The South Asia Channel

To Counter IS in Bangladesh, Look To The Bloggers

If the international community is concerned about the spread of IS in Bangladesh, it should pressure the government to provide a secure space for free media.

A Bangladeshi social activist pays his  last respects to slain US blogger of Bangladeshi origin and founder of the Mukto-Mona (Free-mind) blog site, Avijit Roy in Dhaka on March 6, 2015 after he was hacked to death by unidentified assailants in the Bangladeshi capital on February 26.  An FBI team has arrived in Dhaka to help investigate the American-Bangladeshi writers gruesome killing.  AFP PHOTO / Munir uz ZAMAN        (Photo credit should read MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
A Bangladeshi social activist pays his last respects to slain US blogger of Bangladeshi origin and founder of the Mukto-Mona (Free-mind) blog site, Avijit Roy in Dhaka on March 6, 2015 after he was hacked to death by unidentified assailants in the Bangladeshi capital on February 26. An FBI team has arrived in Dhaka to help investigate the American-Bangladeshi writers gruesome killing. AFP PHOTO / Munir uz ZAMAN (Photo credit should read MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

The recent attacks in Paris and the Sinai brought attention to the Islamic State’s (IS) ability to perpetrate terrorist attacks around the world. In Bangladesh, IS has claimed responsibility for attacks against foreign nationals, including an attack on an Italian priest and the murder of an Italian aid worker, as well as a shooting in a Shia mosque. Although these attacks do not demonstrate the degree of sophistication and operational planning involved in the Paris or Sinai attacks, they have raised concerns about the influence of the organization in Bangladesh. An article in a recent issue of Dabiq, IS’ online magazine, pledged to revive jihad in “Bengal,” and claimed that IS has appointed a regional leader in Bangladesh.

However, those concerned with countering the influence of IS in Bangladesh should also pay special attention to other recent non-IS attacks in Bangladesh against secular, moderate Bangladeshi voices, like the four prominent Bangladeshi bloggers killed in 2015. These attacks, coupled with the government’s crackdown on bloggers and on media freedom more broadly, have the potential to silence political moderates in the country — a scenario that can only benefit IS.

IS is well-known for using social media to gain support and recruits. Moderate local voices on social media and other online platforms are effectively placed to promote alternative narratives to IS’ radicalism; a recent Brookings analysis suggested that “digital communication itself is a central strategy or countering terrorism,” and that IS “counter-narrative campaigns obtain more engagement and more views when they are distributed through non-government channels.” By silencing bloggers and other voices that can counter violent extremist narratives, these attacks may help provide a fertile recruiting ground for radical groups like IS. To counter its growing influence, policymakers should foster an environment of media freedom and security.

This series of recent attacks against secular bloggers (the so-called “Atheist bloggers”) and their associates, likely perpetrated by radical Islamist groups, began in February 2015 when the well-known blogger Avijit Roy, an American citizen, was stabbed to death by machete-wielding assailants in Dhaka. Since then, several bloggers who wrote for secular and humanist platforms — Oyasiqur Rhaman, Ananta Bijoy Das, and Niloy Neel — have been killed. On October 31, several publishing houses that had produced secular and atheist texts in the past were attacked. Anonymous extremists have circulated a “hit list” of 84 bloggers they claim they intend to attack, raising further fears within this community.

Violence against religious minorities in Bangladesh has also polarized the political space, putting pressure on secular and inter-faith voices. Incidents of violence against religious minorities may also be on the rise: the first two weeks of December saw a bombing of a Hindu religious gathering and an attack on a Hindu temple, both in northern Bangladesh. In late November, the Hindu leader of a multi-faith forum for religious minorities was attacked. An attack against a Shia mosque a few weeks ago, as well as a series of threats sent to Christian priests, may lead to further political polarization. AMM Muniruzzaman, President of the Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies, recently suggested that “attacks on Shia and threats against Christians are evidence of efforts to create a sectarian, religious divide in Bangladesh.”

Rising violence in Bangladesh against bloggers and religious minorities has already curbed the participation of moderate voices in political debates. As Buzzfeed recently reported, many atheist bloggers plan to leave the country or have stopped writing altogether. Driving these moderate voices underground will diminish the influence of their counterparts in government, leaving space for fundamentalist voices to forward their views, leading to an increasingly fertile recruiting ground for foreign organizations like IS.

Unfortunately, the government of Bangladesh has taken a schizophrenic approach to dealing with the rising tide of violence against bloggers and other moderate voices. It has provided increased security protection for some bloggers, banned some local terrorist groups, and even made some arrests. However, in 2013, the government arrested four bloggers under blasphemy laws, including one who had previously been attacked by an extremist group. Although the government is currently headed by the secular-leaning Awami League, the party behaves as though it occasionally needs to kowtow to more conservative religious forces, especially in the run-up to elections, often by taking largely symbolic steps like arresting atheist bloggers.

The government’s crackdown on social media platforms over the past several months also provoked concerns about a wider pattern of media censorship. The government recently banned several social media sites for almost a month “in the interest of national security,” a government minister claimed. In a country where websites like Facebook are seen as a crucial source of information, such shutdowns are “part of a creeping pattern of censorship” that curtails media freedom. Nurul Kabir, the editor of a leading English-language newspaper in Bangladesh, recently noted that “the present government has started putting pressure on people who criticize its activities or reject its political or philosophical stance.”

Recent protests against the blogger attacks are one positive sign of the resilience of these moderate voices and their resolve. But the government must do a better job of protecting them, working to foster and preserve space for moderate political voices, rather than cracking down on them. The government of Bangladesh should reform laws restricting freedom of the press, including the criminal libel and blasphemy laws that have been used to restrict media freedom. The 1974 Special Powers Act allows the government to detain journalists for up to 120 days without trial, and has been used to target journalists who are critical of government policies. Especially problematic is the 2013 Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act, which has been used by the government to target the atheist bloggers for arrest. The government recently proposed a new piece of legislation, the Digital Security Act 2016, that they claim is designed to counter cyber crime. Yet the proposed legislation has only raised more concerns that it may be used to target journalists and further limit freedom of expression. Both the Special Powers Act and ICT Act should be abolished or substantially reformed. International pressure will be key in encouraging the government to reform media laws and to rein back its social media censorship.

If the international community is concerned about the spread of IS in Bangladesh, it should pressure the government to provide a secure space for free media, including providing enhanced security for all of the bloggers included on the “hit list,” and others who have been threatened by extremist groups, and to give up its occasional crackdowns on bloggers, publishers, and other moderate media voices. These attacks and arrests have a silencing effect, forcing moderates to cede ground to fundamentalist voices.

 

Image Credit: MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP/Getty Images

Alexandra Stark is a PhD student in International Relations at Georgetown University, and a Research Assistant for the World Faiths Development Dialogue in Washington, D.C. She holds an MSc from the London School of Economics.

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