Bangladesh is continuing to mourn a deadly attack that killed 20 people on Friday, after militants seized control of a trendy cafe in the diplomatic district of the capital, wielding explosives, guns and swords. In the ensuing 11-hour siege, the militants killed 20 diners from around the world. Two police officers were later killed when the authorities raided the restaurant and killed five of the six attackers. Authorities say the attackers were young men from Bangladesh’s elite, many of whom attended the country’s top schools. We’re joined by Sara Hossain, a barrister practicing in the Supreme Court of Bangladesh, who speaks of Bangladesh’s history of confronting threats to its secular traditions: “We’ve battled against other forces. We’ve battled against the military, authoritarianism, which we still have in a secular guise, of course. And we’ve battled against fundamentalists taking hold of our political processes. So I think the fact that we have these very distinct characteristics is a reason why we’re coming under attack.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We end the show today in Bangladesh, which is mourning a deadly attack that killed 20 people. On Friday, militants seized control of the trendy Holey Artisan Bakery in the diplomatic district of the capital, wielding explosives, guns and swords. In the ensuing 11-hour siege, the militants killed 20 diners from around the world, including nine Italians, seven Japanese, one Indian, two Bangladeshis and one U.S. citizen. Two police officers were later killed when the authorities raided the restaurant and killed five of the six attackers. Authorities say the attackers were young men from Bangladesh’s elite, many of whom attended the country’s top schools.
AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by Sara Hossain, a barrister practicing in the Supreme Court of Bangladesh in the areas of constitutional public interest and family law.
Sara Hossain, welcome to Democracy Now! She’s joining us from London. Can you talk about what happened in Bangladesh, in Dhaka?
SARA HOSSAIN: Yes. Well, in this last incident, what seems to have happened is that this group of young men went into the restaurant, into the Holey cafe, surrounded the place, divided people out based on their identity as foreigners, as non-Bangladeshis, and, critically, as non-Muslims. Those they identified as non-Muslims, which they apparently did by getting people to recite surahs, verses from the Qur’an, they executed immediately, hacking them to death. They also—they let some people out eventually, but most people were killed inside the cafe.
It was surrounded by police and paramilitaries, but somewhat belatedly. And in the operation that resulted, as you just said, more than 20 people were killed. And it seems now that one of those killed, in fact, was not—one of those who was identified earlier as one of the attackers seems to have been a person who was working inside the cafe and was actually killed in the fire from the law-enforcing agencies. It also seems that one of the people who was working inside the cafe had been arrested and has been apparently, according to reports from Bangladesh, very badly tortured and brutalized at the hands of the law-enforcing agencies, as well.
And still it’s not clear, although this has been claimed, it seems, by supposedly ISIS, according to the Bangladesh government, it’s still not being conceded or admitted that it may be by an international extremist group of this kind. So far, they’ve still been saying it may be—at least one source has been saying it’s home-grown terror, repeatedly, without any acknowledgment of any kind of transnational links.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Sara Hossain, what about this issue of some of the attackers being identified as coming from educated, middle-class or upper-class families, something we’ve seen in other attacks in other parts of the world by radical militants?
SARA HOSSAIN: Yes. Well, this is something, I think, that really has really shocked people, that some of those who have been identified, and who initially identified on social media, as being from some of the top private English medium schools and private English medium universities. Certainly, the—some of these universities, this one in particular, has been identified before as something of a breeding ground for extremism. Hizb ut-Tahrir was known to be active there, and other organizations. In the last few days, several reports are coming out from other students there who are saying that these kinds of groups are active there, trying to—trying to create a support base for fundamentalists or extremist organizations, Islamist organizations.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about Bangladesh? And when people talk about the war on terror, when people talk about what’s going on in different countries, we hear Iraq, we hear Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Syria. Bangladesh is not usually included. What is happening here, Sara Hossain?
SARA HOSSAIN: Yeah, I think it’s very disturbing that Bangladesh is being targeted in this way. And since we are not, in that sense, in the sort of scene of war, we’re not in the center of the Middle East, I found some of—listening to your previous interviews, I don’t think it’s so easy just to link us to the story of what’s happening in the Middle East. Bangladesh has got a very particular history. As you know, it became independent 45 years ago, precisely because it rejected the notion of religion being a sufficient binding force to build a nation. And it very consciously, I think, this country, Bangladesh, has developed a secular identity, and still has—I think we still have and we’re safeguarding the tattered remains of our secular identity and our secular values.
Bangladesh also, I think, has had a very distinct place in the world, because we’ve really achieved kind of quite remarkable changes in terms of development. If you look at our profile, certainly, as Tariq Ramadan would have it, a Muslim-majority country, but I think, for many of us, we would not see that as our defining characteristic. We would see ourselves as a developing country where incredible social change has happened in a very short period of time, where women have really fought for and won a space. And they haven’t done it thanks to working with moderate Muslim groups; they’ve done it because they’ve been part of civil society groups often. They’ve been part of benefiting from government policies that have been pro-poor, pro-women and pro-secularism for a large part of our history. We’ve battled against—we’ve battled against other forces. We’ve battled against the military, authoritarianism, which we still have in a secular guise, of course. And we’ve battled against fundamentalists taking hold of our political processes. So I think the fact that we have these very distinct characteristics is a reason why we’re coming under attack. And I think, because there’s been a very different culture, which is not—I would not see that in the same trajectory as a Muslim-majority culture as such. I think we’ve had many very particular differences that are the ones that are really coming under assault and threatened—
AMY GOODMAN: Sara—Sara Hossain, the U.N.—
SARA HOSSAIN: —prior to this incident, the kind of—the series we’ve seen over the last two years of individual targeted attacks on activists, be they secular activists, be they activists seeking justice for war crimes, historic crimes from 45 years ago, be they gay activists trying to really change dramatically and, importantly, change the kind of notion—increase inclusion, I think, in our societies, increase recognition of diversity in our society. Those are the people who have come under attack. And what we’ve unfortunately seen is that our government has really been in denial about that. It’s—
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, Sara Hossain. I want to thank you for being with us, barrister practicing in the Supreme Court of Bangladesh in the areas of constitutional, public interest and family law, speaking to us from London.