Bangladesh: A Backgrounder

Ryan Shaffer

Bangladeshi atheists and secularists are under attack from their government and Muslim extremists. In the last year, several leading Bangladeshi secularists have been murdered in rapid succession. In late 2014 and e arly 2015, four vocal professors, authors, and bloggers were all killed by extremists in a similar way, being “hacked” to death in public. The first murder was of Shafiul Islam, who was killed by several machete-wielding men near his home following allegations that he had banned female burkas in his university classes. Then Avijit Roy, a Bangladeshi-American writer critical of Islam, was attacked by three men with machetes and died at a nearby hospital from his injuries. Most recently, Washiqur Rahman and Ananta Bijoy Das, both atheist bloggers, were killed by assailants with machetes in separate but nearly identical attacks. These murders are just the latest in a campaign against atheists in the country. Since the 2013 murder of Ahmed Rajib Haider, a blogger who criticized Islam, the Bangladeshi government has walked a fine line between safeguarding its “official” religion of Islam and trying to protect nonbelievers from violent Islamic extremists.

Bangladesh has its origins in religious strife and sectarianism following its 1947 independence, when British India was divided to create a separate Muslim land. Originally founded as a majority-Muslim nation called “East Pakistan,”the country underwent a devastating “war of liberation” against West Pakistan in 1971 and became Bangladesh, a nation of ethnic Bengalis. The country has a secular democracy, but Islam is the official state religion and Muslim political parties play significant roles in crafting laws and influencing prosecutions.

The current ruling party, however, is the Awami League, a left-leaning secular socialist party, and the prime minister is Sheikh Hasina, a woman who also governed the country from 1996 to 2001. Bangladesh’s recent history has been marked by corruption, assassinations, and arrests of political rivals, including Hasina’s 2008 arrest for extortion. At the same time, Muslim extremism has cast a large shadow, with terrorist attacks killing large numbers of people, including most notably two dozen deaths and hundreds of injuries following Hasina’s public antiterror speech in 2004. Indeed, the country has weak governance and vocal religious extremists, and unstable conditions are further complicated by poverty and terrorism.

Politicians have used Islam to broaden their appeal; they tap into populist support for the nation’s official religion. Specifically, the government has been harassing atheists and humanists for “hate speech” over their online posts critical of Islam. Still, when Haider was killed, tens of thousands protested on the streets in support of him; Prime Minister Hasina even visited his family to pay her respects. Authorities arrested several men involved in the crime, who subsequently confessed. The religious also rallied together—in their case, to call for the death of bloggers who committed “blasphemy.” Shortly after, five writers, including four bloggers and a newspaper editor, were arrested for writing articles that were “critical of the government’s attempts to appease the Islamist demands or said the government had failed to address the concerns of minority religions,” according to The Hindu website. After several months of incarceration, the bloggers were granted bail pending trial. They face a decade in prison.

The Bangladeshi government has successfully foiled other murder plots. In October 2014, police in Dhaka announced that they had “foiled an attempt by suspected Islamic militants to murder an ‘atheist’ school teacher.” Police arrested one man with a gun and seized “two syringes full of a poisonous liquid,” but two other suspects escaped. During interrogation, the suspect revealed they were members of the banned Jamayetul Mujahideen Bangladesh. The men claimed the unidentified teacher had “anti-Islamic views” and that he had “forced a colleague to shave off his beard and had converted a prayer space into a classroom.”

