Islamic fundamentalism has been rearing its head and striking viciously, at will and with impunity in Bangladesh. Every few weeks, an advocate of free speech or thinking, a proponent of secularism, a liberal voice, a member of a religious minority is brutally attacked. Every few weeks, a blogger, a publisher, a student, an academic, an atheist, an activist, a foreigner, is mercilessly hacked to death, silenced forever with machetes.
The list of those killed for their beliefs is over 20 since 2013. Even as I write, news comes in of the latest victim, Mohammad Shahidullah, a local Sufi leader, slaughtered in Rajshahi, according to the police, for propagating Sufism, a mystical strain of Islam considered aberrant by many of Bangladesh’s majority Sunni Muslims.
The violence seems to have intensified. In just over a month, in addition to the Sufi leader, four others have been targeted. On April 6, machete-wielding men attacked law student, Nazimuddin Samad, while he sat in traffic and then shot him, ostensibly for sharing secularist posts on social media.
A little over two weeks later, it was the turn of an English professor, Rezaul Karim Siddique, the perfect embodiment of “Bangla” culture, an avid reader and sitar player who organized cultural activities at the university. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for his death on the grounds that he promoted atheism. The professor was, in fact, a believer who had donated generously for the building of a mosque in his neighborhood.
Bangladeshis were still digesting this news when word came in of the savage killing of Xulhaz Mannan, a gay rights activist and his friend, Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy, a theater actor, at the former’s house in a densely-populated central Dhaka neighborhood. Mannan had co-founded “Roopban”, a magazine devoted to LGBT issues.
Initially, it was secular bloggers, perceived as atheists, who were the hapless targets. Word was out that a hit list of 84 “atheist bloggers” was, and still is, in circulation. But with the passing months, the killers appear to have broadened their list of potential victims. Of late, believers and non-believers alike, Bangladeshi nationals as well as foreigners, members of religious minorities such as Shias, Sufis, Ahmedias, Christians as well as a Hindu priest have been assaulted or hacked to death.
Some of these murders have been captured on CCTV. Many have eyewitnesses. But the police seem to have made little or no headway in their investigations. There has been only one conviction. It is for the 2013 murder of blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider. A couple of arrests have been made in one or two cases but the effort at tracking and prosecuting the criminals seems tentative at best. Rather, both the police and the government seem inclined to reprimand atheist bloggers for writing on controversial matters.
After the murder of Niloy Neel, a blogger, last August, the Inspector General of Police called for self-censorship by bloggers and even threatened them with legal action under the current on-line communications laws. The Cabinet Committee for Law and Order further declared atheist authors as criminals subject to penal action and intelligence agencies were asked to monitor blogs. The public too, has been encouraged to report atheist writings to the police.
Instead of protecting her people’s right to freedom of expression, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina recently warned: “I don’t consider such writings as freethinking but filthy words. Why would anyone write such words? It’s not at all acceptable if anyone writes against our prophet or other religions.”And Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan said of Nazimuddin Samad’s murder that no-one had the right to attack religious leaders and that the government would examine the blogger’s posts.
It is hardly surprising then that the father of publisher Faysal Deepan said after he was killed last year that he would not seek justice, “as I know there is no justice out there for me.” The government’s inaction is tantamount to turning a blind eye to the brutal attacks and is likely to send a wrong signal of tolerance to the killers. In a recent statement, PEN International said “a growing climate of fear has been fed by impunity for these crimes, which has in turn led to further attacks on free thinkers and the release of new ‘hit lists’.”
Elected on a secular platform, Sheikh Hasina’s party, the Awami League, is walking an electoral tightrope. Muslims make up 90% of the population in Bangladesh and so any measures perceived to be anti-Islamic would undermine her electoral base and allow Islamist hardliners to make inroads. Support for bloggers’ freedom of expression is likely to be represented as such by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Islamist party, the Jamaat-e-Islami.
The current cycle of violence began in 2013 when one of the leading lights of Jamaat, Abdul Quader Molla, long accused of crimes against humanity committed during the 1971 war, was finally convicted and hanged under intense public pressure. He was initially sentenced to life imprisonment but violent protests in Dhaka, since dubbed the Shahbag movement, forced the government’s hand. The death penalty was instated and executed rapidly, without the due appeals process taking its normal course. Jamaat denounced the act as a political killing that would be avenged. The government’s continued prosecution of the others accused of war crimes has only strengthened this resolve of vengeance. The hanging of Motiur Rahman Nizami, former minister and head of the Jamaat is likely to unleash another round of violence.
However, the Islamic State, which is seeking to establish a strong base in South Asia, has jumped into the fray and claimed responsibility for the recent murders. Opinion is divided on this, as many analysts believe that homegrown extremists are behind the spate of killings. Sheikh Hasina’s government has dismissed the IS claim outright as well as all suggestions linking the hackings to al Qaeda-linked groups. The government places the blame squarely at the door of the main opposition party, the BNP, its ally, Jamaat, and other local, fundamentalist Islamist and militant groups like the Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh or the Ansarulla Bangla Team, accusing them of fomenting trouble and seeking to destabilize the government and the country. The opposition on the other hand has denied the charge and says the government’s blame game has diluted its credibility in identifying the real culprits.
In the meantime, while the government continues its balancing act pandering to Islamist votes, a climate of fear has gripped the country. People are prudent about their social media posts; religious minorities feel vulnerable; bloggers on the hit list move from house to house avoiding their own homes; still others have fled the country. The very culture of Bangladeshis, a peaceful, music loving people, their heritage and identity are threatened. Their freedom of expression is being curtailed.
However, in spite of the sword of Damocles hanging over their heads, some brave, young, and not so young, Bangladeshis are continuing to speak up, continuing the fight to preserve religious harmony and freedom of expression in their homeland.
It is high time that the government of Bangladesh whose re-election in January 2014 was strongly contested by the opposition, proves its secular credentials by protecting all threatened, by strongly condemning the killings and by identifying and prosecuting the perpetrators. It is high time indeed that this horrific cycle of violence is brought to an end.