Four secular Bangladeshi writers have been killed since November of 2014: Rajshahi University professor AKM Shafiul Islam, and writers Avijit Roy, Oyasiqur Rahman Babu and Ananta Bijoy Das.
At least a dozen more have been killed and scores of others attacked or threatened with death for their progressive and secular views, since massive protests erupted in 2013 calling for Islamist parties to be banned. The protesters also demanded that war criminals including some Islamist politicians be hanged for war crimes committed in 1971. A war crimes court handed down a series of death sentences to a number of people including a few Islamist leaders later that year.
All of the murdered bloggers or activists had one thing in common: they openly opposed Bangladesh's increasingly unpopular largest Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami, and similar communal Islamist organisations, who have been fighting a losing battle for a more conservative, religion-based legal regime in the country since 1971 when the country first won independence from Pakistan. In 2013, Bangladesh's Supreme Court declared the Jamaat illegal, blocking it from contesting in the country's elections.
Law enforcement and the judiciary have failed to adequately investigate the recent killings, some of which have happened with apparent blessings from international militant groups like al-Qaeda.
Bangladesh is a non-religious parliamentary democracy, which means there is no Sharia or blasphemy law. People who identify as atheists have the same rights as other citizens. However, under Section 295A of Bangladesh's Penal Code (1860), any person who has a “deliberate” or “malicious” intention of “hurting religious sentiments” is liable to imprisonment. While Bangladesh's constitution has recognised and protected the right to secularism since 2011, it also allows religion-based politics and identifies Islam as its state religion. Government inaction and police ineffectiveness have also given Islamist groups a certain amount of impunity.
Several militant leaders and field-level workers were arrested in a crackdown recently, including an alleged leader of Al-Qaeda's branch in the region. Al-Qaeda in South Asia has claimed responsibility for the murder of several secular bloggers in Bangladesh this year, including Mukto-Mona blog (free-thinker) founder Avijit Roy.
Law enforcers have also identified new militant organizations that are campaigning against progressive cultural norms to justify the need for Islamic revolution in this state. But the cases of the bloggers and professor mentioned above have scarcely seen progress. Police last week claimed to have identified seven suspected killers of Avijit, saying that their photos had been verified by the wife of the slain blogger, but Mukto-Mona blog refuted the claim on Thursday.
Global Voices contacted several secular bloggers and online activists to know their views regarding the recent killings, investigation process and possible future plan of the militant groups operating in the country. We received responses from four individuals. Several others refrained from making any comment out of fear of reprisal.
NAME WITHHELD* • Activist, Bangladesh
History says that all these attacks against atheists, Hindus, etc. are the result of materialistic rather than religious issues. The hatred against atheism is not new in Bangladesh, but the attacks on atheists with machetes is definitely something new. The killers are probably motivated by the political powers and their interests, whether among the ruling coalition or the opposition.
There has been no satisfactory development in probing the killings of so-called atheists since the attack on Prof. Humayun Azad in 2004. The killers of Avijit Roy have not been identified or arrested; we do not know about the masterminds in Oyasiqur murder…it seems that the law enforcers are not interested…For this, even the coordinators like Redwanul Azad Rana or Masum (alleged gang leader behind attack on Oyasiqur) [have not been] arrested yet.
Considering the previous incidents, I am not hopeful that the planners and their patrons [will] be identified and held. According to their claims, the Islamist organisations want to establish Shariah law. They attract ordinary Muslims by making false promises to claim that Islamic rule will end oppression and discrimination against the common people. Their activities have no relation with the religion.
There is contradiction in the words and the deeds of the government. They talk about battling the extremists but also use religion for their own political advantage. The government took no step to implement secular and scientific curricula in all primary schools and madrassas.
ARIFUR RAHMAN • Bangladeshi blogger, UK
It is widely alleged, truly, that these killings are the evident result of callousness of the law enforcers and the government who are taking the country towards backward. These are not ordinary killings or violence, but acts of some organised criminals with a particular motive. Militants have been given scopes to spread under the incumbent government though many developed countries had warned Bangladesh and also pledged to assist in combating militancy. The government is not carrying out [the] probe properly. [It seems to understand] so-called power politics only. I am aggrieved as well as frustrated seeing no [awareness of] reality in [the] speeches and actions of this developing country.
