The Four Steps in De-radicalizing Bangladesh

By Asif Shibgat Bhuiyan   The Dhaka terrorist attack has sufficiently confirmed with evidence that we are in a crisis. After some contemplation I think I can come up with the following four steps that we should


By Asif Shibgat Bhuiyan


The Dhaka terrorist attack has sufficiently confirmed with evidence that we are in a crisis. After some contemplation I think I can come up with the following four steps that we should immediately, as immediately as possible that is, partake in order to restore parity of common sense. I personally recognize myself as a committed muslim and an ardent student of faith, the effect of which can be obviously noticed in the writing. But despite my bias, I will argue that the steps presented are still very much practical and some are empirically observable. I have tried to be less rhetorical (much less than many famed intellectuals and journalists of the country) and less verbose and come straight to the point. Some of the concepts presented may seem a bit elaborative and perhaps even repetitive. In my support I think they only point out to the importance of the concepts in contention. So here they are:
1. Ensuring Political Equilibrium
By political equilibrium I mean a true democratic politics, not a pseudo one. The essential element of a democratic politics is the presence of a strong opposition party. The effect of the absence of a strong opposition party will not only be felt in the immediate parliamentarian democracy, but also will trickle down to the deterioration of other less immediate but equally important, if not more, values such as freedom of press and freedom to associate and congregate (which is exactly what is happening in Bangladesh). Whoever argues that Islamic militancy is a discrete affair not related to the local political dynamics is dangerously wrong and such shallow assessment will only lead to a wrong diagnosis to the actual problem. Lack of political equilibrium serves as the Goldilocks condition in radicalization of Islam. Let me pose two arguments in its support.
Firstly, a mere look at all the countries that have been proved to be the breeding grounds or shelter for militancy confirms that one of the common elements in them is this lack of political equilibrium. Hence the claim that the ongoing political structure is required, even if not desirable in and of itself, to fight the so called fight against terrorism is not tenable. It is tantamount to saying that what helps infest the pests is in turn the insecticide to terminate them. This non-functional democracy will only help cement radical Islamism in a country where previously it was not getting a strong foothold.
Secondly, the manifestation of political dissent may no longer follow the previous unarmed demonstrative routes as we have seen in the 90’s. In order to understand this we need to summon a concept called ‘path dependence’. Path dependence, a concept more used in sociology and economics, refers to the phenomenon that the ultimate outcome of a sociological or historical event doesn’t always follow a predictable pattern, rather is affected by all the accidental occurrences along the journey. Hence the recent upsurge of ISIS in one area has its effect on how rebellious voices will manifest their dissent in some other seemingly separate place. Radical Islamism may seem to some, if not many, as the most feasible and lucrative way of a successful conveyance of grievance, especially when all other peaceful avenues seem not to exist anymore. Path dependence entails that after the rise of Al Qayeda and ISIS, the whole language of dissent and rebellion, especially in a muslim majority country, will find a new direction and momentum. If that is true, which to me it is, then the foremost remedy of the problem is to bring back a representative government and a strong opposition party in order to break the Goldilocks condition.
2. Introduction of a Progressive and Credible Mass Religious Education
It should not miss anyone the demographics of the miscreants of the recent terrorist attacks. Most of them seem to be coming from higher rungs of socio-economic hierarchical strata. A new tide which has flowed across globally in the muslim communities, has engulfed Bangladesh too. A free flow of data and information has rejuvenated Islamic knowledge and how it is obtained through the internet and social media. Since the last decade a good portion of the Bangladeshi youth has explored Islam from globally repute scholars, lecturers, websites, books, pamphlets and articles which are cognitively and ideologically more powerful than the materials and sermons provided by the traditional local imams and religious personalities. But as with everything with internet, this unrestricted flow of religious materials has also opened the floodgate for the radical version of religious hermeneutics. Opposed to the more contextualized, pragmatic and nuanced presentation of a moderate Islamic approach by the majority, this radical approach takes the overly rhetorical, literal and self-empowering route which can often prove fatally more straight forward, free of ‘hypocrisy’ and action-packed. The chance of the latter to put an indelible mark in the impressionable minds of the youth is unmistakable.
The problem with faulty religious understanding is that it has the built-in power to tear a person’s intellectual capacity from the domain of what we call “common sense” or “good senses”. A radical self righteous self slowly ousts the natural humane side of the conscience and from there all hell can break loose. Once this is understood it must be noted that the worst thing we can do, having in mind the great influence of unrestricted information flow, is to suppress the knowledge flow altogether. That will only worsen the situation. What can prove more effective is to rather facilitate Islamic education for the masses and not restricting it only to the traditional madrasa going students. The mass who are receiving secular education (by secular here I mean non-madrasa or non-traditional Islamic education) need to be presented with programs and institutions where they can systematically learn about the cutting edge researches which gives a more purposive, contextualized, nuanced and time-travelling presentation of Islam from its authentic sources. All the political, social, and religious institutes should come here hand in hand to welcome and facilitate such programs where people quench their thirst of spiritual education while not being exposed to radicalized understanding.
