Joseph Conrad dug deep in trying to understand moral courage and in Lord Jim, his great novel, he seemed to suggest that the difference between heroism and cowardice was often paper-thin. In a different milieu, Ernest Hemingway described heroism as “grace under pressure.” For both writers, what made the difference was the display of character by the protagonist when confronted with death. Conrad and Hemingway dealt with fiction, but in Dhaka on Saturday, two human beings, Ishrat Akhond and Faraz Hossain, showed that reality is often far more powerful than fiction.
Possibly there were other acts of heroism in the terrible hours in
which 20 persons were held hostage and then systematically tortured and
executed by 6 terrorists in Dhaka. But the world has come to learn of
the story of Akhond and Hossain.
We will never know what would have gone through their minds when they
were confronted by the choices put before them by the terrorists —
there must have been fear, hesitation and confusion. But we do know that
when the time came to choose, they made an unambiguous decision. It
would have been understandable, and indeed even human, to have decided
otherwise. But then, that is exactly the difference between heroes and
Strangely, it is their killers who saw themselves as heroes — ghazis
or mujahideen — holy warriors. Dressed as faux Arabs and armed with
weapons, they appear to be both despicable and delusional. Where was the
heroism in slaughtering defenceless men and women after taking them
The larger lesson of the heroism of Akhond and Hossain is the rebuff
to those who would seek to use the instrument of death to compel people
to accept their twisted version of their religion. This is not something
unique to Islamists — in the 1980s, it was not unusual for Khalistani
terrorists to separate Hindus and Sikhs before executing the former. The
Khalistani movement collapsed, as much because of the police and army
action, as by the rejection of their tactics by the Sikhs themselves.
Likewise, the battle against Islamism and jihadist violence will have to
eventually be fought in the minds of the Muslim communities across the
Terrorism is, at the end of the day, a mind game. By itself, it
cannot offer an existential threat to society, but by shocking acts of
violence it seeks to overawe and frighten people to acquiescence. Most
people are not heroes and they are more likely to quietly submit before
the threat However, in their own way, people do resist.
This is where the role of the state comes in.
In the coming months and years, the challenge before the Bangladeshi
state is to get its act together. Individuals will play a major role in
the process. But the state needs to effectively marshal its own
instrumentalities and resources to tackle terrorism. Unfortunately,
prolonged political strife in the country has weakened its governmental
fabric. In such circumstances, the campaign of assassinations of secular
writers, poets, bloggers, the attacks on Hindu priests and temples
accompanied by spectacular terrorist acts are aimed at creating anarchy
and chaos in which the perpetrators believe they can advance their
agenda. For the Islamists, the agenda is about an Islamic state or a
Caliphate. But operating within their ambit are also other forces being
directed by Pakistan’s ISI.
In the days of erstwhile East Pakistan, the ISI used the territory to
support an assortment of Mizo, Naga and Assamese separatists. Beginning
in the 1990s, support was extended to groups like the Harkat-ul-jihad
Islami and the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba to perpetrate acts of violence in
India. Old links with the Jamaat-e-Islami have been useful here,
especially since many of the leaders of the outfit have more than once
advocated the reunification of Bangladesh with Pakistan. The Bangladesh
Nationalist Party, headed by Begum Khaleda Zia, has cynically allied
itself to the Islamists to take on the Awami League and this is a major
factor in destabilising Bangladeshi society.
Stabilising Bangladesh requires the efforts of not just the people of
the country and its government, but also its neighbours like India and
the international community. India’s role is important not only because
the country is ‘India-locked’ in terms of its land boundary, but given
the nature of that boundary, people, goods and ideas flow back and forth
easily, notwithstanding efforts to restrict their movement.
The battle is complex because terrorism is just a technique. What is
important is the need to combat and defeat the ideas that motivate the
terrorist. Individuals matter, but despite their heroism, they can be
overwhelmed. What is needed is the collective will of the people to
defeat those who seek to use violence to further their political and
Mid-Day July 5, 2016