Cut Down in Their Prime

When Bangladesh’s politicians exploit extremist Islam, liberal bloggers pay with their lives.

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“We must not expect much of religious fanatics. Whether these fanatics are Pakistani, American Christians, or Indian Hindus. At the end of the day they belong to the same cattle pen.” So wrote Ananta Bijoy Das, the young bank clerk and blogger who was the third atheist killed in Bangladesh this year for expressing his opposition to religious fanaticism. The attacks have come with unerring regularity and in similar grotesque fashion — with small groups of assailants ambushing their victims on the street and hacking them to death.

Washikur Rahman — who had assured his friends he was safe because he didn’t display his photo on his Facebook page — was on his way to work when he was murdered in March. The first to be killed this year, Avijit Roy, was a naturalized U.S. citizen. He had been visiting Bangladesh to promote his book,Virus of Faith, and was leaving a book fair in the capital with his wife when was set upon.

All three were in predictable locations. And in all three cases, police evinced an astonishing negligence. As Das wrote in one of his last blog posts, “When Avijit Roy was murdered, the police were standing nearby and watching the spectacle. The murderers left unscathed after their act. Later the police claimed there had apparently been no dereliction of duty. One would love to know what their duty was.” In only one case, that of Rahman, were any of the killers caught, and then only because several bystanders — members of the local transgender community, known as Hijra — had bravely intervened.

These attacks point to a worrying trend. Freedom of speech in Bangladesh — and with it the future of the country’s democracy — is being threatened by radical Islamists, who have learned to exploit the country’s fractious and venal political landscape. With mainstream political parties more interested in taking advantage of extremism for their own ends than in challenging it, the society’s most liberal and vulnerable voices are the ones who pay — in their own blood.

The pattern began in 2013 with an attempt to kill Asif Mohiuddin, also a committed atheist — and the only person who has survived such an attack. “I was coming to the office for the night shift,” he told me by phone from Germany, to which he has since fled. “From behind, three people attacked me with machetes and tried to cut off my head.” He fought back, he said, and was lucky to have survived. Mohiuddin and his two murdered compatriots, Das and Roy, had known each other for years — Roy had founded a blog, Mukto-Mona (“Free Mind”), dedicated to atheism and rational thought, which Das helped moderate and Mohiuddin wrote for.

The attack on Mohiuddin came after he and other secular voices had rallied Bangladeshis to protest in early 2013, calling for maximum punishment for Islamists on trial for committing war crimes during the country’s brutal war of independence from Pakistan. Some of the accused were senior politicians from opposition political parties, including the country’s largest Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami. Protesters were concerned that the accused would be able to escape justice in Bangladesh’s weak legal system. The protests, which became known as Shahbag, after the road junction of the capital where they gathered, were huge, and captured the nation’s imagination. But they also provoked a powerful backlash.

Both of Bangladesh’s largest political parties saw the secularist protests as an opportunity to score political points. Sensing their huge appeal, the ruling Awami League (AL) party — which is nominally secular and had promised to bring the war criminals to trial — initially tried to co-opt the movement. “When they saw we had huge support, they wanted to get that support,” said Mohiuddin. To appease the protesters, the government allowed the prosecution in the war crimes trials to appeal sentences. The prosecution did precisely that — and, instead of life imprisonment, Jamaat leader Abdul Qader Mollah received a death sentence. The man known as the “butcher of Mirpur” (a suburb of the capital) was eventually hung in December 2013.

For the largest opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the secular protests were an opportunity to rally conservative voices against the government, which they said was in league with forces who wanted to “destroy Islam.” An Islamist group called Hefezat-e-Islam, which arose from the country’s madrassas, promulgated lists of liberals to be targeted. These lists — along with the targets’ real names and locations — were republished in the Amar Desh, a popular tabloid connected to the BNP. The BNP also fielded Hefezat leaders as candidates for Parliament and expressed support for the group’s demands, which included introducing the death sentence for blasphemy and making it illegal for men and women to mingle in public.

Seeing that the secularist protests continued growing, Hefezat-e-Islam bussed in hundreds of thousands of its followers into the capital in April 2013 to demand, amongst other things, the death penalty for blasphemy. “The fundamentalists were thinking that the bloggers were powerful, that they need to be stopped,” said Mohiuddin. 

Hefezat-e-Islam’s rise caused the AL government to panic that its support for the Shahbag protesters, and the atheists associated with them, would prove too politically costly. In an attempt to appease the Islamist group, the government jailed Mohiuddin, who was still badly injured from the machete attack, and some fellow bloggers, in July 2013. In essence, the AL government had now twice used legal interventions to appease rival movements. In the end, press reports and observers suggest that the government succeeded in buying Hefezat-e-Islam’s quiescence. A huge Hefezat rally just prior to the January 2014 election was cancelled at the last minute — and the group went quiet.

As in many countries with weak institutions and endemic corruption, Bangladesh’s two main political parties compete not only for political power, but also for control of state institutions that offer lucrative possibilities for patronage to their leaders and supporters. When out of power, parties become divorced from their sources of revenue. As a result, the country’s political contests are winner-takes-all battles, inducing desperate measures to stay in power. This means parties are prepared to jump onboard, however hypocritically, with virtually anything that appears expedient. The Prime Minister’s son, Sajeeb Joy Wazed, made this very clear: “We don’t want to be seen as atheists. … But given that our opposition [BNP] party plays that religion card against us relentlessly, we can’t come out strongly for [Avijit Roy]. It’s about perception, not about reality.”

Seeing that mainstream parties are willing to appease them empowers radical groups such as Hefezat-e-Islam. Their ability to hold sway over hordes of devout, impressionable young men becomes a potent form of political power. This political climate has run concurrently with a global resurgence of harsh Wahabi Islam. As a result, Bangladesh has become ripe for exploitation by groups sympathetic to Al Qaeda and IS. The government’s failure to respond forcefully to the public butchering of those who question religion acts like a green light for such groups.

Mohiuddin is lucky. Having escaped beheading and then spending three months in jail, he managed to make it to Europe in time — unlike many of his fellow bloggers. He still can’t move his neck due to his injuries, says he has psychological trauma, and cannot sleep. It’s a road other Bangladeshi thinkers have trod before — Mohiuddin’s friend and liberal writer Humayun Azad was attacked in 2005 and died in Europe a tormented man. Mohiuddin says that in his last conversation with Azad, he could not recognize his friend, so tormented was he by the persistent threats.

Both the opposition and the ruling party saw the Shahbag episode as something to exploit, ultimately threatening the democracy they supposedly serve. The more voices are slain for speaking freely, the fewer dissenting expressions of opinion will be aired. More and more voices go dark and fail to enlighten others, and this young society becomes increasingly indoctrinated by those wielding the machete as opposed to a hunger for knowledge.

“When I first started blogging,” Mohiuddin says, “I thought I was the only [atheist]. … then I saw there are thousands, who said yes, I am atheist. Now they are getting attacked for doing so. They should claim their rights. They have the same rights.”

In the photo, Bangladeshis pay their last respects to slain blogger Avijit Roy in Dhaka on March 6, 2015.
Photo credit: MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP/Getty Images

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