A prominent blogger faces a possible jail term for allegedly defaming Islam after he opposed political and Islamist propaganda against a Buddhist monk and temple in Chittagong, a south-eastern district of Bangladesh.
Asad Noor, a Muslim who turned self-declared atheist, was charged under the Digital Security Act (DSA), a controversial cyber law, for allegedly spreading rumors against Muslims amid an ongoing dispute between Buddhists and Muslims in the Rangunia area of Chittagong.
A leader of a local branch of the Chhatra League, the student wing of the ruling Awami League, filed the complaint against Noor on July 14, said Mahbub Milkey, the head of Rangunia police station.
“Asad Noor is accused of spreading rumors and defaming Islam via Facebook and other digital platforms,” he said on July 17.
Several hardline Islamist groups have been staging protests over the past few days, demanding a Buddhist monk called Sharnankar be punished for allegedly defaming Islam on Facebook.
“The monk has fled the area, and we don’t know where he is now. We have deployed additional police in the area and will seek to avert any possible breakdown in law and order,” the police station chief said.
Noor, however, defended the monk in a video blog, saying that a fake Facebook ID for the monk was created recently as a part of a conspiracy to target him and the temple.
The aim was to grab the temple and the property. Noor also alleged that Ershad Mahmud, younger brother of information minister, Hasan Mahmud, was also involved in the plot.
“I have been accused of defaming Islam by hurting religious sentiments of Muslims because I have protested against a conspiracy against the Buddhist community here,” Noor said in a Facebook post on July 16.
“The fabricated charge against me shows there is no freedom of expression in this country, and the legal system is being exploited to cover up crimes and misdeeds of the ruling class and their cohorts,” he added.
Jyotirmoy Barua, a human rights lawyer, also alleged that there was a plot to target Buddhists in Rangunia similar to one in 2012 that sparked anti-Buddhist violence in the Ramu area of Cox’s Bazar.
“Rangunia is now the ‘Wild, Wild West’ of Bangladesh. An unusual calm prevails in the area, and tensions are running high among local Buddhists and Muslims over the Buddhist monk and the temple,” he said.
“The monk is a man of meditation and prayer, and never uses Facebook. Those who protest against the conspiracy are being forced to leave the area, including local Muslims,” Barua said on July 16.
Holy Cross Father Liton H. Gomes, secretary of Catholic Bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission, criticized the alleged attempts to target Buddhists as well as the blogger Noor.
“We have always feared the DSA was repressive and slated for abuse, and it continues to threaten free speech. What Noor said in his video could be countered in a similar manner without filing a lawsuit.
Also, the motives of Muslims protesting against the monk and the temple should be properly investigated,” Father Gomes said.
Bangladesh has experienced several bouts of communal violence against minority Buddhists and Hindus under the pretext of hurting religious sentiments of Muslims in recent years. In all cases, doctored Facebook pages were used to stoke tensions and violence.
In 2012, Muslim mobs destroyed 19 Buddhist temples and 100 Buddhist houses in the Ramu area of Cox’s Bazar and in Patiya, in Chittagong, after a Buddhist man was accused of defaming Islam on Facebook.
In 2013, local Muslims vandalized 26 Hindu houses in the Santhiya area of Pabna district, for Facebook posts defaming Islam, allegedly circulated by a 10th grader Hindu boy.
More recently, in 2017, Hindus in Thakur Para area of Rangpur district came under attack over Facebook posts allegedly made by a local Hindu man that allegedly defamed Islam.