By Mizanur Rahman Khan
Oct 07, 2015
Dr. Siegfried O Wolf is Senior Researcher (member) at the South Asia Institute (SAI), Heidelberg University, and Director of Research at SADF (Coordinator: Democracy Research Program). He was educated at the SAI and Institute of Political Science (IPW) in Heidelberg. Additionally he is a visiting fellow at the National University of Science and Technology (NUST, Islamabad), affiliated researcher at the Pakistan Security Research Unit (PSRU, Durham University), and a former research fellow at IPW and Centre de Sciences Humaines (New Delhi, India). He is the co-author of ‘A Political and Economic Dictionary of South Asia’ (Routledge: London, 2006), co-editor of ‘Politics in South Asia. Culture, Rationality and Conceptual Flow’ (Springer: Heidelberg, 2015), ‘The Merits of Regionalisation. The Case of South Asia’ (Springer: Heidelberg, 2014), and ‘State and Foreign Policy in South Asia’ (Sanskriti, 2010), and Deputy Editor of the ‘Heidelberg Papers in South Asian and Comparative Politics’ (HPSACP). Furthermore, he has worked as a consultant for the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), Germany, and is member of the external experts group of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Task Force, Federal Foreign Office, Germany.
Prothom Alo: How do you see the activities of Bangladeshi jihadists in the context of global jihadism?
Siegfried O Wolf: During the last decade, Bangladesh turned into a pivot for international terrorism. First of all, it serves, besides the Af-Pak region, as one of the most significant recruiting bases for the global jihad. The tremendous amount of Bangladeshis joining the Taliban in Afghanistan to fight NATO/ISAF troops or the (sporadic) arrests of recruiters, for example for Islamic State and Al-Nusra Front in Syria, can be seen as proof. Secondly, Bangladesh became a place for training and regrouping, as well as a platform to conduct terrorist attacks abroad. Unlike Pakistan and Afghanistan, the country is not in the military focus of the ‘war against terror’. Furthermore, a section of Bangladesh’s Islamist political parties are not only promoting Islamisation and militant extremism but also creating an atmosphere which is supportive of jihadists. In consequence, Bangladesh has developed into a favoured place for international terrorists to seek shelter. Today Bangladeshi jihadists determine a crucial constituent of global jihadism.
Prothom Alo: As an expert of South Asian affairs, how do you evaluate the root causes of the present Bangladesh jihadi problem in light of historical context?
Siegfried O Wolf: The breeding ground for this process was prepared by the country’s military rulers. During both autocratic governments (Zia and Ershad), far reaching constitutional amendments were introduced which undermined the institutional bulwark, i.e. the principles of secularism and democracy, against a potential Islamist takeover. More concretely, Ziaur and Ershad diluted the secular principles in the constitution in order to gain legitimacy by playing the religious card. They were undoubtedly inspired by their Pakistani peer, General Zia-ul Haq, under whose dictatorial regime Pakistan descended into a marsh of Islamic fundamentalism. By anchoring Islam in the constitution and putting religion at the centre of the political discourse, Bangladesh was effectively transformed into an Islamic state.
As a result, Islamist parties have been able to incrementally appropriate room in the political arena, despite the fact that they did not enjoy much public support. It is interesting that in this direction Pakistan serves as a crucial point of reference. The fact that Islamist parties do not get many votes percentage-wise does not automatically imply that they are marginalised when it comes to exercising political influence and access to state resources. Here, aggressive political behaviour combined with extra-judicial measures (e.g. black mailing, target killings, major terrorist activities) are used as a compensation for the lack of electoral support.
Prothom Alo: How do you see the killing of the Italian NGO official in Dhaka?
Siegfried O Wolf: The killing of the Italian aid worker Cesare Tavella in the high security diplomatic area of Dhaka determines not only a broadening of the scope of terrorism in the country but also a tectonic shift the Islamist landscape in the country. This malicious assassination is the first attack by the Islamic State (IS) activists and emphasises that the global jihad is taking root in Bangladesh. Having this in mind, the general South Asian strategy of ignoring or downplaying of an Islamist threat is not only naive but also short-sited. It should be remembered that the price will not only be paid by the country’s troubled religious minorities as well as ‘western targets’ but by the whole state and society. IS follows the tradition of Salafist-orientation in Islam and is deeply attracted by the ideology of the Jamaat-e-Islami founded by Abul Ala Maududi.
Prothom Alo: Many Bangladeshi security experts opined that the one of the key planners of the August 17 Thai blast took shelter in Bangladesh. They feel that it indicates that Chinese militants might have established a new support base in Bangladesh? Do you agree?
Siegfried O Wolf: Basically there are several hypotheses to explain the Bangkok blasts. Some analysts are seeking its roots in the Muslim insurgency in southern Thailand and others are trying to link the bombing with military factionalism or tensions between army and police. There were also some speculations that international acting jihadist organisations, especially al-Qaeda who gets increasingly more active in Southern Asia, orchestrated the attack. However, most plausible at the moment is that there is a correlation between the blasts and the forced repatriation of Uighurs by the Thai government this summer. In this context, one should emphasise that the Xinjiang militants might have difficulties to conduct such a high profile attack by themselves and are in need of additional support. In this context one should mention that a section of Xinjiang militants are acting increasingly embedded in the global Jihadist networks which are deeply entrenched in Bangladesh. Therefore, it is very likely that a section of Xinjiang militants build up a support base in Bangladesh.
