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Worthy attempt to capture a murky world

  • Published at 04:30 pm December 14th, 2019
Many Rivers, One Sea

Review of Joseph Allchin's 'Many Rivers, One Sea'

This is the first time that a book attempts to discuss Islamist terrorism in Bangladesh objectively. Many Rivers, One Sea explores the many strands of that nonsensical, irrational world of violent extremism, which is understandably complex with many layers and folds that Joseph Allchin seeks to point towards, explaining a few of them along the way. It is a serious work of non-fiction on people who are taken seriously only because of their dedicated lunacy and utter lack of common sense. It is obvious that the book centers around the massacre at Holey Artisan Bakery, an upscale restaurant serving fairly authentic ceviche and paella, and strives to explain the forces that acted behind this most gruesome manifestation of Islamist fundamentalism in Bangladesh.

Opening with the war crimes trials and the Shahbagh vigil — “a liberal street festival with a morbid demand”—which triggered an outbreak of violent extremism, Allchin goes back and forth in time exploring different events and incidents that presumably led to the Holey attack in 2016. Indeed it was during that heady February of 2013 when the Shahbagh protests were on in full swing that Ahmed Rajib Haider was executed. Writing under his pseudonym Thaba Baba, Haider was the first—what idiots called “atheist-blogger”—of the progressive liberal bloggers to be systematically targeted and executed for their secular ideology and unapologetic atheism.

Many Rivers, One Sea visits the horrors of 1975 and examines a number of events including the bloody BDR mutiny of 2009, the country-wide string of bombings in 2004, the Rohingya influx, rise of Jamaat-e-Islami, Jamaatul Mujahideen and Hefazat-e-Islam, weaving a captivating narrative without sacrificing academic rigor—the 200-page book has over 40 pages of endnotes. The book puts together relevant events to explain what eventually led to that balmy July evening of 2016 at the leafy neighbourhood home to many of Dhaka’s elite.

While the book introduces most of the dots in the puzzle, Allchin does not connect many of them, presumably leaving it to the readers. For instance, it would take a rather naïve reader to think that although Bangladesh was a fertile playground of Pakistan’s ISI during BNP days, it is not so for ISI’s Indian counterpart, RAW under the current regime. Allchin does not spare the BNP and its founder, for legitimising Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh’s largest fundamentalist political party, but he does not berate Awami League for practically being in bed with Hefazat-e-Islam and pandering to their demands or even striking an electoral deal with Khelafat Majlish in 2006.

The book is also limited in terms of insight from the Islamist perspective because of the predictable challenges that a foreign journalist might face trying to talk to fundamentalists in Bangladesh. Besides the obvious language and cultural barriers, much of which Allchin has overcome to his credit, there is always a hint of mistrust and apprehension among local contacts. There have been cases where local correspondents got into trouble with the law for allegedly “abetting” what was said to border on espionage or subversion. To make matters worse, the ruling Awami League-led government vehemently denied any links between the attackers of Holey and IS, claiming that they were all “home grown”.

It is perhaps owing to that limitation that the book does not explore a prevailing theory explaining the apparently random executions of foreigners by IS (Kunio Hoshi and Cesare Tavella for example), while readers are left with enough information to realise that Al Qaeda In Subcontinent (AQIS) only targeted free thinkers or progressives (Ahmed Rajib Haider and Abhijit Roy for example). The random executions were meant to act as bait that would encourage a wave on social media and the internet where it would be possible to identify the right kind of individuals for recruitment based on their reaction. The book draws a blank on fish bait or sleeper cells.

Allchin lived in Bangladesh as a child and later covered Bangladesh for the Financial Times and the Economist; he is familiar with the language and relates well to the local context, which makes the book quite relevant for researchers as well as general readers. It is only for that reason that certain omissions should not be seen as a high-brow English dismissal of a colonial—hence unimportant—detail. These range from the silly oversight of passing off “jongli” as “jongi” (while jongis or terrorists could very well be jonglis, the two are hardly synonymous), to passing off Kalabagan, a more middle-class neighborhood, as the Dhanmondi neighborhood when discussing Xulhaz Mannan’s murder at his apartment. Dhanmondi, of course, has long been home to the urban intellectual elite for long and although they are adjacent, the connotation is markedly different.

Although published by Penguin Random House, the book is replete with grammatical errors (e.g. “Labannya told press that she…” or “perhaps enjoying the hip brunch classic shakshuka…” are only two of the more passable ones) that only the editors could be faulted for. The name of the parliament building’s architect is spelled as Louis Khan. It appears that the global dip in intellectual capital has taken its toll on Penguin too.

Many Rivers, One Sea is a good example of solid investigation on the ground, supported by robust research providing for a solid platform for further work on the topic which is woefully inadequate in Bangladesh. In all fairness, Allchin acquits himself rather well in his attempt to capture all the complexities of a murky world.

Tanim Ahmed is a journalist. He worked for New Age, Holiday, bdnews24.com, Independent Television and is currently at Dhaka Tribune as a special correspondent where he mostly writes news analysis.