Killing secular writers is not just another murder. There is a huge group working from behind the [scenes]. I doubt whether the government wants to bring them to book or enforce the laws. Look at Avijit murder case probe; police [found] no clue in several months!
It is not tough to understand the aim [of fundamentalist groups]. You can easily realise their agenda while going through the 13-point demands put forward by Hefazat-e-Islam and the 10 points declared by Olama League. Bangladesh is a victim of distorted Islam introduced by Saudi Wahabi and Pakistani Moududi followers. This Islam is deeply rooted in the country's economy, thanks to Jamaat-e-Islami and the Saudi Sheikhs. It is not possible to save Bangladesh until we have moral strength and strong resolve to establish secularism. The Wahabi militants want to change.
What the extremists are trained to do [kill people], they will keep doing. They will perhaps find new ways to silence opposition. If we must take a lesson from Boko Haram or Al Shabab, we have to protect our secular institutions, especially educational ones, which are their target.
The government hasn't been successful in combating extremism because there are sympathisers of the extremists lurking under government institutions. The technologically-backward government organisations cannot monitor all their [employees’ communications] and they have not tried to [keep] the madrasas of Chittagong and Rajshahi under their control. Some of these madrassas are outside the control of the government. So such inaction from the government does not [elicit] a positive response.
FARZANA KABIR KHAN • Bangladeshi blogger, Germany
Like many others, I am frustrated over the investigation process, though this is nothing new. The authorities have remained mum deliberately as they do not want enlightened people. They prefer fundamentalists who would help the government stay in power for long. Militants have supporters in the administration. Or else the militant gang would not be able to kill Oyasiqur on March 30 after one of their accomplices was arrested with arms on March 24. How could a killer like Redwanul Azad Rana flee the country when we have CCTV cameras everywhere? What are the investigators doing then? I doubt whether they are working on the cases at all.
I do not think they will arrest the culprits even if they are able to. This is not only happening in the case of atheists. Mystery behind the cases over murders of Old Dhaka pir and Maulana Faruqi allegedly by the radical Islamists is yet to be resolved.
[Fundamentalist groups] want to capture power and establish Shariah law in the country. They want to diminish secularism, one of the principles of independent Bangladesh, and make it a 100% Muslim country from the existing 92%. This conspiracy is on since long.
Why are they attacking bloggers? They are afraid of the power of pens and knowledge. Only blind belief can make someone blind. A progressive person, for example Avijit Roy, proves through writings how the virus of belief is destroying their humane thoughts and obstructing people from being enlightened. That is why they are scared of the pen. They do not need enlightened people, rather they need blind believers who pray to an imaginary power disregarding the theory of evolution.
If we silence ourselves, then it will be not far when we will reminisce about the history of secularism and independence with old pictures like Afghanistan. There will be no cultural festival and they will consolidate their power at the helm for a long period.
Watching the reactions of the government, I think that they are silently allowing the activities of the extremists. This is the first step to implement the Madinah declaration. But they are not realising that this is against the principles of our independence. In 1971 we didn't even consider who is Muslim, who is not.
Former journalist with Bangladesh's Daily Star newspaper, Sweden
I am very much frustrated over the investigation process. They cannot arrest the killers since there are many associates and sympathisers of the radicals in the law enforcement agencies. These Islamists want to hit the persistent social values of Bangladesh, especially the culture of coexistence of different religions and cultures. They want to popularise extremist views among the ordinary Muslims through their own explanations. Capturing state power is their key target.
They are carrying out offensives against the bloggers because the Internet penetration is still low in the country and they want to silence freedom of speech that exposes their narratives and political message. Bloggers with secular ideologies are threats to these people with extreme ideologies as they are aware of their political stance and motives. Bloggers, although less in numbers, are playing a role in the politics with their writings.
The government's stand on extremism can be explained in two ways: either they may have no intention to stop them or they are not giving importance to the rise of extremism. The nature of investigations and not considering the fact that extremism is spread at grassroots level is worth mentioning. Whatever the reason behind this is very frustrating.
Yet another secular blogger hacked to death, this time in Dhaka, by suspected Islamists.
After the verdict in blogger Rajeeb Haider on Thursday, secularists and war crimes trial activists rejected the judgement saying the sentencing of the radical Islamist preacher was too lenient. They also expressed frustration knowing that the three investigators had not done their part properly, as mentioned by the judge while pronouncing the verdict.