The incidents that took place in the Rakhine state (previously Arakan) of Burma/Myanmar in August 25 (2017) and the Myanmar governments’ actions on and reactions to the Rohingya crisis, indicate the ugly face of Burmese nationalism. This behavior is the consequence of state centric policies that have generated refugees, created conflicts and produced a grave humanitarian situation. This version of extreme nationalism is carefully crafted by Myanmar’s regime and is historically rooted. The practice of extreme nationalism in Myanmar so far has been to benefit “Us” at the expense of “Others”. It has constructed and framed the Rohingya as the “Others”, therefore justifying their actions to eliminate “the existential threat” to the Burmese way of life and to the Burmese population. The military maintains strict control over government institutions. The quasi-civilian government is still following the footsteps of the military government that precisely failed to bring unity while it was in power for fifty years.
As the United Nations General Assembly kicked off in New York this week, Myanmar’s State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi—notably absent from the multilateral forum’s high-level session—finally spoke at length about the current crisis involving her country’s Rohingya ethnic minority. Suu Kyi’s national address on September 19, although condemning “all human rights violations and unlawful violence,” has done little to calm the critics who believe Myanmar’s leader is not doing nearly enough to acknowledge the dire humanitarian situation and help ensure that current challenges are overcome.
Three weeks into the current wave of violence that erupted in Rakhine State, reports continue to filter out, despite curbs on media access. These detail the Burmese army and Buddhist gangs directly targeting civilians, including perpetrating rapes and burning whole villages to the ground.
On July 1, militants attacked a restaurant in one of the Bangladeshi capital’s affluent neighborhoods, taking dozens hostage. Twenty-nine people died, including the five gunmen and eighteen foreign victims. This incident was the most deadly in a recent rise in violence linked to Islamist extremists and occurs amid a polarizing political debate over Bangladesh’s identity and what the role of Islam should be, says CFR senior fellow Alyssa Ayres. “The July 1 attack suddenly pitches Bangladesh into the larger battleground of international terrorism,” Ayres says, emphasizing the decision of the militants to affiliate themselves with a global terrorist movement at the time of the attack. “The Islamic State dimension comes on top of an already tense political climate,” she says.
There has been a recent rise in extremist violence in Bangladesh. Why?
The rise of Islamist extremism in Bangladesh has been noticeable in the last year and a half. But the July 1 attack was different because of the overt desire by those terrorists to affiliate themselves with global terrorism as the attack was unfolding. Prior attacks in Bangladesh were harder to link explicitly to international groups. Though responsibility was sometimes claimed by the self-proclaimed Islamic State or al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent, these claims were widely disputed in Bangladesh, where the government tended to blame domestic groups. The July attack was different, not only in terms of scale but also in terms of communication. Islamic State-affiliated media tweeted scenes from the attack as it was underway, and later posted photos of the attackers with an [Islamic State] flag, making it hard to deny a connection. The July 1 attack suddenly pitches Bangladesh into the larger battleground of international terrorism.
Modernity’s jihad against religion seems to be in retreat. The incarceration of religion within the private sphere of human affairs under the assumption that with the spread of modernity, religion would cease to exist, has not worked out as was envisaged. America and Europe, the epitome of the West, have not been able to achieve this even on their home soils. Religion seems to have become more pervasive than ever in both North America and Europe.
The eminent sociologist Robert Bellah in his book Religion in Human Evolution: from Paleolithic to Axial Age cautions us that “nothing is ever lost” and reminds us, in the words of Thomas Mann, that “very deep is the well of past.” Another American sociologist, Peter Berger, known for his seminal work on sociology of knowledge and religion, also warns us that “those who neglect religion in their analyses of contemporary affairs do so at great peril.” The West at least appears to be groping towards a revised version of secularism as part of an attempt to address the issue of the rising religiosity in their own territory. However, this leaves post-colonial countries newly emerging into modernity with a terrible dilemma. Their desire to be ‘modern’ according to the most common interpretation of Enlightenment discourse continues to rule religion entirely out of the public sphere.
Since the beginning of February, hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis have been occupying a major intersection called Shahbag in the heart of Dhaka, calling for capital punishment for war crimes committed during the country’s liberation from Pakistan in 1971. But what began as a peaceful civic uprising may be taking a turn in the public’s perception as one that contradicts Islam.
While this moment has been in the making for decades, the current explosion of civic activity has a new and youthful character born out of optimism. The vitality and size of the crowd has surprised and delighted. As Shimul Bashar, a reporter for a private TV channel wrote of the #Shahbag protests on Facebook: