Bangladesh has never been an especially safe place for opposition writers, but things have begun spiraling out of control over the last two years.
A book stall in Dhaka. Photo via Flickr user David Brewer
On Monday, three assailants hacked a man to death with meat cleavers outside of his home in Dhaka, Bangladesh's Begunbari district. Hospital staff identified the corpse, dead on arrival, by his voter ID card as Washiqur (or Oyasiqur) Rahman, a 27-year-old part-time atheist blogger who wrote critical pieces against Bangladesh's Muslim majority under the penname Kutshit Hasher Chhana ("Ugly Duckling").
Bangladesh has never been an especially safe place for opposition, minority, or otherwise less-than-mainstream writers. Due to government crackdowns on political blogs and newspapers promoting the political opposition or printing what local authorities declare to be blasphemy, Reporters without Borders has ranked Bangladesh 146 out of 180 nations on its press freedom index. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 16 writers have been killed there since 1992, and in 12 of those cases the murderers were never brought to justice. In 2012, it was declared the sixth most dangerous nation for reporters to work in after four journalists were murdered in the country that year.
Things got worse in 2013, with a wave of Islamist attacks and threats against atheist and secular writers. That January, the Islamo-skeptical writer Asif Mohiuddin survived a stabbing by religiously motivated assailants. The next month, the anti-fundamentalist blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider was hacked to death in a fashion similar to Rahman's execution.
This February, an American author of Bangladeshi origin was killed during a visit to Dhaka. Avijit Roy, the creator and moderator of the rationalist, humanist, Islamo-skeptic blog Mukto-Mona ("Free Mind"), received death threats throughout 2014 after publishing a very critical book against fundamentalism. He and his wife, Rafida Ahmed Bonna, were assaulted in broad daylight. Cops have arrested Shafiur Rahman Farabi, a 29-year-old Islamist who threatened Roy online and who had run into trouble with the law for threatening others on religious grounds in 2013, but as of yet he has not been prosecuted for the crime.
The frequency and similarity of the attacks have led police to suspect that these assaults are organized strikes. These fears were stoked by a Tweet posted by the militant group Ansar Bangla-7 soon after Roy's murder reading, "Target Down here in Bangladesh."
"These murders are organized as far as the confessional statements of the murderers of Mr. Oyasiqur Rahman are concerned," Habibul Khondker, a professor of Bangladeshi religious and identity politics at Abu Dhabi's Zayed University and keen observer of the plight of atheist bloggers, told VICE. "The mastermind not only briefed them about the mission but also provided them with the murder weapons, cleavers. The assailants, according to their confessions, did not read the so-called controversial blog. They simply followed the instructions of their superiors—in this case, one Mr. Masum, who is absconding." (A man referred to as Masum reportedly encouraged the attack.)
Sumit Galhotra, an Asia Program Research Associate at the Committee to Protect Journalists, is hesitant to say the attacks are the concentrated and organized work of one group. But he did suggest the attacks may at least be linked via target lists circulating among militants.
"A hit list is not out of the realm of possibilities," he told VICE. "In 2013, local media reports cited a list of 84 bloggers [several of whom have since been attacked, including Rahman] that had been circulated by Islamist groups. Bloggers said those named on the list were at risk."
Galhotra and others believe that these attacks, organized or not, stem from bloggers' involvement in the highly contentious 2013 Shahbag movement in Dhaka. Back then, secularists and writers called for the execution of the Islamist politician Abdul Quader Mollah for his role in war crimes committed during the 1971 struggle for independence from Pakistan, and also sought a ban on the Jamaat-e-Islami, a national Islamist political party with which Mollah and other convicted criminals had been associated. Matters only got worse after the violence and religious tensions surrounding boycotts of the 2014 elections led by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party—and supported by their Islamist allies—against the ostensibly secular Awami League incumbents, which has itself made concessions to Islamist groups by cracking down on "blasphemous" blogs. These confrontations have highlighted old religious tensions that have never been too far below the surface.
There is a "growing polarization of the Bangladeshi society on the issue of the role of religion in the public sphere and politics," Ali Riaz, a professor of Bangladeshi politics at Illinois State University, told VICE. "The society seems to be divided down the middle.
"When the law and order situation deteriorates, and the political landscape becomes inundated with violence and violent rhetoric, the fringe extremist groups find it easier to operate."
Khondker suspects that the Awami League's successful effort to get more Bangladeshis online has stoked conflict as well. As people joined the internet, he believes, they may have been exposed to more religious vitriol right as these conflicts were revving up. And it put the nation's bloggers right in the crosshairs of rapidly escalating confrontations.
As a number of bloggers have started to shut down their sites and consider leaving the country, some fear the attacks are succeeding in Islamists' goals of chilling critical dialogue.
"In previous [incidents], bloggers have gone underground, have toned down their commentary, or have stopped writing," said Galhotra. "These attacks highlight how dangerous it has become to engage in commentary on sensitive topics, and will most certainly make some bloggers think twice before they raise their voice."
Others suspect Bangladesh's secularist writers will muscle through the intimidation.
"Some young writers online may be frightened," according to Khondker, "but the mainstream writers and members of the civil society cannot be intimidated so easily because Bangladesh has a long tradition of religious tolerance and most Bangladeshis hold a moderate position on religion."
Galhotra and others do worry that the lack of a muscular government response to such attacks is creating an environment of impunity that will encourage further violence against atheist and secular writers, increasing the existing chilling effect on religious dialogue in the country. To date, according to Khondker, officials have shut down a few fundamentalist forums, but this is only a token reaction. No one has a firm idea of what steps the government should take, but all agree that somehow more protection must be offered to writers, and that efforts should be made to moderate the nation's religious environment.
"The society needs to start an open conversation on tolerance," said Riaz, the professor. "Irrespective of political persuasions, political parties need to agree and act to stem the growing trend. If anyone is under the illusion that they are safe because they are neither blogger not discuss religion in public, history tells us they are absolutely wrong. Next time it could be them, but for a different reason.
The attack on Rahman "should serve as a wake-up call," he said.
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