It is not in the scope of this writing to immediately go to the details of such program but mentioning one of the guiding principles is important. Let’s be frank, these programs must be headed by credible knowledgeable Islamic scholars, not secular nationalists who do not have the necessary credentials and are only viewed as those infiltrating the ranks of Islam to pollute it with their ‘propaganda’. The success of such program fringes primarily on how credibility is established, rather than merely building institutions and structures.
It has been observed previously that few individuals pertaining to the so called “shushil shamaj” have inadvertently prescribed to renovate the traditional “madrasa” system despite lacking any trust among those with the system that they are true well wishers, not step sisters, of Islam. Taking a similar route will prove disastrous and wasteful.
The political institutions, including the government and law enforcement bodies, must help create an environment, often through financial subsidies and mostly by not posing to be obstacles, where people with religious credentials, authorities and level headedness can offer religious education to the masses, especially those who are otherwise trained secularly. Let us call them ‘Religious Entrepreneurs’. Here both the government and religious entrepreneurs have to feed from a trust that binds both of them. The government has to ensure that it doesn’t unnecessarily harass and censor works of the religious entrepreneurs as long as they do not pose any anarchist threat. On the other hand, the religious entrepreneurs must abide by the state decorum and do not threaten its security by its teachings and doctrines. I will refuse to believe that such a trust can’t be manufactured. Any discussion where Islamic ideas and state politics overlap should take place in an ambience and language that is expected from any civilized modern state encouraging freedom of speech.
Those who will argue that such an undertaking has the risk of further fomenting terrorism is in the error of mistrusting a historical peaceful observance of Islam by religious leaders and their followers in this country for centuries. This peaceful Islam is older than the hard Bengali nationalism by all means and has largely guided the pluralistic philosophy of the country more than any other ideologies. This common sense pragmatic Islam should be given its chance to eradicate the malignant growth caused in its own name.
3. Creating Relevance in Religious Contents
This is a duty of the religious entrepreneurs, regarding whom I have already alluded in the previous section and by whom I mean a mix of scholars, leaders, educationists, academicians, preachers who care to ‘sell’ the true message of Islam to mass people. This duty entails such people to come out of traditional curriculum, modes, and style of disseminating religious education. It perhaps is not sufficient, though necessary, to have studied in reputed religious schools and universities. Such traditional delivery of Islam can not be deemed as quality entrepreneurship in a pragmatic sense. This should be bolstered by relevant training in some secular fields which will help them apply their traditional religious understanding in an ever changing reality so that the mode of religious understanding harmonizes well with the intricacies of modernity and post-modernity. Modern Islamic scholars must have sufficient ground in sociology, economics, political science, international relations and even some working knowledge in natural sciences as well. The fear that in doing so they risk losing touch with a pure Islamic pedagogy devoid of the ‘pollution’ of the uncertainty of human mind and knowledge is unwarranted. Rather than living in a cocoon they must come out to an open embrace of modern human knowledge. An open embrace doesn’t mean wholehearted support of it. It is simply an invitation towards logical scrutiny, analysis, discussion and understanding. Rather than mistrusting the social and natural scientific disciplines based on scientific enquiries to dilute their mind and disintegrate their faith, the religious entrepreneurs should confidently assume that the strength of religious understanding based on authentic Islamic canonical texts and scholarly works can keep them upright at the face of any intrusion to their faith. If we are sure of our faith to withstand any intellectual challenge, we should not mind to lay bare it to openly accept the challenge.
Such religious discussion and contents should be relevant, meaning it should not be restricted to only in a domain of personal observance and ritualistic aspects. Rather it should talk about everything it naturally has a stake on. From family issues to state politics and from rituals to social and economic issues. Failing to do so will render it irrelevant and ceremonious having no impact on the minds and lives of the religious youth. Needless to say that this will then turn them to other external problematic sources to receive their spiritual guidance from. The notions that are controversial should not be shunned in fear rather delved into with curiosity in order to bring forth a reasonable explanation of such issues. For an example, the concept of ‘Jihad’ in Islam should not be quarantined in a progressively relevant Islamic content. A hush hush will only stir more curiosity often to a detrimental effect. Rather an all-encompassing research and discussion should take place in making sense of ‘Jihad’ using Islamic sources, scholastic tools of interpretation and contextualization, and modern socio-political understanding to extract a purposive explanation that will efficiently answer the difficult questions that our youth needs an answer to.
