The recent tragedy in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where a group of young terrorists stormed a café in the city's diplomatic residential area, Gulshan and killed 20 innocent people, mostly foreigner visitors, has stunned the global Bangladeshi community as well as those who live in America. The tragic news came at a time when Muslims worldwide were preparing to celebrate the festival of Eid.
This terror attack is a stark reminder, if one was needed, that modern terrorism is truly global, and the killers as well as the victims could be from any nation or faith. Bangladesh is a nation of 160 million, where the majority practice a tolerant and moderate version of Islam. The country, long bedevilled by famine and extreme poverty, in recent years has turned the corner, celebrated as a rising star in economic and social development in Asia. The world's second largest exporter of readymade garments after China, the nation is flush with foreign exchange thanks monthly remittances sent home by the millions of hardworking Bangladeshi workers in the Middle East and other foreign lands.
The relatively young nation, born in great adversity in December 1971, continues to face big challenges of global warming and poverty. The terrorist ideology, largely bred overseas in the Middle East, and imported via the Internet into the middle class homes where it has infected the minds of some young men, now seems to have become a big threat to the stability and well-being of Bangladesh.
As an American of Bangladeshi origin, among the liberties I have enjoyed most is the one enshrined in the US constitution - liberty to practice one's religion. After decades of struggle, the freedom to worship was formally enshrined in the First Amendment of the US constitution, which is part of the United States' Bill of Rights: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...". As a moderate, practising Muslim, during my three decades in America, I have enjoyed worshipping in mosques across the country, participated in interfaith dialogues, openly observed important tenets of my faith such as the month-long fasting in the month of Ramadan, and the celebrations at the end of fasting, the festival of Eid.
Imagine the distress and pain Muslims have experienced in recent years when the faith they love has been repeatedly violated by radical extremists who believe and practise hatred, violence and terror. In recent years, Americans and citizens around the world have come to know about the diabolical acts of murder and violence by terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda, Talibans, Al Shabazz and now, ISIS. Although members of these terror networks are a very tiny fraction of the global Muslim community of 1.6 billion people, their calculated acts of murder and mayhem have, nevertheless, captured global headlines, and stained the good name of Islam. Their hateful and un-Islamic actions have created in the minds of millions an image of Islam that is intolerant, brutal and violent.
I know for sure that nothing is further from the truth. In my own readings of the basic texts of Islam, I have found nothing that invites me to violence or intolerance. Yes, there are passages that speak of war and self-defence, but similar passages are found in every scripture. The Internet is full of clever propaganda by sects and cults who claim to represent true Islam. But they have no basis in any faith tradition. For the vast majority of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims, the Quran and the sayings of Prophet Muhammad speak of love for all humanity, stand for truth and justice, teach charity and service, promote responsible citizenship, tolerance, forgiveness and mercy for all. Every day the Muslims live their lives trying to follow these tenets as best as they can.
As a nation, the citizens and leaders of Bangladesh across the religious and political spectrum should pledge that the terrorists who committed this crime will not win this ideological war of ideas. Civil society leaders and organisations must take up the issue of how we can channel the energies of our youth in positive directions, so that they don't fall in the trap of violent extremists who prey on the young and vulnerable. Fortunately, the vast majority of Muslims in Bangladesh believe and practise in moderation and pluralism in spiritual matters. For generations they have lived in peace and harmony, celebrating differences in religious believes, and in other areas of lives. They fought against the Pakistan occupation army with great vigour to build a nation that will be welcoming to all those who believe in a multicultural and pluralistic society where a true and inclusive democracy prevails. The recent trends threaten this social contract. Hence, the Bangladeshis must make it a priority to actively promote the cherished values of tolerance of all faiths so that all minorities can practise their faith in liberty and without fear.
Using this most recent tragedy as a wake-up call, the civil society and leaders across the political spectrum must come together to create strong associations to repel hatred, intolerance, extremism and violence. In a functional democracy, the government is held accountable for the safety of its citizens, maintaining the rule of law, and protecting the good name of the country. The government of Prime Minister Hasina can no longer ignore the looming threat of religious extremism - home-grown as well as imported.
The security forces must identify and weed out those who preach religious hatred in mosques or on the Internet using clever marketing to brainwash the youth. Using the means within the rule of law, these people must be dealt with severely so that the virulent virus of religious hatred does not spread. Given what we now know about the terrorists, families and educational institutions must be proactive in taking steps to protect the impressionable young people from getting infected by the virus of religious extremism and hatred.
The religious scholars must use their sermons to address the ugly facts about intolerance and religious violence. They must teach that true Islam has always been open, transparent, and tolerant of other ideas and faith traditions. The recent statement by 100,000 Bangladeshi Imams on religious tolerance is welcome. A global gathering of Islamic scholars - imams, scholars, intellectuals, politicians, peace activists, and interfaith leaders from 120 Muslim regions - declared recently in The Marrakesh Declaration (http://www.marrakeshdeclaration.org) that the Prophet's 1,400-old Medina Charter protecting religious minorities is well aligned with the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The document calls upon all Muslims "to confront all forms of religious bigotry, vilification, and denigration of what people hold sacred, as well as all speech that promotes hatred and bigotry." Imams and religious leaders must emphasise these developments in their 'khutbas' (sermons).
Importantly, the two major political parties must set their differences aside and work together to deal with this common menace which threatens the core values and stability of the nation. Unless the political centre holds and is strengthened, those on the extreme fringes will gain power and authority further undermining democracy and development.
If left unchecked, religious intolerance and bigotry will destroy young lives, rip apart families and communities, lead to more violence and undercut the social and economic progress.
Dr. Munir Quddus is the president of Bangladesh Development Initiative (BDI), a professional research and advocacy organisation of Bangladeshis in America.