur neighbourhood last Sunday, and he faces charges of instigating violence. Harunur Rashid, a senior Dhaka police official said after Haque’s arrest, “We will investigate all allegations against him since Haque is accused in a number of cases related to inciting violence”.

HIB spokesman Jakaria Noman Foyezi told AFP that a further 23 leaders of his group had been detained by police. In addition to the capital Dhaka, the crackdown against the HIB continued apace in other parts of the country too. At least 298 HIB members and supporters were arrested in the eastern rural district of Brahmanbaria, where violent protests had also been held during Modi’s visit. Mohammad Roish Uddin, the deputy chief of Brahmanbaria police, revealed that “We arrested them by identifying them through video footage”. Similar arrests were carried out in HIB hotspots in other parts of the country. The Bangladesh government’s firm and coordinated response to the violence conveyed that it had taken full cognizance of the potential that the HIB possessed of morphing into an uncomfortably powerful and dangerous extremist organization. Such an organization would not only be jarringly out of place with the future that Hasina had envisioned for Bangladesh, but would actually be downright dangerous for the country. The Hasina government was, therefore, clear that the HIB needed to be defanged before it became unmanageable, and it acted accordingly, with intent and force.

In contrast to the visibly strapping anti-extremist and anti-terrorist position adopted by the Hasina government, Pakistan’s handling this week of violent protests by the radical Islamist organization Tehrik-i-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) reeked of confusion and ill-intent. The inept, and at times comical, manner in which the Pakistan government succumbed repeatedly to the TLP over the past week also brought to the fore the pitfalls inherent in attempting to counteract the very extremists and terrorists that secretive sections of the country’s government had given birth to and promoted. The TLP, like the HIB in Bangladesh, advocates the imposition of Sharia law in Pakistan and demands strict implementation of the country’s blasphemy law. As had been outlined in the EFSAS Commentary of 16-04-2021, the TLP’s claim that the Pakistan government had gone back on an agreement with the TLP to expel the French Ambassador by 20 April and the preventive arrest of TLP chief Saad Hussain Rizvi had instigated the protests by the extremist group.

Details of the extent of the government’s lack of judgment and perspective that have emerged this week have compounded the agony and shock that right-thinking Pakistanis have had to endure on their TV screens as they watched in horror their government repeatedly stumble, and eventually succumb, to the TLP. To begin with, Pakistani analysts such as F. M. Shakil have revealed the well nigh unbelievable fact that the agreement the TLP was accusing the Pakistani government of violating was actually a signed written agreement and not a general verbal mention. Hence, the shocking reality was that the Pakistani government, represented by its Minister for Religious Affairs Noorul Haq Qadri and Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed, had in November last year signed an agreement with a violent, hard-line extremist group. In this agreement, the Pakistani government had pledged that it will before 20 April demand on the floor of the country’s parliament that the French Ambassador be expelled from Pakistan as punishment for French President Emmanuel Macron’s act of supporting a school teacher’s right to show caricatures of Prophet Muhammad in class. That agreement, in total disregard of principles and propriety, had been signed by the government with the narrow objective of defusing an ongoing TLP street action in Islamabad.

Going by this agreement, the TLP was, indeed, the aggrieved party. Even then, the government could certainly have looked to find a more imaginative and less damaging way to handle the situation than arrest Saad Rizvi when he insisted that the agreement must be adhered to. The government continued to churn out conflicting and provocative messages even as the violence that broke out in the aftermath of Rizvi’s arrest raged.

By entering into the agreement, the Pakistani government had not only prostrated itself before the TLP, it had also deceptively entered into an agreement it knew full well it had no intention of honoring. Clearly, no sane government would throw out the Ambassador of an important country and a major donor just because a violent extremist group that the government itself had classified as terrorist demanded that. In a televised address on 19 April, Prime Minister Imran Khan let on that his government had all along been acutely aware of the painful consequences that such an unjustified and unnecessary expulsion would have. He said, “The loss will be ours… this will have no effect on France but let me tell you what difference it will make to Pakistan. The biggest effect will be that after great difficulty our economy is rising, the large-scale industry is getting up after a long time, people are getting jobs, wealth is increasing in our country, our exports are rising and after a long time, our rupee is strengthening. If we send the French Ambassador back and end relations with them then this means we will break relations with the European Union”. He added that half of Pakistan's textile exports are to the EU, and if they are discontinued it will result in unemployment and the closure of factories and give rise to inflation and poverty.

