The location of the terrorists, who involved in the Dhaka attacks, in the upper echelons of the country’s socio-economic hierarchy shook an amnesiac and indolent class-consciousness, painting an unsavoury picture of overlooked social realities, says Sohini Chatterjee.
Situated in Dhaka’s diplomatic area Gulshan, Holey Artisan Bakery prior to the fateful night of July 2nd 2016 sold expensive happiness. Ensconced in affluence for hours on end, one could let themselves be impervious to the fact that Bangladesh is primarily an underdeveloped country with the majority of its population living in abject poverty. Occasions, which could make you doubt your altruistic self-image, were scarce here. Poverty was made to seem momentarily illusive, even treacherous to your immediate reality. It was our globalisation fuelled modern wonderland with incessant joys on offer for those who could afford to pay. However, Holey Artisan Bakery in the aftermath of the terrorist attack has assumed other meanings. It is now emblematic of bereavement; bears testimony to the gratuitous savagery of religious fanaticism; stands as evidence of our palpable vulnerability in the face of atrocity and as attestation to unchecked escalation of terrorism in the 21st century. The spell of peace and happiness has been broken; instead memories of carnage have resolved to stake their claim.
However, debunking common knowledge, the exhibitionism of rabid intolerance was surprisingly revealed to not have been the unfortunate doing of socially abandoned fringe elements whose aggravated sense of deprivation, one could assume, had manifested violently to disrupt social cohesion from which no material benefits could be derived.
Bangladesh is wounded. Since 2013, the nation has witnessed the death of freethinking, secular rationalism and the exacerbation of religious essentialism through the homicide of its bloggers, activists, religious minorities and foreigners by fanatics. When seven terrorists stormed in the Holey Artisan Bakery, took hostages and segregated them on the basis of their religio-linguistic identity with murderous intent, it was an apt but dismal representation of Bangladesh’s recent past and alarmingly suggestive of greater intolerance against peaceful communal cohabitation in the nation’s social future. However, debunking common knowledge, the exhibitionism of rabid intolerance was surprisingly revealed to not have been the unfortunate doing of socially abandoned fringe elements whose aggravated sense of deprivation, one could assume, had manifested violently to disrupt social cohesion from which no material benefits could be derived. On the contrary, the location of the terrorists in the upper echelons of the country’s socio-economic hierarchy shook an amnesiac and indolent class-consciousness, painting an unsavoury picture of overlooked social realities.
Rohan Imtiaz went to one of Bangladesh’s elite private schools, was among the privileged minority in Bangladesh who gets a college education and boasted of an enviable political lineage being the son of a politician of Bangladesh’s ruling party, the Awami League. It is assumed that an unstable economic present and a bleak economic future can force people into terrorist activities. However, for terrorists like Imtiaz or his accomplice Nibras Islam—who studied in the Malaysian campus of Monash University—uncertainty regarding their economic standing could not have been particularly alarming. Neither Imtiaz nor Islam fits into the familiar description of deranged terrorists of limited means that is embedded in our social psyche.
However, in the world of poorly recognised truths, it is imperative to acknowledge the coming of a good number of terrorists from opulence.
Such a portrayal is inaccurate and misleading at best and dangerous at worst. It exaggerates the propensity of the poor towards violence, providing yet another convenient justification for their marginalisation. However, in the world of poorly recognised truths, it is imperative to acknowledge the coming of a good number of terrorists from opulence. Osama Bin Laden, the personification of savage sadism, hailed from a prosperous business family that had ties with Saudi Royals; Dawood Ibrahim’s father was a successful banker; ISIS terrorist Mohammed Emwazi aka “Jihadi John” was a college graduate, coming from a well-to-do family that lived in West London; and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a terror suspect in the attempted Christmas Day airline bombing, came from one of Nigeria’s richest families. The names of Rohan Imtiaz and Nibras Islam have now been added to this list.
