Secularists protest in Dhaka after the killing of US-based Bangladeshi blogger Avijit Roy in February (Photo by Stephan Uttom)
Hundreds of students and secular activists this week peacefully marched in Sylhet, a city in northeastern Bangladesh. They gathered to mourn and to protest the heinous killing of atheist blogger and writer Ananta Bijoy Das, allegedly by machete-wielding Islamic militants.
The protesters demanded justice for the killing and criticized the Awami League government for failing to protect free thinkers like Das from the fury of religious fanatics. They also condemned a culture of impunity amid a string of attacks on secular writers and bloggers in the country in recent years. “The government must crush this evil force now,” some chanted during the protest, “or this evil force will crush Bangladesh one day.”
But sadly, Das’ death is unlikely to cause any ripple effect in the waters of this nation’s 160 million people, despite garnering massive international media coverage.
For more than a decade, a war of words between secularists and Islamists has been a common topic on the country’s social media and blogosphere. And now the fanatics are vigorously carrying out their agenda by taking the war onto the streets.
Das, 33, was a banker, editor and blogger who promoted scientific ideas and rationalism through his writing. He became the third recent victim in what has been a one-sided war: Avijit Roy, a US-based Bangladeshi writer and blogger was murdered in February, while blogger Washiqur Rahman was killed a month later.
Now, more than four decades after gaining independence from Pakistan in 1971, Bangladesh is once again at a crossroads.
The nation’s victory during the war defined Bangladesh as a secular, democratic nation. But the cold-blooded killings of the bloggers in broad daylight show the ghosts of the past are back from the shadows.
It remains to be seen whether or not the perpetrators of these killings have been supported by Islamist parties or more radical groups. But it is clear they have an agenda: to wipe our rationalists and secularists.
No doubt their bases are strong. But there is an even greater force that helps them to thrive: a serious lack of sympathy and action from the public, civil society and the ruling and opposition parties amid growing religious intolerance.
“This was well-planned, choreographed — a global act of terrorism. But what almost bothers me more is that no one from the Bangladesh government has reached out to me,” Rafida Ahmed Bonya, widow of slain blogger Roy, told Reuters in a recent interview, criticizing the Bangladesh government for not responding more aggressively to her husband’s killing.
“It’s as if I don’t exist, and they are afraid of the extremists. Is Bangladesh going to be the next Pakistan or Afghanistan?”
In response, Sajeeb Wazed, the son of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and an informal advisor to the ruling party, said his mother offered personal condolences to Roy's father. But his explanation of what he believes to be Bangladesh’s volatile political situation is telling.
“We are walking a fine line here. We don’t want to be seen as atheists. It doesn’t change our core beliefs. We believe in secularism,” he said. “But given that our opposition party plays that religion card against us relentlessly, we can’t come out strongly for him. It’s about perception, not about reality.”
Although police made arrests after the attacks, there is still a lack of genuine interest in punishing the killers, leaving the cases in limbo. There is also no clear-cut political commitment to tackle the rise of Islamic militancy.
The ruling Awami League, in power since 2008, led the nation during the independence struggle and calls itself a secular, center-left party. But it has done little to crack down on Islamists and punish those who attack bloggers. The party has refrained from publicly condemning the attacks on the bloggers and has done almost nothing to protect them.
In fear of losing votes during the last election, the government went on to appease Islamists by arresting several bloggers and erasing hundreds of blog posts.
The center-right Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the second largest party, has maintained an utter silence on the matter, fearing backlash from longtime ally Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s largest radical Islamist party.
In fact, BNP has a record of siding with Islamists since the founding of the party by military dictator Ziaur Rahman in 1978. After swarming into power in 1977, Ziaur Rahman allowed religion-based politics and Islamic parties that had been banned after the independence war. He amended the original constitution of 1972 and added “absolute trust and faith in Almighty Allah”, replacing the socialist religious-free commitment to “secularism” as one of the four key principles, in order to make the country more Islamic.
In the preamble of the constitution he asserted the Islamic phrase “Bismillahir-Rahmaanir-Rahim" ("In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful"). Power has altered between Awami League and BNP since the return to parliamentary democracy in the 1990s, but none of the parties dared to make the constitution truly secular and democratic. After a Supreme Court verdict in 2010 in favor of secular principles, the Awami League reasserted ‘secularism’ in the constitution, but didn’t change Bismillahir-Rahmaanir-Rahim or touch Islam as the state religion.
From 2001 to 2006, the BNP-Jamaat alliance ruled the country and their five-year rule saw a massive rise in Islamic militancy. Militant outfits carried out a series of bomb attacks on cultural programs, political rallies and courts deemed un-Islamic. At the height of the attacks, a militant group detonated some 500 bombs in 63 of the 64 districts of Bangladesh on August 17, 2005. At the time, many feared the country was plunging into a civil war like that waged by the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Amid a media outcry and international pressure, the government banned two militant groups — Harkat-ul-Jihad and Jamaat-ul-Mujahedin Bangladesh — and arrested and executed their top leaders. Although many members of these groups went into hiding, recent media reports suggest they are regrouping under different banners and recruiting university students. Ansarullah Bangla Team, one of those regrouped militant outfits, claimed responsibility for blogger Washiqur Rahman’s murder.
Experts say these groups are thriving amid the recent feuds and political violence between the Awami League and BNP. As the government and opposition keep busy hunting each other, fanatics are advancing their own agendas.
Nobody is doing enough to resist the rising tide of religious fundamentalism. The government is apathetic, civil society is indifferent, and the masses are simply silent.
History shows us that letting religious fanaticism thrive is dangerous and disastrous in the long run. The war waged by the Islamic State in the Middle East, or the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan didn’t happen in a day.
Bangladesh used to be called one of the most moderate Muslim countries in the world, but that is no more.
When the nation as a whole feels no urge to act when a writer is killed in broad daylight, it is a troubling sign indeed.
Unless there is a change of mind in all quarters of the nation on the issue, there is no doubt that evil forces will one day swallow and control Bangladesh.
Bangladesh needs to rise to the challenge before it’s too late.
Rock Ronald Rozario is a journalist based in Dhaka.