The signing of the agreement also reflected a particular lack of judgment and foresight on the part of the government. That stemmed from the characteristic disinclination that has long held sway in successive Pakistani governments to take on terrorists and extremists firmly and head on. The linkages that well nigh all terrorist groups that operate in Pakistan and its neighbouring countries have with the country’s military establishment contributes to this disinclination, as does the use-while-convenient and throw-when-not routines that both the military establishment and some political parties have mastered through practice with successive generations of the country’s many radical Islamist groups. The lack of foresight was especially notable, as by first agreeing to consider the idea of expelling the French Ambassador and then by setting a date five months away, all the government did was raise the expectations of the TLP, give the group more respectability and acceptability in the eyes of the religiously inclined in Pakistan, and, importantly, only postpone the inevitable unrest and violence to a few months later.

When the violence did break out last week, the government found itself on the defensive. It came across as weak, and seemed to soon lose control over the situation. Its security apparatus buckled under the assault of thousands of enraged TLP members, and amidst regular reports of police personnel being killed the TLP took 11 policemen hostage. The government reacted by banning the TLP and designating it as a terrorist organization, but astoundingly began negotiating with it soon thereafter. Throughout all this, Imran Khan continued making contradictory, controversial and even provocative statements. It did not take long for his initial brave assertions that “No one can be above the law and the constitution” and that the State would not be bullied by the TLP to be replaced by blatant appeasement. Khan reduced himself to parity with the TLP by claiming that he was as ideologically committed to opposing blasphemy as the TLP was, and that it was only their methods that were different. He called for blasphemy to be equated with the holocaust, and pledged to start a campaign involving all Islamic countries to pressurize Europe to ban blasphemy against Islam.   

In the end, it was not Khan’s appeasement and expression of solidarity with the TLP’s cause that yielded a solution. What did was a caving in, a veritable capitulation, by Imran Khan’s government. The words used in the 19 April announcement of surrender by Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed left no ambiguity about the fact that the TLP had got exactly what it wanted and the government gave the TLP exactly what the TLP wanted. In the process, the government ceded considerable moral and political ground to the extremist group. Rasheed said, “After long negotiations between government of Pakistan and the TLP, this has been agreed that we will table a resolution in parliament today to expel the French Ambassador”. The resolution was indeed tabled the following day, and it was described thus by the Pakistani daily Dawn in an editorial: “The bizarre turn of events on Tuesday — with the government introducing a resolution in the National Assembly through a private member to debate the expulsion of the French ambassador — has brought Pakistan to a stage where it will be seen as pandering to the TLP while pretending to play smart tactics… It is now important that the government brings transparency to all its dealings with the TLP including sharing what has been negotiated and agreed upon in letter and spirit. By its bad decision-making and weak management, the government has allowed the TLP to garner more importance and heft than it deserves”.

Others have been more direct than the Dawn editorial in pointing out the crux of the problem. Brookings Institution fellow Madiha Afzal, for example, pointed out that “The Pakistani State has, over decades, actively fostered the ideology that led to the TLP and that leads many in the population to sympathize with the TLP”. Pakistani analyst Imad Zafar asserted that “The TLP (was) created by the establishment”. He added, “Those who shape the foreign and political narratives (of Pakistan) on the basis of self-created religious interpretations are the main beneficiaries of religious exploitation. Whenever religious extremism suits them, an outfit like TLP or Lashkar-e-Taiba is launched. Enlightenment and modernism are introduced when religious doctrine does not serve their interests. This demand-and-supply formula serves the interests of the establishment but not the country as a few individuals always shape the narratives with their own understanding of the world. It has been proven wrong on every occasion. From Zia’s Islamisation to Musharraf’s fake liberalism, every doctrine brought more extremism and intolerance in the country. Not only the recent debacle of TLP but also the U-turn of the establishment on peaceful ties with India are examples”. Zafar also laid an important query on the table, one that the international community would do well to answer quickly and effectively. He asked, “The bigger question is how long and why the world will tolerate a society that has nothing but religious narratives from the past and an extremist mindset against people in the world who do not agree with their religious-cultural or nationalist views?”

From the foregoing, it is evident that while Sheikh Hasina has been making noticeable progress in dealing with the radical Islamist HIB, Pakistan has floundered dramatically in its inconsistent, ill-considered and ill-implemented attempts to pacify the TLP. While the reasons for this are many, at its core the difference between the Bangladeshi and the Pakistani approaches to terrorism and extremism lies in the intentions and the convictions of the two countries. Bangladesh under Sheikh Hasina genuinely wants to counter terrorism and extremism and therefore succeeds most of the time in doing so. Pakistan, in contrast, almost always seeks to hedge its bets. It is more keen on giving the impression that it is acting against the twin menaces, while what it actually does is dabble in the same dangerous pastimes that the extremists and terrorists do, more often than not together with them, hand in glove.

Pakistan, consequently, lacks the moral conviction and authority to fearlessly counteract terrorists and extremists, something that Sheikh Hasina’s genuineness of purpose empowers her in ample measure to do with great efficacy.