Last Friday, crowds of Muslims attacked Hindu temples in Nasirnagar and surrounding areas, provoked by a picture posted on Facebook deemed insulting to the Muslim holy city of Mecca. The attacks occurred amid a growing trend in Bangladesh of targeted violence by Islamist extremists against liberal writers, human rights activists, foreigners, and religious minorities. Yet this attack differed from previous incidents in that it was large and well-organized, it happened in a district less prone to sectarian violence, and the organizers were given permission to assemble by the local government.
The group rallied for a second day, stirring up an even larger crowd. Muslims then carried out organized attacks against Hindu temples and homes in four separate towns from Oct. 29 to 31, targeting at least 29 temples and damaging or looting over 125 households.
Multiple bloggers have been killed in the past two years for holding liberal views. In July, ISIS-affiliated attackers killed 22 people in a bakery frequented by Westerners and expats. In October 2015, a parade held in honor of the Shia holiday Ashura was bombed.
In addition to the targeted extremist attacks, Bangladesh has been wracked by political tensions ever since the Opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP) refused to participate in the January 2014 elections, which were marked by unusually low voter turnout and deemed flawed by the U.S. Hasina’s government has also pressured the Islamist opposition party Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) by revoking its party registration and establishing an International Crimes Tribunal (ICT). Opposition leaders have been prosecuted on charges of alleged war crimes committed during the 1971 Bangladesh War of Independence. Several of Hasina’s political opponents have since been imprisoned and given death sentences. In fact, 5 JeI leaders and one BNP leader have been executed since the establishment of the ICT.
The rising Islamist violence likely has some international connections. ISIS published two articles about its operations in Bengal in the December 2015 and October 2016 issues of its online magazine. Ayman Al-Zawahiri, leader of al-Qaeda, has also turned more of the group’s attention to Bangladesh in recent years. In September 2014, Zawahiri released a video that assured Muslims in India, Bangladesh, and Burma that the organization would help “rescue” them from injustice and persecution. Combined, the two groups claim over three dozen killings.
In Congressional testimony from April 2015, Heritage Foundation Senior Research Fellow Lisa Curtis warned that “political deadlock in Bangladesh is threatening economic and social progress and opening the door for Islamist extremists to gain more recruits and increase their influence in the country.”
The government response has been to crack down and arrest the leaders of Islamist groups, but as more extremists step in to take their place, the attempt has been like cutting off the heads of the Hydra. Hasina continues to pin attacks on her political opponents, a misguided move that misses the real problem. As Curtis wrote in another commentary, “Bangladesh has a serious Islamist extremist problem on its hands, and simply blaming the political opposition is not an acceptable response.”
The scale and organization of the attacks against Hindu temples this past week show that extremism in Bangladesh is worsening. As long as attacks are portrayed merely as political violence and used for political ends, Islamist terror groups will find room to grow.