In Dhaka’s diplomatic area of Gulshan, the poor terrorist ran the risk of being apprehended by law enforcers. His manner and appearance would give him out. Taking advantage of social misrecognition meted out to those living at the subsistence level and below, the terrorists of Dhaka sauntered their way into Gulshan where their finer exterior found an easy acceptance. They could escape the victimhood of passersby’s raised eyebrows, sniggers and suspicious glances before landing at the café’s doorsteps. In ‘Precarious Life: The Powers and Mourning of Violence’, Judith Butler writes, “The body has its invariably public dimension. Constituted as a social phenomenon in the public sphere, my body is and is not mine.” Our identities can be constructed in moments of unspoken communication, sealing our fates. The non-negotiable power of the gaze educated in the idea of privilege is undisputed. Hence, prelude to the attack becomes telling of our social dynamics, not unlike the attack itself.
The people who had gathered in Holey Artisan Bakery were killed because of their collective disposition. The terrorists’ chosen site of violence strongly indicates their motivations. The blood and gore of 26/11 occurred in Mumbai’s highly exclusive Oberoi Trident and Taj Mahal Palace, among others places. 9/11 broke a crucial economic unit of America, which once used to be the World Trade Centre. In 2001, Indian Parliament was attacked by terrorists, which resulted in one of the worst standoffs between India and Pakistan. Recent terrorist shooting in an LGBTQ nightclub in Orlando was significant for the homophobic nature of the killing. The idea of space has been crucial for terrorists to communicate a message, history evidences. Holey Artisan Bakery was not Bangladesh’s wonted place for every John Doe’s evening repose. Capitalism makes spaces exclusive, where conditions of accessibility are tacitly agreed upon. However, since a rigid religious morality is bad for business, capitalism driven by its profit motives has the potential of creating spaces conformant with liberal values where social conservatism finds it difficult to sneak in. The very nature of such places, hence, provokes spontaneous interaction between men and women which has little social acceptance in Bangladesh. Moreover, it was a place where people of various nationalities and religions dined together in harmony—no matter how artificially constructed it may have been—but it fashioned cosmopolitanism unperturbed by the rising xenophobia, parochialism and Islamic monism in a terrorism scarred Bangladesh.
The people who had gathered in Holey Artisan Bakery were killed because of their collective disposition. The terrorists’ chosen site of violence strongly indicates their motivations. The blood and gore of 26/11 occurred in Mumbai’s highly exclusive Oberoi Trident and Taj Mahal Palace, among others places. 9/11 broke a crucial economic unit of America, which once used to be the World Trade Centre.
The attackers wanted to distinguish between Muslims who according to them were remaining “true” to their faith and “infidels” who disputed the stifling conformation of religious conformity. Only Quran reciting Muslims were spared persecution and others who took liberty with the practice of Islam according to radicals were made to sight death.
Suggestions of cosmopolitan harmony are dangerous to zealots since their survival depends on the intensification of religious segregation and communal discord. They are troubled by peace and secular amity, the possible intermixing of faith and of mutually amenable religio-cultural dialogue. It becomes imperative hence to embattle cultures of secular sociality. Moreover, there were other factors involved in the attack. The attackers wanted to distinguish between Muslims who according to them were remaining “true” to their faith and “infidels” who disputed the stifling conformation of religious conformity. Only Quran reciting Muslims were spared persecution and others who took liberty with the practice of Islam according to radicals were made to sight death. The attack was a method of punishing the perfidy of those who went against a particularly authoritarian idea of Islam. I call it “authoritarian” because the idea of Islam is heterogeneous and cannot claim uniformity across different nations and cultures of the world.
