Joseph Allchin is a journalist who has covered the greater Bay of Bengal region for The Economist and The Financial Times, among other publications. He is the author of the forthcoming book Many Rivers, One Sea: Bangladesh and the Challenge of Islamist Militancy.
The demonization of the Sunni Muslim Rohingya minority as “extremists” or “terrorists” has proved effective for nationalist politicians with Myanmar’s Buddhist majority. But this othering of the Rohingya now risks dangerous secondary effects. Chiefly, that the government’s conjuring of the specter of a jihadist insurgency may prove self-fulfilling, with an embittered, radicalized Rohingya diaspora forced over the border at bayonet point into Bangladesh, where a coterie of Islamist groups like Hizb-ut-Tahrir are using the Rohingya cause to whip up popular sentiment for their own political purposes.
The July 1 massacre in Bangladesh was quickly claimed by ISIS. But viewed from up close, the recent history of Islamist extremism in Bangladesh suggests that both the government and its critics may be missing the underlying story, in which both ISIS and local groups have a part. The ruling party’s clumsy and authoritarian response to recent violence and opposition protests may also be encouraging radicalization.