By B.Z. Khasru
With a string of suicide bombings in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, which killed more than 250 people in the island nation in the Indian Ocean, an old question has resurfaced: What motivated the attackers?
Analysis of similar events in Europe, Africa, and Asia reaches contradictory conclusions. A paper on “Radicalisation and al-Shabaab recruitment in Somalia” found that people joined extremists organizations “for economic benefits.” In fact, the authors write, research from “Somalia showed that 27 percent of respondents joined al Shabab for economic reasons, 15 percent mentioned religious reasons, and 13 percent were forced to join.”
Meanwhile, a World Bank study based on leaked Islamic State records indicated no link between poverty or educational levels and radicalization. A joint study by Northwestern University and the Hebrew University concurred. “Poor economic conditions do not drive participation in ISIS,” the authors found. In fact, many of them came from wealthy countries with low inequality. Instead, the study concluded, “the flow of foreign fighters to ISIS is driven not by economic or political conditions but rather by ideology and the difficulty of assimilation into homogeneous Western countries.”
Sri Lanka attacks mysterious
None of these studies, however, can explain the motivation behind the attacks in Sri Lanka on Easter and in Bangladesh three years ago. These attackers did not fit into any one of the patterns cited in these studies.
In Bangladesh, a Muslim majority nation of 170 million people, the extremists killed 22 people in 2016, most of them foreigners, in a cafe in an upscale neighborhood in Dhaka, not far from the U.S. Embassy. All of the attackers were well-educated and most of them came from wealthy families.
In Sri Lanka, two of the suicide bombers involved in the attacks were members of a prominent and wealthy family, involved in copper mining and spice trade. Their father founded Colombo-based Ishana Exports, largest exporter of spices from the island nation since 2006. Another bomber studied in England and was a graduate student in Australia before returning to Sri Lanka. According to the Sri Lankan government, most of the attackers were “well educated” and had come from “middle-or upper middle-class” families.
In this South Asian nation of 21 million people, 70 percent are Buddhist, 13 percent Hindu, 8 percent Christian, and 9 percent Muslim. They have been living together at least 1,000 years. Christian-Muslim hostility never existed in Sri Lanka. So, assimilation problems can’t explain the attacks, either.
Muslims worldwide feel aggrieved
In general, Muslims worldwide feel aggrieved, and find no mechanism to redress their grievances. They blame the West—which represents the Christians—for their plight. Since the death of Muhammad in 632 AD and for centuries, Muslims had Caliphs uniting them all over the world. The Caliphate ended in 1924 when Turkey became a secular republic. Since then, many Muslims have yearned for the restoration of the Caliphate and reunification of the Muslims under one leader as the Catholics are under the Pope.
Muslims want to be as prosperous as the Western industrialized nations, if not more, but find the West opposes their progress. With Europe and America controlling the world economically and militarily, they do not expect to recreate their lost empire. But they certainly do expect to retake their neighborhoods. If the Taliban return to power in Afghanistan, this view will be reinforced.
Current atrocities in Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria have made today’s Muslim youths even more convinced of the urgency to make self-sacrifices to save their people. Many of them are motivated because of their thinking that the West has been suppressing Muslims to perpetuate its global domination. It is the same belief that once pushed many young people all over the world into communism.
Many scholars and policy makers seem to be baffled by the fact that many of these suicide bombers are well-educated and affluent. Many communist leaders belonged to the upper class, too, and were highly educated. W. E. B. Du Bois, Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara are just a few to name. They were all driven by their earnest desire to end social injustice. Right or wrong, many Islamic extremists hold similar views.
Attacks Reflect old phenomenon
There is a similarity between today’s Islamic radicalization and yesterday’s communist revolution. After Bangladesh became independent, in the early 1970s hammer and sickle graffiti were ubiquitous. Students in their teens and 20s, who had been brainwashed into romantic revolutionaries, painted these graffiti. They came from the upper echelon of society, but found it fashionable to think of themselves as saviors of their fellow hapless countrymen.
These romantic revolutionaries came from a mainstream leftist party that preferred ballot to bullet—the National Awami Party. Exactly the same way, today’s Islamic extremists in Bangladesh broke away from a theocratic outfit that believes in electoral politics—Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh.
The attacks in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka represent an old phenomenon.
The difference between the current wave of extremism and yesteryear’s revolution is ideology. Today’s banner is the crescent, as opposed to the hammer and sickle of the communist era. Muslim youths turn to conservative Islam because they have no other progressive ideology available to them. Democracy—as well as capitalism—has already been rejected by them as decadent.
Islamic extremists believe they are on the right side of the equation. They do not want to destroy the West, as the myth goes in Europe and America, even through many of them consider it unfair and unjust. They want to co-exist, but they refuse to be insulted. Above all, they want to have a seat at the table of equals. Until this happens, Islam and the West will remain mired in an unending clash.
The attacks in Sri Lanka resulted from fanatical indoctrination of some misguided people. The extremists chose to bomb the Christian—instead of the Buddhists, who attacked Muslims in 2018 and are supposed to logical targets—because they feared a massive retaliation by the Sinhalese against the Muslims. The bombers figured that the Christians, because of their numerical weakness, would not mount as big a backlash as the Sinhalese and that attacks on them would greatly serve the purpose of the terrorists—generate publicity worldwide.
Unlike the communists, who fought to topple their national governments, the Islamic extremists have no local agenda. They are aroused by anti-Muslim events around the world, which global Jihadists use to propel Muslim youths into action. They, however, do not enjoy local popular support, and hence this extremism will fade away, as the communist revolution did.
B.Z. Khasru’s new book, “One Eleven, Minus Two: Prime Minister Hasina’s War on Yunus and America” will be published soon. He previously authored: “Bangladesh Liberation War: How India, U.S, China and the USSR Shaped the Outcome,” and “The Bangladesh Military Coup and the CIA Link.”