If the spate of terror attacks does not cease in Bangladesh, particularly, in the immediate future, it might soon begin to resemble Iran in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
Therefore, Islamic beliefs and practices are varied; hence religious essentialism can only be purposefully superimposed since claims of being quintessentially Islamic comes from different quarters of Islamic sects. Terrorists’ hankering for a “true” Islamist way of life or code of conduct is not free from challenges. It appears non-negotiable hence in tension with other claims and claimants, which leaves little breathing space. Thus, it has to be recognised that exhibition of a superior Islamic piety is indispensible for radicals as sans theology they have no other rational basis of claiming political power or authority. If the spate of terror attacks does not cease in Bangladesh, particularly, in the immediate future, it might soon begin to resemble Iran in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution of 1979.In the aftermath of the Revolution, robbing of civil liberties by radical Islamists shrank intellectual spaces in an effort to resist cultural onslaught of the West which was considered gravely injurious to the religious nationalism of Ayatollah Khomeini. At his behest, public spaces represented an overt religious conservatism whereby women were to compulsorily veil themselves, open interaction between men and women were prohibited, liberal individualism was brought down by religious communitarians. At present the Gasht-e-Ershad has been entrusted with the responsibility of enforcing strict Islamic codes of conduct in Iran’s public spaces in an effort to continually sanctify them by injecting heavy doses of religious morality at regular intervals.
This could happen in Bangladesh, if not through an ISIS takeover but through the voluntary submission of a majority in Bangladesh to Islamic diktats, not out of reverence but out of fear. Not very long ago, after a blogger was hacked to death in Bangladesh, a Facebook “friend” of mine had written on violence without any reference to radical Islam. When held guilty of soft peddling the issue of Islamic radicalization, she confessed fearing for her own life since she was slated to visit Bangladesh soon on research purposes. This liberal intellectual, who is doing her doctoral studies in one of America’s prestigious universities, confessed to self-censorship in an upsetting submission to the environment of terror. Such willful surrender of public intellectuals, free thinkers, academicians, activists pose an authoritative threat to social progress since they constitute a vibrant faction of our civil societies which have the power to influence, and to a certain extent control, governing bodies and political elites by creating strong public opinions for or against them. When they are lost in the oblivion of silence, socio-cultural progress becomes precarious.
When these values are read in conjunction with Rohan Imtiaz’s heinous crime, one is confounded. How do values of respect, acceptance and freedom trump the preaching of hate? How are our knowledge systems being so easily defeated by radicalisation?
However, the radicalisation of Rohan Imtiaz born and bred in a family which boasts of significant liberal and secular credentials proves that liberal values in our times have been defeated by fanatics’ overestimation of religious rewards in this life or hereafter. Imtiaz’s father is a politician with the Bangladesh’s current ruling party, the Awami League, the constitution of which clearly states that the party seeks to secure for all Bangladeshi citizens, “political, economic, social and cultural freedom”, a “secular society” devoid of communal strife, democratic tradition, and commits to promote “humanistic values” and seeks to recognize human dignity. When these values are read in conjunction with Rohan Imtiaz’s heinous crime, one is confounded. How do values of respect, acceptance and freedom trump the preaching of hate? How are our knowledge systems being so easily defeated by radicalisation? The only answer probably lies in the lure of a salubrious metaphysical reality—the enticement of an unseen paradise of delight and ecstasy—which catches the imagination of passionate young men, and occasionally women, who are willing to commit the greatest of sacrifices for a cause divinely ordained which finds no parallel in subtle liberal connotations of freedom and peace in a progressive society. The allure of the unforeseen is in the need of being demystified, now more than ever.
The country that became an inspiration for its historic assertion of linguistic and cultural freedom in 1971 seems to have lost its characteristic ardour. Bangladesh today stands robbed off its significant voices of dissent, its culture of critique has been threatened and the subversive capacities of the nation’s thinkers and doers have been choked. The country after having endured extremist onslaught in unimaginable proportions is virtually unrecognisable today. If the myopia of its government on the domestic security issue persists, it would take the turning of significant pages of history for a future generation to be convinced that Bangladesh had once fought the good fight to refute religious authoritarianism and cultural assimilation.