Teachers, students and secularists attend a Nov. 1 rally in Dhaka to protest the killing of Bangladeshi publisher Faisal Arefin Dipan. (Photo by Stephan Uttom)
Until a few years ago, people in Bangladesh used to exhale a sigh of relief whenever there were tragic events of violent extremism in Pakistan or Afghanistan.
They took pride in defining themselves against a country they considered full of religious bigots responsible for carrying out bloody attacks on minorities and brave citizens who oppose extremism.
They felt satisfied that their forefathers had parted ways with Pakistan to make way for an independent Bangladesh through the 1971 war.
In recent times, this sense of relief, pride and satisfaction has been fading fast with a gradual rise of religious intolerance and extremism in the country.
Since 2013, Bangladesh has seen seven secular bloggers, writers and publishers brutally murdered, allegedly by Islamist militants, including four bloggers and one publisher this year alone. Only one blogger narrowly escaped death. Their writings and publications were critical of religion and the political use of religion, especially Islam.
By the time Bangladesh was reeling from the killings of an Italian aid worker and a Japanese man in September and October, alleged jihadists bombed a Shiite festival in Dhaka, killing two and injuring dozens on Oct. 24.
Protesters in Dhaka, Bangladesh hold a photo of Faisal Arefin Dipan, a publisher who was killed by Islamic extremists in late October. (Photo by Stephan Uttom)
In the latest episode, two groups of attackers entered two publishing houses in Dhaka and hacked two publishers and two writers with machetes and cleavers on Oct. 31. Faisal Arefin Dipan, owner of Jagriti Prokashony, died of his wounds inside the locked office, while Ahmedur Rashid Tutul, owner of Suddhaswar, and his two writer friends were critically wounded.
Dipan and Tutul had earlier printed books by U.S.-based Bangladeshi blogger and science writer Avijit Roy, hacked to death on the streets of Dhaka in February, allegedly by militants.
In March 2014, a popular Bangladesh online bookstore had stopped selling Roy's books after a local Islamist extremist issued death threats to its owner.
Ansarullah Bangla Team, a banned local militant outfit, presumably linked to al-Qaida on the Indian subcontinent, claimed responsibility for attacks on bloggers and publishers. The Islamic State jihadist group has taken credit for the killings of the two foreigners and for bombing the Shia festival.
In September, Ansarullah Bangla Team published a hit list of 20 Bangladeshi bloggers based in the United States and Europe. Some of these bloggers have dual citizenship; some of them fled the country during the past two years after death threats.
Fearing extremist attacks, several prominent writers and bloggers have already withdrawn from critical writings; many have taken measures to ensure security in their public life.
A grave threat
The persecution of freethinkers in Bangladesh is not without precedence.
In 1994, radical Islamists issued death threats to Taslima Nasrin, a prominent female writer, for her writings on feminism and criticism of religion. She has been living in exile ever since.
In 2004, Humayun Azad, a renowned linguist and author, escaped a brutal assassination attempt in Dhaka, after he wrote a political satire that criticizes the political use of Islam. Azad later died in his sleep during a trip to Germany, largely due to trauma over the attack.
In 2013, Hefazat-e-Islam, a radical Islamic group, published a list of 84 secular bloggers and marched in Dhaka demanding the execution of atheist bloggers and the installation of a blasphemy law. The group is allegedly linked to country's largest radical Islamic party Jamaat-e-Islami, whose entire leadership is being prosecuted for war crimes during Bangladesh's liberation war.
Jamaat opposed Bangladesh's independence. It stands accused of helping the Pakistan army in the torture and massacre of pro-independence people, including some 200 Bengali intellectuals during the war.
Many believe that Jamaat has sponsored Hefazat-e-Islam to hunt the bloggers, who were at the forefront of organizing a massive rally called the "Shahbag movement" for the trial and execution of all war criminals.
Whether the attackers of freethinkers have their base in international jihadist groups like al-Qaida or the Islamic State, or in local Islamic political parties, they pose a grave threat to Bangladesh's existence.
Recently, there has been a growing dispute between Western intelligence services and Bangladesh's government over who is responsible for the recent spate of attacks. Foreign intelligence services claim they have passed credible information to the government on the activities of the Islamic State jihadist group. But the government has repeatedly refused the claim and stressed that the attacks came from within — from extremists allied with opposition political parties.
Frustratingly, the government has failed to prove opposition links to extremist violence and refused to consider alternative explanations linking international terror groups.
Most apathetically, the home minister called the recent attacks "isolated incidents" that could happen anywhere in the world. Earlier, the police chief admonished bloggers for their writings and warned them not to "cross the line."
Ironically, the deceased freethinkers have been largely supportive of the so-called secular ruling Awami League government that led the country during the independence struggles.
The government has failed to conduct a proper probe, and to deliver justice for bloggers, which ultimately emboldens the extremists. Moreover, it has refrained from taking the side of bloggers publicly, and didn't do enough to protect them.
Freethinkers are the architects of a nation; they are revered and loved for their contributions. Sadly, a nation that was born with the guiding light of freethinkers, through the independence war in 1971, is collectively failing to protect them from the onslaught of persecution. Everyone including the government, civil society and common people must take blame for this failure.
Apart from an end to socioeconomic oppression, Bangladesh's independence was a victory for a moderate form of Islam practiced by the majority of Muslims in this part of the world.
The country's founding fathers inserted secularism and freedom of thought as key principles of the constitution, in order to make Bangladesh a true democracy with respect for a multitude of religions, ethnicities and differences of opinion. Due to the bitter experience with Pakistan, the country's founders banned religion-based politics, constitutionally.
The march toward a secular, democratic society was halted with the assassination of the country's founding leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, in a 1975 military coup and the subsequent military rule of the next 15 years, which led to a revival of Islamic parties and religion-based politics.
Democracy was restored in the early 1990s, but the influence of Islamists continued, which ultimately gave birth to several homegrown militant outfits since 2000 that were responsible for attacking anything they deemed un-Islamic.
The government has struggled to contain these jihadists, who aim to make Bangladesh an Islamic state.
As the attacks on freethinkers continue, a climate of fear and insecurity has gripped people. They now question whether they are still the proud citizens of a country that has a long history of tolerance and religious harmony. They wonder if the country is still committed to its founding principles of secularism and freedom of thought.
Despite being a Muslim-majority country, a strong sense of nationalism based on culture, rational thinking, religious and ethnic diversity has been a core value of Bangladesh.
The extremists are out on the streets to wipe out rationalist freethinkers in order to pave the way for an Islamic state. If the government fails to stop this rising tide of intolerance and extremism, a similar fate could await Bangladesh as what is being seen in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Middle East countries.
No doubt, Bangladesh is at an identity crisis. As freethinkers bemoan the loss of their space in society and the pen's diminished power amid the preying of machete-wielding extremists, a disaster is looming for Bangladesh.
If Bangladesh fails to protect freethinkers from intolerance and extremists, the nation will be devoured from within by radicals, and ultimately fall apart.
Rock Ronald Rozario is a journalist based in Dhaka.