An Increasingly Isolated Bangladesh

The United States issues a travel alert to Bangladesh due to fears of terrorist activity. However, this alert may have counterproductive consequences for US security aims in the region.

With each passing month, Bangladeshi writer, Ahmad Mostafa Kamal, only grows more reclusive. “My life is totally isolated,” he says. “A writer always feels the need to move everywhere…They have to go to public places…They have to talk to readers.” But such visibility can be nothing short of  inconceivable for Kamal, who has been on extremist hit lists since 2013.

Kamal’s caution is certainly warranted, as Islamic extremist groups have already executed several bloggers and publishers over the past year. This includes the heinous murder of Bangladeshi-American blogger, Avijit Roy, who was hacked to death while walking through the streets of Dhaka last May.

In a threat sent just last month to a Bangladeshi television news channel, one extremist group, the Ansaraullah Bangla Team, cautions:

“Our directives will be the law for you from today. The consequences will be severe if you do not walk the path of Islam. Towering buildings will crumble to the ground, your heads will roll at the feet of the soldiers of Islam”

For fear of retaliation, several television news channels conceded to not covering the publisher attacks. Some television anchors have gone as far as to temporarily remove themselves from appearing on-screen.

   Amidst this tumultuous environment, the United States has issued a travel alert to Bangladesh. With the Department of State citing possibilities of terrorist attacks on foreigners travelling to Bangladesh. The United States has also placed rigid safety regulations on US government officials already in Bangladesh.

While the actions of the United States are certainly reasonable, they may be accompanied by unwelcome consequences. As the US retracts its population, and thus influence, from Bangladesh, it risks pushing the country further into the hands of extremists.

   Development, in a country like Bangladesh, is inextricably linked to the growing influence of the West— more specifically, the United States. And while the recent years have witnessed rising income levels and literacy rates, as well as falling maternal mortality rates, there are still some demographics that stand to lose from this sort of progress. Young men, schooled in orthodox religious seminaries across the country, are some of the most hostile hosts to the influence of the United States. These men have been taught that their primary goal is to, “stop ‘alien [western] culture’ making inroads in Bangladesh.” This includes eliminating not only direct agents of Western influence, but also those that could be seen as aiding the proliferation of Western influence i.e. bloggers, writers, publishers, etc.

   In some ways then, the US travel alert plays right into the motivations of these young extremists. Restricting the influx of US population into the region only further isolates Bangladesh from the globalizing influence of the West. Such isolation will be especially stifling to the intelligentsia that seek to bring Bangladesh closer to the forefront of intellectual discourse. According to a recipient of the 2015 US Fulbright Grant to Bangladesh, Meher Ali, one of the consequences of the travel alert has been to suspend the program to Bangladesh. If this so, Ali will need relocate her project to another country. In conversation with Ali, she says:

I’m worried about the psychological consequences this [suspension] will have on intellectuals, researchers, academics, etc. as well as the general public, in both America and Bangladesh. Will our understanding of Bangladesh become warped— will we begin to see it only as a dangerous place, hostile to foreigners?  Will Bangladeshis feel the distancing between us [United States]  and them, and think that the only response to extremist threats and violence (like the murders of secular bloggers which have taken place) is silence and withdrawal?

Ali is right to be concerned about the isolation of Bangladeshi voices from global, and by extension Western, academic discourse. As Bangladesh’s isolation is one of the primary goals of extremist groups. Ali poses an important question then, in asking if the U.S. travel alert offers extremists the exact ammunition they need to continue their activities. If the U.S. does not design longer-term policies for Bangladesh, they may run the risk of increased extremist activity not only in Bangladesh, but also surrounding regions.