Minority communities across Bangladesh are once again facing violence and persecution by the Sunni Muslim majority. In the last month or so, dozens of Hindu temples have been vandalized and hundreds of houses burned down by Muslims in different districts across the nation.
In one incident alone, a group of Muslims carried out attacks that left more than 100 injured and several hundred victims homeless. Hindus, at 9% of the total population the largest religious minority in Bangladesh, were targeted in the attack on October 30, about 120 km from the capital city, Dhaka. Muslims, led by two Islamic organizations -- the Tawheedi Janata ("Faithful People") and Ahle Sunnat-Wal-Jamaat --vandalized more than 15 temples and 200 houses belonging to Hindus. Violence continued a few days later, when, on November 5, extremists repeated similar attacks in the same area despite police "vigilance."
A day before the attacks began, a rumor circulated that a 27-year-old Hindu man named Rasraj Das edited a photograph superimposing the Hindu God Shiva onto an image of the Kaaba (the holiest site in Islam) and posted it on his Facebook page. Within hours of the post, he was caught by local Muslims and handed over to the police. Prior to his arrest, Das pleaded his innocence on his Facebook page, saying:
"At first I am apologizing to Muslim brothers because someone has posted a photograph from my facebook account without my knowledge. When I came to know yesterday night (October 28), I deleted it immediately. Here we live side by side as Hindu-Muslim brothers, I have no such mentality and of course I don't have such imprudent courage."
Yet the uproar of the Muslim community was not appeased, and on October 30, shortly after the early morning prayer, religious Muslims, in the name of "hurting Muslims' feelings," called on fellow Muslims, using loudspeakers from the neighboring mosques, to come out to retaliate. According to some witnesses, the local administration and police had a nonchalant attitude and did not intervene to protect the minority community.
After this episode, unrest spread across Bangladesh; many Hindu areas experienced attacks of similar religious oppression. Muslim fundamentalists vandalized idols, set fire to Hindu temples in several districts and, in some instances, looted the valuables from temples. Hindus traditionally use gold for the ornamental artifacts of Goddesses, which are sometimes hundreds of years old. These sacred items are extremely valuable; in one incident, a stolen idol of Lakshmi (Hindu Goddess of wealth and fortune) was later recovered from a mosque. Eleven months earlier, Muslim fundamentalists from the same district destroyed a museum containing a legendary Sarod (a musical instrument) belonging to the revered Alauddin Khan, who inspired many famous musicians including Pandit Rabi Shankar. For many, this had been the biggest assault on the region's culture since the 2001 destruction of the twin Buddha statues at the hands of the Taliban in Bamiyan, Afghanistan.
India has expressed concern over the safety of the Hindu community in Bangladesh, which houses the third-largest Hindu population in the world. In a tweet, India's External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj wrote:
"I have asked Indian High Commissioner in Dhaka to call on the Prime Minister and express grave concern about the safety and wellbeing of the Hindus in Bangladesh."
Minority Rights Group International summarizes the escalating acrimony:
"Since 2013, Bangladesh has experienced a series of violent attacks by extremists. The victims have included besides atheists, secular bloggers, liberals and foreigners -- many Buddhists, Christians and Hindus as well as Ahmadis and Shia Muslims. A large number of the attacks targeting religious minorities have been claimed by... Islamic State (IS) – a claim vigorously denied by the Bangladeshi government, which has attributed the attacks to domestic militant groups. Regardless...the authorities have visibly failed to ensure the protection of those targeted. Besides the rising death toll, including civilians killed indiscriminately in bombings or individually selected by armed assailants with machetes in premeditated attacks, the... insecurity has diminished the ability of civil society to operate freely... Communal violence -- long a problem for religious minorities -- continues to take place on a regular basis, driven by political rivalries, expropriation and the apparent impunity enjoyed by perpetrators."
In another incident, on November 6, the staff of a sugar mill in Rangpur district, accompanied by local people, attacked indigenous Santal people. Three Hindu tribesmen were killed, and scores injured, when one of the five magistrates on the scene ordered police to open fire on them. Later, the mill's management blamed local villagers for the attack on the Santals.
The cascade of Hindu persecution seems only to be gaining momentum; furthermore, it appears that the government of Bangladesh is incapable or unwilling to protect their Hindu citizenry from torment. Recently, on November 29, ten idols of Hindu Gods and Goddesses at family temples were vandalized not far from Dhaka, and in the same month, 60 more human rights violations occurred. The result is a laundry list of abuses by Islamists -- with only one perpetrator incarcerated.
The growing tide of Islamic fundamentalism in Bangladesh has also seen an increase in Islamic terrorism tied to the Islamic State. Last July, gunmen stormed a Dhaka cafe and killed 20 guests, including 9 Italians, 7 Japanese, one American and one Indian, before the six attackers were killed by Bangladeshi troops. The attackers tortured and killed anyone who was unable to recite the Quran, the holy book for Muslims.
Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack. According to SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadist networks, all the attackers were Bangladeshi.
The rise of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism and radical activity in Bangladesh in recent years has taken on the form of bombings, machete attacks and in general generating fear between Muslim and non-Muslim communities. Prior to the events of September 11, 2001, political Islam and other forms of extremisms were already on the rise in the region. According to a 2014 Georgetown Security Studies Review:
"A new school of Islam from Saudi Arabia is transforming South Asia's religious landscape. Wahhabism, a fundamental Sunni school of Islam originating in Saudi Arabia, entered South Asia in the late 1970s. With public and private Saudi funding, Wahhabism has steadily gained influence among Muslim communities throughout the region. As a result, the nature of South Asian Islam has significantly changed in the last three decades. The result has been an increase in Islamist violence in Pakistan, Indian Kashmir, and Bangladesh."