South Asia | Turkey and Bangladesh are poles apart on the terror map

Turkey and Bangladesh are poles apart on the terror map

M.K. Bhadrakumar July 5, 2016 11:59 AM (UTC+8)
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In the case of Turkey, terrorism has geopolitical connotations, while in the case of Bangladesh, the crisis is essentially internal. The main political parties in Bangladesh have failed in governance making life miserable for the poor and dispossessed who see Islamists as saviours from the corrupt and coercive state.    

The broad brush strokes to describe the terrorist attacks in Istanbul and Dhaka have resulted in a sweeping comprehensiveness with little attention to details.

Ambulances carry victims of Dhaka bakery attack
Police ambulances carry away the bodies of victims of the recent attack at a bakery in Dhaka

But the leaderships of Turkish President Recep Erdogan and Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina are holding out, as they know only too well that truth is a many-splendored thing.

Erdogan blandly says that the Istanbul attack could have happened anywhere and only showed that there was “no difference between Istanbul and London, Ankara and Berlin.”

Sheikh Hasina’s government firmly rejects the notion of an Islamic State (IS) threat to Bangladesh and instead puts the finger on “home-grown” terror groups. The two nationalist leaderships know that it is a slippery path if they identify themselves to be on the same side as western governments.

But the international community is clamoring that Turkey and Bangladesh should get their act together. In an unusually sharp commentary, Xinhua alleged,

  • Owing to the government’s feeble “special anti-militant drive,” Bangladesh has become a global hotspot for dissenting voices from marginalized groups, both religious and secular groups, and foreigners, being murdered or targeted by militant groups on an almost daily basis.
  • From a political perspective, … the killings happened because the state machinery ignored the threats for too long due to political convenience and administrative inefficiency.

Apropos the Istanbul attack, New York Times targeted Erdogan himself:

  • The story of how Turkey… ended up here is as much about Mr. Erdogan as it is about the country’s unlucky geography in a convulsing Middle East… But Islam was not his undoing. Absolute power was. As Mr. Erdogan grew more popular, winning broad pluralities and even majorities in each successive election, he began to behave with a kind of Bolshevism, believing that he was the very embodiment of the people.

Suffice it to say, while in both Turkey and Bangladesh, political Islam has deep roots in history, the latter is far more precariously placed insofar as the call of the Islamic Khilafat resonates in that country and is steadily getting louder.

Absolute power has corrupted Turkish President Recep Erdoğan
Absolute power has corrupted Turkish President Recep Erdoğan

Indeed, there is a fundamental difference in the situation around Turkey and Bangladesh. In the case of Turkey, terrorism has geopolitical connotations, while in Bangladesh a steady degradation of the democratic culture is spawning a counter-culture. This needs explaining.

 Punishing strategy

The IS is pursuing a strategy toward Turkey that aims at punishing it for being part of the US-led coalition. Although Turkey had joined the US-led anti-IS coalition in September 2014, it maintained an ambivalent posture, avoiding confrontation and tacitly (or covertly) looking away from the cross-border flow of fighters and supplies into Syria.

Ankara probably saw the IS as a vector against the Syrian Kurdish militia and the Syrian regime, while also hoping that the freedom of movement it offered to the IS would ‘incentivize’ the latter from targeting Turkey.

But IS upset the apple cart by its horrific double suicide bombing in October 2015 when it sensed that Ankara was deepening its engagement with the US-led coalition (in response to the emergent axis between the US and Syrian Kurds, and given the specter of a contiguous Kurdish autonomous zone emerging in northern Syria with Washington’s acquiescence.)

Meanwhile, in the face of the relentless pressure from Russia (in a geopolitical strategy, partly at least, to weaken the southern flank of NATO), Turkey moved even closer to the US-led coalition, seeking protection, whereas, Washington too began mounting pressure on Ankara to close the Turkish-Syrian border and disrupt the IS’ key supply routes.

