Bangladesh and Violent Extremism: Looking Forward
Observations from RESOLVE Network Research
Bangladesh’s interrelated and complex drivers of political and low-level violence remain of concern to Bangladeshis and international policymakers alike.
In 2017, the Secretariat for the Researching Solutions to Violent Extremism (RESOLVE) Network engaged in a mixed-methods study, with the goal of teasing apart individual, social, and political dynamics contributing to persistent and emerging drivers of violence in Bangladesh. RESOLVE’s research sought to contribute to the growing body of literature on Bangladesh and violent extremism, where anecdotal indications suggest that the perceived increase in vulnerability to violent extremism and resonance of anti-secular narratives is driven by both external and internal factors.
RESOLVE’s research model is committed to substantively including the expertise of international, regional, and local stakeholders in research design; elevating the capacity and knowledge of local researchers; and communicating findings to researchers, policymakers, practitioners, and constituent communities impacted by violent extremism in Bangladesh and around the world. As a pilot effort for RESOLVE Network research design and implementation, we sought to gain insights and new data on hypothesized external and internal conflict drivers, using both quantitative and qualitative research methods. RESOLVE engaged four Bangladeshi researchers to conduct on-the-ground research activities, including key-informant interviews, focus groups, statistical analysis, and desk research. The scholars were paired with three principal investigators with deep expertise in South Asia and quantitative and qualitative methods. Our quantitative efforts supported a countrywide baseline survey of attitudes on religious identity, citizenship, and political legitimacy, conducted in partnership with a local enumeration firm.
In parallel, our qualitative activities focused on youth and student populations on public and private university campuses, as well as local-level police units that are often the first to be contacted before and after political or extremist violence erupts. In marrying both methodologies in the same project, RESOLVE aimed to produce data and analysis useful for short- and long-term programming and further research efforts. RESOLVE ultimately found that with limited hard data and locally substantiated findings, efforts to counter violent extremism, in particular, run the risk of inflaming existing tensions or further complicating the troubled environment.
RESEARCH CONSTRAINTS IN COMPLEX ENVIRONMENTS
The project exposed the operational and environmental challenges of engaging in research on the dynamics of violent extremism in societies at the fulcrum point of vulnerability and resilience. Barriers to open and free discourse on contentious issues of religious identity and societal grievances can seriously undermine the ability of researchers, academics, and others investigating conflict drivers to operate, analyze, and report their findings. There is significant danger in the act of inserting oneself, as a passive observer or active questioner, in spaces that are politically tense or in spaces that are subject to institutional or departmental territoriality. Researchers engaging in regular scholarly investigation, as well as those asking sensitive questions about sources of vulnerability or resilience — whether related to actions by government or nongovernmental entitles — are increasingly at risk. In 2017 alone, human rights and academic freedom organizations reported that over 80 individuals (journalists, political affiliates, scholars, civil society activists, and others) were victims of kidnappings and forced disappearances.
A related secondary constraint was an observable reluctance of certain populations to engage in nuanced discussion of the drivers of conflict as it manifests itself in Bangladesh. Individuals consistently cited the contested narratives surrounding Bangladesh’s 1971 independence as a main driver of ongoing tensions across the country, rather than the more contentious and contemporary challenges that research suggests may more accurately explain the recent surge in political and extremist violence. In some cases, the explicit mention of those sources of conflict met with defensive denials. Unfortunately, the refusal to acknowledge the contentious sources of contemporary conflict drivers is likely to limit the effectiveness of engagement and intervention strategies designed by policymakers, practitioners, and researchers.
THE PROBLEM WITH PERCEPTIONS, THE IMPORTANCE OF RESEARCH
Four main conflict vectors emerged from the conversations we had with local-level actors impacted by or engaged in efforts to address conflict and violent extremism:
- Emergence of militant groups affiliated with, or directly supported by, international terrorist organizations
- Radicalization, particularly among college-educated and middle- and upper-class demographic groups
- Rising tensions over religious and ethnic identities, despite the secularist narratives promoted by the governing political party and enshrined in the Bangladeshi constitution
- Deepening grievances related to service provision and institutional capacity, as well as to human rights abuses conducted in pursuit of counterterrorism goals.
The Holey Artisan Bakery attack in July 2016 sent shock waves across Bangladesh; it was the first time that foreigners and expatriates were specifically targeted in a deadly assault that was widely viewed as having its roots in violent extremism. This attack came in the wake of a period characterized by assaults and murders conducted by militant groups, including those targeting secular bloggers, the LGBTQ community, and religious and ethnic minorities. During discussions with RESOLVE representatives, several government and civil society interlocutors described the attacks as a “wake up call” for the country, illuminating the danger of globally informed violent extremist narratives that resonate with domestic actors harboring militant dispositions. In several instances, local stakeholders suggested that the upper-middle class and university-educated backgrounds of several leading perpetrators indicated a potential and disturbing new trend in violent extremist group recruitment.
Regardless of evidentiary support, public perceptions around the identity of the Holey Artisan attackers precipitated a mix of responses from the Bangladeshi government that included casting blame on groups perceived as opposition, as well as greater reliance on hardline security measures. Indiscriminate military-led responses to suspected violent extremists can intensify grievances within the population, as suggested by survey responses in “Islamist Militancy in Bangladesh and Democracy and Sharia in Bangladesh.”
Although the majority of Bangladeshis surveyed during the RESOLVE Network study supported the principles of democratic governance, significant levels of support for incorporating Shariah tenets into government policies and practice were prevalent — particularly in relation to augmenting justice provision and reducing corruption. This support could indicate an indictment of current perceptions of weakness in government institutions, which may be driving grievances in the certain segments of the population.
Additionally, while radicalization and violent extremism are issues discussed at the national level, ordinary Bangladeshis do not seem to have a deep understanding of, or significant knowledge about, the drivers of extremism, or how the current political climate may be influencing the emergence of extremism. Interestingly, the studies in this compendium revealed a tendency to conflate violent extremism with political violence or to view it as a repackaged manifestation of certain forms of political violence.
Although the Holey Artisan attack illuminated the possibility that Bangladeshi youth are a particularly vulnerable demographic group, assumptions about employment status and identity — as opposed to other dynamics within the youth population — drove much of the early counter violent extremism (CVE) interventions funded by international donors and implemented by local stakeholders. For example, although access to employment is a significant issue, one local practitioner suggested that a key factor driving unemployment may be the quality of higher education in Bangladesh. Students can have several degrees but remain functionally unemployable. CVE interventions focused on employment that are not sensitive to the pervasive barriers that hinder youth from obtaining jobs may prove futile in preventing and countering violent extremist sentiments and support. Until more robust research is conducted in this and other areas, the best available evidence around growing support for violent extremism in Bangladesh remains anecdotal, limiting the development of more locally tailored and effective CVE policies and practices.
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