Such a double helix approach of a holistic religious paradigm, which doesn’t shun relevant secular disciplines but rather creates a symbiotic relationship of mutual inspiration, was long overdue. It is not new either. But it is not ubiquitous yet. The time has come then for it to be so. Everywhere and here in Bangladesh.
But then in creating a relevant double helix religious content, the religious entrepreneurs need a nod from the government and the law enforcement bodies that they will be allowed to do it as long as they do not misuse the trust. Government should not politicize such activities and programs. Any committee or body to oversee such a development should include credible people with religious authority and background so that the trust factor is always at play. It can’t be headed by people with ulterior motives. Only including, for an example, Bengali nationalists with no known religious commitment and credentials will defeat the purpose severely. I am not saying either that it has to be the traditionalist religious leaders only. An intellectual check and balance should be invoked by inviting people of different disciplinary authorities but a significant authority should be entrusted to religious leaders and scholars. A failure to do so will then result in a downward spiral of allegation of politicization, the last thing we can afford to have.
4. Introducing A Preventive De-radicalization Program
Bangladesh is well reputed in natural disaster management in the world. For decades we have shown that we are well adept to manage natural disasters like flood to which we are so much exposed to. There’s no reason why we can not become a premier center of management and research of human made disasters too. There should be no lack of motivation either. It is our chance to show the world what we are capable of doing as a nation and we are not simply hard nationalists feeling a non-existent supremacy over planet earth that is oh so common in a typical third world country.
We should fast establish cutting edge research centers on terrorism and radicalism and how to de-radicalize radical elements in the societies. There are great research centers established in the west. For an example, I know of two in University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands and University of Edinburgh in Scotland. I haven’t come across any such reputable research centers in the Muslim countries that can lead the research of this particular field.
In the west, it is now a great debate among people engaged in De-radicalization programs whether such programs need to involve religious (read Islamic) scholarship to have a long term effect, or rather social, economic and legal procedures are enough to make it successful. To me, it is beyond doubt that such program to fulfill its objectives needs full participation of religious authorities among other such elements. Radicalization sure is not only a religious problem but it is also a religious problem. Other social, economic, political and psychological issues pertaining to terrorism are important and are already proving disastrous to be ignored. But ignoring the religious factor, which is alleged to be laying the platform for its creation, should be let in in the process of reversing the tide of radicalization. It can be understood why it may be both inconvenient and difficult in the west to incorporate the Islamic factor in the deradicalization program, especially at the wake of Islamophobia. As for us, being a muslim majority country, we have to involve Islam in dealing with problems associated with it. Here it should be convenient, logical and essential.
Such De-radicalization research and management programs should invite scholars, muslims and non-muslims. It needs to be both preventive and prescriptive. It must find causes of radicalization and factors incubating it at the first place. Likewise it must find a way how to rehabilitate those who are already infested by it. In an age of internet, social media, and artificial intelligence, it is now becoming exceptionally easy to locate terrorism-savvy discussions, conversations and activities. Unlike some places in the west, it should not let people radicalize first and then be trapped, often sending informants from the very program that seeks to prevent it. The deradicalization program rather should pinpoint what terrorism actually is and how it starts to crystallize and try to prevent it from the very outset. The program can take help from IBM and other social analytics giants in developing programs which will apply cutting edge image and text recognition to identify aberrational and problematic patterns taking place in social media.
These are some beginning guiding comments which I can understand can be improved manifolds by people having better understanding than me. The government and other dominant political parties, along with the intellectuals and general people, should come up with something concrete, well planned, objective, and timely to act immediately with efficiency and effectiveness. Rhetorical over the top claims, mud-slinging and self righteousness will only save our faces individually but will topple us all collectively. As we have often shown, with precision and unity aplomb, that we can stand to the challenges of the nature, it should not be difficult for us to do the same for the challenges that are man- made.
I have a friend who is an atheist. He nonetheless follows me in facebook and my religious writing quite intently and often appreciates what I write and the way I write. After the terrorist attack in Dhaka, he sent me a message in asking why I am being silent. I told him that I wanted to organize my thoughts and write a significant piece. So here is what I could conjure up so far. It can be improved upon by others and I hope it will be so that some real development takes place soon enough. I desperately want a safe abode for my atheist friend because I am not finished talking to him about my beautiful faith I call Islam.
[The original article has been published in Dhaka Tribune in 3 parts: De radicalising Bangladesh in Four Steps Part 1 , Part 2 and Part 3 ]

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