Online Extremism Index: Bangladesh

3rd August 2021

Launched by the ISD at the UN General Assembly in 2015, the Strong Cities Network (SCN) is the first global network of local leaders dedicated to combating hate, polarisation and extremism in all its forms.

As part of the SCN’s programme of ongoing research, ISD analysts have mapped and analysed the online extremist landscape in Bangladesh, Kenya, the Maldives, North Macedonia and Central Asia. The purpose of this research is to inform comprehensive, evidence-based responses to these online harms.

This Dispatch, which focuses on Bangladesh, is the first in a new Digital Dispatches series that will provide a snapshot of the extremist milieu online across these different geographical contexts.

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Bangladesh has witnessed an exponential increase in internet and social media penetration in the past year, with COVID-19 sending an increasing number of Bangladeshi people online. Social media has assumed a pivotal role in disseminating local and international news and is viewed as a faster and less censored medium through which to stay updated than traditional media. Simoultaneously, however, international and domestic extremist actors have benefitted from and capitalised on this increased internet use. For example, domestic YouTube channels affiliated with Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) collectively increased by over 100,000 subscribers at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While there has been research into this phenomenon offline, few studies focus on the potential for – and implications of – violent extremist narratives spreading online. There has been no mapping or analysis of online extremist narratives in Bangladesh to date, and this has led to a distinct knowledge gap about the nature and scale of online extremist content in Bangladesh.

In order to design and deliver informed and effective P/CVE policies and programmes, ISD researchers conducted an online mapping exercise to investigate the main extremist narratives deployed in Bangladesh in 2019 and 2020. Using a mixed method of quantitative data processing and expert qualitative analysis, ISD identified the main narratives used by Islamist extremists online, including how the COVID-19 pandemic has been exploited to polarise and further extremist agendas.

Key Findings

➜ Extremist narratives in Bangladesh are framed mostly around victimhood, presenting international and domestic conflicts as evidence of the systematic oppression and persecution of Muslims.

This focuses almost entirely on religion, with both secular and non-Islamic religious communities blamed for the perceived decline of Islamic values and practice domestically and globally.

➜  Polarising, reductive narratives perpetuated by Islamist groups online are weaponised to accuse the government of actively seeking to erode Islam.

Islamist groups pit themselves as morally superior ‘defenders of the faith’ against injustices faced by Muslims in the region and abroad. Online narratives enforce a dichotomy between just and pious Islamic governance (achieved by implementing an extremist interpretation of the Shari’ah) and what is perceived as corrupt, incompetent or illegitimate secular democracy.

➜ Although authorities have worked to remove targeted death threats, the underlying narratives of hate and personal culpability that drive them remain prolific.

Public figures that deviate from extremist understandings of what it means to be Muslim are accused of actively undermining Islam, rather than passively being ‘led astray’. These individuals are subsequently vulnerable to ‘takfir’ (excommunication). While the CTTC has responded and removed direct threats from social media, the underlying hate that drives them is still present online.

➜ Anti-secular narratives reinforce the notion of Islamism as the only solution to contemporary frustrations, both domestically and abroad.

This is supported by selective retellings of Islamic history that portray the 1971 war of independence as a missed opportunity to create an Islamic state; ignore the pluralistic heritage of the Bay of Bengal; glorify the conquests of the early Islamic Caliphates; and draw negative comparisons with the state of the Ummah today.

➜ The most extreme material is posted by profiles and pages that are not directly affiliated with offline organisations or parties, which grants them a degree of autonomy.

93% of the extremist posts that ISD analysts identified contained visual content (photo or video), which prompts users to engage more interactively with the content. Analysts also identified women-only branches of known groups to be active online, perpetuating gendered narratives that present Islamism as an ally of women’s rights.

➜ Efforts in Bangladesh to counter extremism online are limited.

Extremist content and hate speech remains even where violence is incited. This is reflective of past ISD research that suggests social media platforms lack the linguistic resource and/or contextual understanding to identify and take down non-English harmful content. There is also limited response from the grassroots. A historic concentration of P/CVE programmes in Dhaka may be leaving online narratives unaddressed in rural areas and other divisions.

Conclusion

This research highlights how extremist actors in Bangladesh regularly reformulate domestic and international events to present Islamism as the only solution to the frustrations and injustices of Muslims. Extremist actors are adept at generating and propagating narratives that build traction to ultimately undermine and delegitimise the Bangladeshi state. One reason for this is to present Islamism as the necessary (and sole) alternative to secular government and the ruling Awami League.

Fear-mongering narratives that claim Islam is under attack by homogeneous ‘others’ across the world embeds an ‘us-versus-them’ mentality that dehumanises non-Muslims and ignores the pluralist history of the region. Narratives about the oppression of Islam are contrasted with depictions of prosperity and conquest in selective retellings of Islamic history. Perhaps most pointedly, this research also reveals the very real potential for extremist rhetoric to escalate to death threats. Given that online content has been affiliated with offline violence in Bangladesh in the past, this research speaks to an urgent need for a response to extremist content that will mitigate the risks of future violence.

This research has been conducted at a pivotal moment. The COVID-19 pandemic and consequent social restrictions are sending people online in greater numbers than ever before, while the economic fallout is likely to amplify local grievances and frustrations, and government attention is dominated by the immediate public health response. Opportunistic extremist actors have and will continue to capitalise on the impact of the pandemic. Social restrictions, including on congregational prayers, are fodder for victimhood narratives that claim Islam is under threat. Ultimately, COVID-19 has opened a doorway for Islamist groups to position themselves as sympathisers of an aggrieved populace, speaking to the urgent need for appropriate responses to extremism online.