The fluidity and flexibility of al Qaeda is undergoing a defining test in Syria, where two of its affiliates, the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), are engaged in a full-scale conflict with each other. Suicide attacks, mass executions, and random bombardment of disputed areas have rendered the conflict indistinguishable in its scope and violence from the presumably central confrontation between regime and opposition. Beyond the depletion of its ranks, al Qaeda also faces a severe challenge to its credibility, due to the abject failure in governance in the areas under its affiliates' control. Yet, in the midst of this, the jihadist cyberspace witnessed the circulation of a recording by al Qaeda's leader Ayman al-Zawahiri on a so-far unexplored topic: Bangladesh. But what may at first glance seem to be a diversion or digression on the part of Zawahiri could be part of al Qaeda's repositioning and its promotion of new vision and mission for the global network.
Bangladesh is presented in Zawahiri's words as an exemplary Muslim society. He stipulates that the true popular will is that a religious order be instituted in society and politics. Democracy, he opines, is illegitimate, and is also a farce, selectively withdrawn to disempower Islamists and applied to empower their detractors. Islamists who accept the democratic political process are thus in error and ought to radicalize. The Bangladeshi government, he insists, is on a campaign to undermine Islam and impose Western-style secularism. Radical apolitical Islamists, therefore, ought to politicize in their turn. While previous messages by al Qaeda ideologues had disparaged Islamists who do not subscribe to political radicalism, Zawahiri has now widened the demarcation line to be more inclusive. And contrary to the unforgiving rhetoric and practices of ISIS, Zawahiri proposes a code of conduct that dramatically moves the al Qaeda ethos toward more mainstream acceptability.
Zawahiri's message is notable for slamming Bangladesh's 1971 War of Independence, and it has been vocally condemned in Bangladesh. The fractured political culture of Bangladesh's capital, Dhaka, has seen the ruling coalition use Zawahiri's statement to accuse the opposition of harboring terrorist sympathizers, while the opposition has in turn accused the government of leveraging the message to obscure the retreat of democracy and secure international support. Zawahiri's statement seems to be of no relevance to the dispute raging in Bangladesh between the two main political blocs. However, it does address the ongoing discord among Bangladeshi Islamists.
While Bangladesh has enjoyed procedural democracy since 1991 - with a two-year hiatus in 2007-08 - the credibility of its frail democratic system has suffered amid corruption, dynastic politics, and an increasingly polarized political culture. At the same time, discourse of Bangladeshi exceptionalism - that it is a country less affected by the rise of Islamism - has continued, enabled by an active civil society scene with a visible women's movement, a youth culture enhanced by an upwardly mobile urban middle class, and the deeply entrenched political patronage system through which the main political parties maintain their constituencies. Furthermore, the collusion between Islamists and Pakistani oppressors in Bangladesh's War of Independence presumably precludes any rehabilitation that Islamists may seek, a fact that is continuously highlighted in the media and by the ruling coalition.
However, the claims of Bangladeshi exceptionalism have to be nuanced by the visible rise in conservatism and social radicalization among large segments of Bangladeshi society, which may yet pave the way for cultural and political radicalization. Salafism, as a global religious movement redefining the premise of Sunni Islam toward intransigence, has acquired a strong presence in Bangladesh, challenging the openly apolitical native Tablighi movement and nudging it toward more conservatism. Politically, jihadists who reject democracy compete with other Islamists who formally accept it - the latter as the mainstream, but recently banned, Jamaat-e-Islami, the former as recurrent manifestations of violent militancy that often intersect with criminal networks.
The potential for political radicalization remains unacknowledged by the ruling class. Having succeeded in excluding Jamaat from national politics, the current government has adopted a law enforcement approach to containing radical Islamist groups, in particular the youth organizations associated with Jamaat. While class, rural versus urban, and cultural divides may exacerbate tensions, the presence of only episodic Islamist outbursts seem to have convinced the Bangladeshi political class of its success in containing and reversing the Islamist presence. Yet, judging from his message, Zawahiri has a different point of view.
Syria may indeed be damaging the al Qaeda franchise, but al Qaeda is trying to refashion its image. Bangladesh is but one manifestation of this trend. The world ought to take notice.