Bangladesh was rocked by a terrorist attack in its capital Dhaka in which 20 people were killed. With more facts coming out by the hour, it is important to note that there are a number of things that should be discussed including who was targeted, why they were targeted, and the wider picture of global terrorism. There has been an interesting reaction from people in the West as it has mostly been brief sadness bordering on ambivalence, particularly when compared with the attacks in Paris and Brussels. The reasons for this lack of passion must also be addressed.
The attack occurred at around 9.20pm local time and the target was the Holey Artisan Bakery in the Gulshan neighbourhood of Dhaka. As mentioned above a total of 20 people were killed by the militants and, according Bangladeshi officials, all of these victims were foreigners. Of the seven attackers, six were killed and the seventh was arrested. The only surviving attacker has confirmed the group’s support for ISIS and according to Bangladesh’s Daily Star newspaper anyone who couldn’t recite passages from the Quran was tortured and killed. Terrorism is a highly complex issue and there often many motivations that cause radicalisation, including socio-economic factors and lack of education, however in this case the facts that are emerging point to a belief in Quranic literalism as the primary motivating factor.
The fact that all of the victims were not Bangladeshi and a majority were Western tourists clearly shows why the bakery was targeted. One of the overarching themes of ISIS propaganda has been how the ‘infidels’ of the West are persecuting Muslims or have contempt for Islam. It should therefore not be surprising that ISIS-inspired groups have targeted an establishment popular with foreign visitors. Also the timing of the attack should be noted. ISIS have previously made statements encouraging its supporters to commit violent acts during the holy month of Ramadan and with Eid al-Fitr, the festival marking the end of Ramadan, approaching militants will probably seek to do as much damage as possible in the coming days.
The reaction from the West has been fascinating. I’m not going to someone who sits in an ivory tower and judges Westerners as subconsciously racist for not caring about this attack as much as Paris or Brussels. Instead we should look more closely at the wider picture. People care about others that they believe to be very similar to themselves, and this notion has been long established in sociology and psychology. Indeed this is why people in Britain, the US, and Europe reacted so emotively to the terrorist attacks in Paris, and it is why the LGBT community across the world reacted largely in unison after the Orlando attacks last month. It is also why Muslims around the world are often the first people to call out fundamentalism as they see the brainwashed people committing these despicable acts as bringing their community into disrepute.
This is not to say that white people cannot feel saddened by attacks against non-white people or non-Muslims cannot feel angered by terrorism that impacts on only Muslims. The point is that people feel less emotionally attached to a victim or group of victims if they perceive them as part of a group they deem, often subconsciously, as not in their community. A related point is that Westerners have now been desensitised to terrorism occurring in certain parts of the world, and this does have a racial component. For example on appearances alone a terrorist attack in Iraq against Shia Muslims looks very similar to an attack on Coptic Christians in Egypt, unless there is an obvious difference such as the target in the latter being a church.
But this is why I believe the attacks in Dhaka should be paid attention to. Terror attacks in the country are on the rise, mostly targeting liberals, secularists, bloggers, academics, and activists. However when people think of hotspots of terrorism, many people do not instinctively say Bangladesh because Islamic radicalism is associated with the Middle East. Indeed this is part of the reason why people are so shocked when it happens in places like Paris and Brussels.
The attacks in Bangladesh also confirm a truism that is often ignored in the main media discourse. Terrorism is largely covered in depth when there is a perception of it being done to ‘us’, whoever the ‘us’ may be. In Bangladesh 87% of the country is Muslim, and the truth that is often ignored is that most victims of Islamic terrorism are Muslims, which is why any crude generalisations about Muslims is moronic. When terrorists attack somewhere in the West, it is often because they disagree with something in the West and wish to lash out against it. For example in the Charlie Hebdo shooting in January 2015, the jihadis targeted the magazine because they were angered by the freedom of people to insult their religion. However in places like Bangladesh the victims of terrorist attacks have mostly been Muslims deemed not pious enough. Terrorism is not a problem for the West, it is a problem full stop.
The attacks in Dhaka are sad because it shows that religious violence in the country is becoming more common. This particular attack shows that as well as Muslims being targeted for not being religious enough, militants are turning their attention to foreign visitors. Although the deaths of the people are non-Muslims, this shouldn’t obscure the fact that Muslims are most often the victims of terror attacks and reactionary moves from politicians that play on these fears must be exposed for what it is: bigoted manipulation. Bangladesh should not be allowed to descend into the chaos like Syria, Libya, and Iraq. Countries from around the world, particularly countries with high Muslim populations, should provide developmental aid and military support if requested.
The instinct of people from the West is to do something to help nations in need, however the narrative of groups like ISIS makes taking a leading role impossible. It is difficult for countries like Indonesia, Pakistan, and Jordan to step up and help Bangladesh as they have their own problems relating to terrorism, but countries like Saudi Arabia have shown themselves unwilling to assist, and in many cases have made the problem worse. Failing military support, these countries need to become beacons of liberal interpretations of Islam and secular government, and thankfully this work in some of these countries has already begun.