Youths from well-to-do families, educated in mainstream institutions, are joining religious extremism as they are frustrated about life and the prospect of job, Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmad, economist and co-chairman of the National Education Policy Formulation Committee 2010, tells Mohiuddin Alamgir in an interview with New Age
New Age: Politics of religious extremism has apparently taken a violent form in Bangladesh. Why?
Qazi Kholiquzzmaan Ahmad: Political use of religion is not much new. It has been there for as long as I can remember. Religion is used to advance the interest of people or politicians. Sometimes there are people but those who try to control politics and others who become violent or promote violence and they interpret Islam in a wrong way.
I think that the problem is with wrong interpretations. Islam is a religion of peace and if one follows basic Islamic teachings and principles, there should be no violence and aggression. In Islam there is total tolerance towards other religions; it preaches brotherhood and respect for human beings; and it teaches that if someone is in problem, the person should be helped without asking any question of his or her religion. Islam prescribes a total peaceful life.
But these people pick on certain out-of-context aspects and then interpret them in a manner that you have to fight to establish certain views or thoughts. They look at a partial picture by picking up one sentence from here and another from there from the Qur’an and then they interpret the verses to people who usually are not very educated.
They come up with wrong and motivated interpretation of Islam to justify violence.
New Age: Contrary to hitherto middle-class intellectual conviction that Madrassahs are the breeding ground of ‘jihadis’, the violent operation by jihadis at the Gulshan restaurant in July points out the fact that non-madrassah youths have embraced politics of religious extremism. Why?
Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmad: So far these people have been from madrassahs or the poor section of society or both; but nowadays the trend is changing. Here, I can remember one incident when an arrested young aide to Bangla Bhai [Siddique ul-Islam, a top leader of religious extremist outfit, executed in 2007] said that he had joined extremism as he was told if he died he would go to heaven and be considered martyr and if he survived, he would be considered a victor and would get Tk 50,000 in cash, an amount of money he had never seen in his life.
In madrassahs, there are some teachers who probably have connections with extremists and wrong interpreters of Islam and they receive funds from outside; so they want to motivate students to join extremism and indulge themselves in violence.
These days, it is not only people from madrassah or the poor section of society or both, but people from well-to-do families, educated in mainstream universities, are coming to join religious extremism.
My interpretation is that poor and madrrassah-educated youths were frustrated about life and the prospect of job. And people from well-to-do families, who recently joined those extremist groups, have other reasons to be frustrated as they are under huge pressure to do well in academic life and career.
In their pursuit to do well in academic life and come out successful in the examinations, these new-group people become isolated from friends and even from parents and society because they need to study hard which creates frustration in them in a different way. As they are isolated, they become easy victims of the recruiters. The wrong interpreters of Islam target these people, motivate them and convince them to become violent as we have seen in the case of Gulshan café attack.
There are certain private universities where many of the jihadists are becoming students and even there are some teachers propagating the idea. And it is not possible for the authorities to screen those people and the educational institutions.
New Age: Do you think some particular kinds of socio-political and economic factors play any role to motivate the youths of society to join politics of extremism — religious or otherwise? If so, what are the factors?
Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmad: Economic disparity in the world is widespread; and so there is exploitation for controlling resources. Where there are resources, exploiters try to take control and in the process, if necessary, they wage a war on flimsy grounds, citing security challenges and others reasons, all because of neo-liberalism.
In neo-liberalism, someone who has money can make more money and someone who has power can be more powerful. This is why disparity is increasing.
A handful of people of the world control almost a half of the wealth of the world and in another statistics, we can see that top 1% of the people have a half of the wealth while 99% of the people the rest of the wealth. Disparity is high in Bangladesh, although it was not as high as this.
Educated unemployment is very high in Bangladesh as there is lack of job opportunities. These youths are frustrated and they are an easy prey of leaders of violent activities.
Drug abuse by the youths is also high; when someone takes drug, he or she can do anything. Such people are also an easy prey of extremism.
Schools in our country can hardly create human values. Values should contain thoughts of cooperation; you have certain rights while other people also have rights. You promote your cause, but do not obstruct others. Competition has to be on the basis of excellence, not by pushing someone back. Such values are missing in our society.
Another important aspect is lack of cultural and co-curriculum activities in educational institutions. Many of the schools do not have outdoor games. There are even no indoor games facilities. Our schools force students to run after studies and score better grades in the examinations.
Teachers no longer care for students, they just come to schools for their job and keep themselves busy with coaching and private tuitions in most cases. People in charge of supervision should address these aspects of our educational institutions.
Many people are busy making money by every means, right or wrong, grabbing other’s wealth and their children are raised with selfish and corrupt values.
Internationally, the main reason is social and political injustice. There was no basis of Iraq war. We now know that it was based on lies as we see in the Chilcot Inquiry Report [The Iraq Inquiry also referred to as the Chilcot Inquiry after its chairman, Sir John Chilcot. A British public inquiry into the nation’s role in the Iraq war].
Thousands of people are still being killed as Iraq and Afghanistan and other Middle East countries come under attack. The war there was based on wrong information and people of those countries became violent as they have their back pushed against the wall and they have no other options. These people spread to all over the world.
Bangladeshi religious extremists are led by Bangladeshi leaders, but I think events in the outside world might have inspired them. Foreign religious extremists are not coming to Bangladesh. In this age of technological communications and social media, there is no need for foreigners to come to Bangladesh. You can see what happens in Syria sitting in your room in Bangladesh.
On the other hand, some people have connections, they go abroad, travel and they go there for studies and meet these people and become inspired by them.
New Age: What is the way out?
Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmad: Today, people in Dhaka and remote areas of the country are united against religious extremism. The government has done a commendable job since the Gulshan café attack. Some of the top leaders and plotters of the heinous act were captured.
The problem is broadly under control in Bangladesh, but there is no place for complacence. We have to be on our toes. Both the people and the government should continue their work and guard against religious extremism, which is still there and which may raise its ugly head again. If you destroy all extremist organisations, even then there is a possibility of their coming up again. So we need to be careful always, and fight against them continuously.
Since religious extremism and militant activities occur all over the world, it is important to work together. Everybody has experience. Countries should share information about terrorists as they had international connections.
Criminals are using ICT; so, it should be monitored and people monitoring these issues should be well equipped with knowledge to facing techno-criminals.
Coordinated efforts by the government, civil society, parents and people at large are needed for a way out of the problem. The education system has a very important role to play to instil human and social values in children. We have included issues of human values in the Education Policy 2010. It is being implemented, but the process of implementation has been slow.