Unsurprisingly, Turkey’s tight rope walk became untenable, and the IS has retaliated. The Istanbul attack underscores its capacity to use its robust networks inside Turkey to launch spectacular attacks aimed at weakening the Turkish state and ultimately threatening the coherence of the US-led coalition that critically depends on Turkish military bases for conducting operations in both Iraq and Syria.

In a nutshell, Turkey is caught in the vortex of a geopolitical struggle. Erdogan senses that the wise thing to do will be to expand the “circle of peace” in the region.

In his Eid message on Monday, Erdogan pointedly mentioned the normalization with Israel and Ankara promised that it will be pursuing a policy of “mending the strained relations and overcoming crises triggered by the Syrian issue, terror and artificial tensions… removing the barriers in our path one by one… leaving behind the crises in international relations and the war on terror.”

Elusive consensus

On the other hand, Bangladesh’s crisis is fundamentally different from Turkey’s problem of coping with an IS threat that happens to be the offshoot of a geopolitical struggle.

Bangladesh’s crisis is essentially internal and the government in Dhaka has aptly assessed that the terrorist threat it faces is “home-grown.”

Indeed, political Islam dates back to the pre-Partition period (before 1947) and the Bengali Muslim was a vociferous advocate of the creation of Pakistan as a separate country out of British India, but the rise of religious extremism (which is antithetical to the eclectic Bengali culture) is a recent phenomenon.

Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia
Islamist organizations in Bangladesh have capitalized on the bitter feud between the two main parties – Awami League led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (L) and the opposition Bangladesh National Party led by Begum Khaleda Zia

Paradoxically, even today their numbers are small in comparison with the support base of the two mainstream political parties – although the concept of the Islamic Caliphate as the saviour from the corrupt and coercive state is increasingly attracting supporters.

Unlike in the case of Turkey, Bangladesh has to cope with a hydra-headed monster, ranging from the Islamic Chattra Shibir (militant student body of the well-organised political party Jamaat-e-Islami) to Islamist terrorist groups such as the Ansarullah Bangla Team (an al-Qaeda affiliate) and Hizbut Tahrir (which is trans-national but not involved in overt violence or terrorist activities and subscribes to a revisionist history that appeals to the educated urban youth) to Hefazat-e-Islam (which subscribes to a very narrow and obscurantist version of Islam similar to the Afghan Taliban’s.)

Evidently, there is no single solution to the threat they pose to the state. The heart of the matter is that these Islamist organizations have capitalized on the bitter political feud between the two main parties – Awami League (AL) which rules the country at present and the opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP).

The BNP boycotted the 2014 parliamentary election, and the mandate that AL secured to rule the country remains highly controversial. The AL-BNP feud has a long history and both have found it expedient to appease the religious forces to counter each other.

Thus, the religious forces incrementally have gained space to grow and are consolidating at the expense of the two mainstream parties.

Today, the Islamist organizations are no longer easy pushover. They are well-organized, well-funded and are able to exploit the widespread corruption, nepotism and mendacity in public life.

There has been an abysmal failure of governance in Bangladesh at all levels resulting in deteriorating law and order and lack of access to the justice system for the poor and the dispossessed. On the bleak landscape, the Islamists have appeared as saviours.

Clearly, the starting point today ought to be a national consensus between the AL and the BNP as to how to tackle the common enemy. However, that is easier said than done. The high probability is that the state may resort to repression – and that could only mean a long day’s journey into the night.

Turkey has the native genius to overcome the IS threat. The Turkish state is nowhere near withering away. Erdogan also enjoys a massive mandate and there is no dent in his popularity.

On the other hand, Bangladesh needs help. New Delhi could and should have counselled Sheikh Hasina about the virtues of moderation. But, alas, the specter of IS blends well with the narrative that the Indian security establishment itself loves to hear. Such a narrative makes the calculus simpler for the national security state.

Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.

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M.K. Bhadrakumar
MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.
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