Prothom Alo: Some experts also think that making a base so far from China will not be of any help to the terrorists. What is your opinion?
Siegfried O Wolf: Choosing Bangladesh to build up a support base must be seen as an indication that the Xinjiang militants broaden their scope regarding goals and strategies. It becomes obviously that they are not just aiming to fight for separatism or autonomy of Xinjiang rather to join the international acting ‘mainstream jihad’. As such, one must expect an increase of Xinjiang militants’ attacks outside China, especially to target Beijing development projects and Chinese state enterprises abroad. Having this in mind, Bangladesh is a geostrategic extraordinary well placed location between South and South East Asia.
Prothom Alo: Did Xinjiang gain ‘independence’ in the past? Chinese officials told us that this territory never separated from mainland China. What are the facts?
Siegfried O Wolf: Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Xinjiang is part of mainland China. In 1955 the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) got established. Over time, this province enjoyed varying degrees of autonomy, foremost on the district level, but never reached a status which could be described or is commonly understood as ‘independent’.
However, from the city of Kashghor, Eastern Turkestan Republic or Eastern Turkestan Islamic Republic was proclaimed by the Uighur nationalists in 1933 but it vanished before it had a chance to develop.
Prothom Alo: How do you evaluate the 10% GDP growth and other means of development in Xinjiang and public support for the “independence movement”?
Siegfried O Wolf: Today’s China’s is not only troubled by a slackening economy, but is also characterised by a tremendous economic imbalance. The extremely prosperous eastern and south-eastern coastal areas are in sharp contrast to the underdeveloped, but resource rich western region of China. This is one of the main reasons which led to the accusation that Beijing is exploiting Xinjiang and not giving the local people their fair share of revenue for the province’s natural resources. Additionally, the western region suffers from a lack of investment, infrastructure and job opportunities which further add to the grievances of the local people. This economic rationale is without any doubt a major reason which led to social and political instability and the claim for more autonomy. In order to create incentives to invest for both state and private enterprises to expand economic activity in this ‘restive province’, Beijing initiated the ‘One Belt and One Road’ (OBOR) plan which aims to revive ancient trade routes connecting Asia with Europe and Africa. Especially the Silk Road Economic Belt -which is one constitute of the OBOR- focuses on the establishment of economic land corridors and is supposed to bring large scale development projects to Xinjiang in order to mollify the anger of the local population.
Prothom Alo: You have stated that “many” of the “Turkic-speaking Uighurs” are in favor of separating from China or receiving “greater autonomy”. Do the majority among them want full separation?
Siegfried O Wolf: There is no doubt that a large segment of the local population is dissatisfied with their living conditions and insufficient economic prospects. However, the majority Uighurs are rather in favour of greater autonomy than total separation. They are aware that the separatists, especially those inspired by global jihadis, are not aiming at the establishment of an independent state or an improvement for the living conditions of the Uighurs. But rather to incorporate them into a greater Islamic Caliphate which will be ruled by draconian notions of Islamic fundamentalist state and society.
Prothom Alo: Westerners speak of Chinese “persecution” on Uighurs and they also termed ETIM as a terrorist organisation. Do you not find any contradiction in this regard?
Siegfried O Wolf: There is a clear causality between Chinese persecution on Uighurs and the emergence of ETIM. However, in order to understand the complexity of the situation in Xinjiang as well as the international impact of militant Uighur separatism one has to separate both above mentioned issues. ETIM (East Turkestan Islamic Movement), an umbrella organisation for Uighur fighters, is doubtless a terror organisation active in several countries outside China. For example, it’s proven that a section of Uighurs is involved in terrorist activities in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Syria, maintaining close links to al-Qaida, Taliban and Islamic State. These jihadists are instrumentalising the accusation of human rights violations against peace loving Uighurs and social, economic, and political disadvantages to justify the declaration of Jihad against China. Therefore, I don’t see any contradiction about emphasising Chinese unease on Uighurs and labelling ETIM as a terrorist organisation. These two phenomena are two sides of the same coin, but need to be analysed from different perspectives: ETIM is increasingly part of global jihadism where accused human rights violation is a matter of international law and conventions.
Prothom Alo: Do you have any suggestions to the government of Bangladesh, opposition parties and its people to cope with the menace of terrorism?
Siegfried O Wolf: The fact that some of Bangladesh’s political parties, like the BNP and its close ties with the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami, have a soft corner for Islamic extremism is an additional heavy burden for the protection of pluralistic and liberal norms and values. Not only were using state resources to promote their ‘anti-secular revolution’ but also to push the entrenchment of Islamic fundamentalist elements deeply into the political-administrative structure of the country. Today, Bangladesh’s Islamisation is not a silent process anymore. It is loud, aggressive and it has reached the centre of power politics in Dhaka. It’s time to develop a coherent and stringent strategy against religious fundamentalism. Until now, the few measures carried out by the current government to contain the Islamist threats remain ineffective, especially if one looks at the mobilising capacities of the Islamists and the on-going operations of ‘’officially banned organisations. In order to stop this threat, a collective national consensus and stringent engagement of all democratic and secular forces is necessary.
(An abridged version of this interview was published on 1 October in the Prothom Alo print edition)