The following month, however, authorities failed to prevent or even subsequently arrest the murderers of Shafiul Islam, a professor at Rajshahi University. In November 2014, Islam was attacked near his campus home by four men and died from lacerations and brain damage. He had been a follower of Lalon, a nineteenth-century Bengali poet and philosopher who called for unity and opposed religious sectarianism. Islam’s son described him as a progressive and supporter of humanism. A frequent critic of Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist party, Islam had warned his family that he might be targeted by extremists after a 2010 pro-Jamaat newspaper claimed he “banned” burkas from his class. Within an hour of the murder, a Facebook page by “Ansar al Islam Bangladesh 2″ took credit for the crime. The post stated: “Our Mujahideens have killed an ‘atheist’ of Rajshahi University who had banned wearing burqa in his department.” Images on the account included crossed out photos of Islam as well as Rajib Haider and Ashraful Alam, both previously killed, with the word finished. It also posted images of Asif Mohiuddin and Rakib Mamun, two of the bloggers arrested in 2013, which suggested they are being targeted as well. The online posting also issued a wider and vague warning to unbelievers about “consequences” of their atheism.

The fallout from Islam’s murder had immediate effects around the country. Major universities, including Chittagong University, Dhaka University, Jagannath University, and Rajshahi University issued statements demanding that the killers be caught, while teacher groups expressed concern about security. Rajshahi University students blocked a nearby highway and boycotted classes, issuing “a 24-hour ultimatum to catch the killers threatening to wage tougher movements otherwise.” Police felt the pressure and detained dozens of people, including a Jamaat leader who was also head of Islamia College. Though the authorities announced that the murder was a deliberate and coordinated attack, the case appeared to stall with no further leads. In late December, three men involved with the Ansar al Islam Bangladesh 2 Facebook page were charged with crimes because “they created confusion” with the posts and “tried to shift the attention of police to a wrong direction.” Islam’s murder, however, has remained unsolved.

In February 2015, Avijit Roy and his wife, Rafida Ahmed Bonya, attended a book fair in Bangladesh to promote Roy’s Bengali books, The Philosophy of Disbelief and The Virus of Faith. A well-known Bangladeshi-born American, Roy created Mukto-Mona (Free Mind), a Bengali-language website devoted to discussing religion from a secular viewpoint. The website was a popular online meeting point for Bengali secularists who faced threat of prosecution from the government and violence from the extremists. Roy was also an active writer in both his native language and English with articles appearing in magazines such as Free Inquiry, which earned him fierce criticism from Muslims. His father, Ajoy Roy, is a notable physicist and freethought activist who translated the first chapter of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion into Bengali for Mukto-Mona. Despite online threats from extremists for his writings, Avijit Roy and his wife traveled from their home in Atlanta, Georgia, to Dhaka to visit family and speak about his books. On his way home from the book fair, the two were brutally attacked, leaving Roy dead and his wife severely injured.

Unlike the murder of Shafiul Islam, which went largely unnoticed outside Bangladesh, Roy’s death received worldwide attention with outlets such as CNN and the BBC reporting on the fate of the American citizen critical of Islam being killed in Bangladesh. Locally, sympathi
zers demanded the arrest of the murderers and staged strikes. Hundreds of teachers, writers, and bloggers gathered in the streets and promised continued demonstrations if the suspects were not caught. Law enforcement announced they were giving special attention and resources to solving the crime, but Ajoy Roy, who has received his own death threats, accused the police of not doing enough. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation became involved and the United States embassy released a statement calling the crime “horrific in brutality and cowardice.” Less than a week after the murder, police arrested Shafiur Rahman Farabi, a student, for making a February 9, 2014, threat online that stated: “Avijit Roy lives in America. So it’s not possible to kill him now. He will be killed as soon as he returns home.” It was revealed that Farabi’s threat followed an online debate between the two. Meanwhile, no arrests have been made for the murder. In his Free Inquiry column, published posthumously, Roy described terror attacks, including the January 2015 terrorist attack on the Charlie Hebdo office in France, as evidence that “faith-based terrorisms are nothing but viruses” and wrote that “if allowed to spread, they will wreak havoc on society in epidemic proportions.”

Even as Roy’s death continued to be investigated, another secularist blogger was murdered the following month. In late March 2015, Washiqur Rahman, a travel agent, was targeted for his atheism and was “hacked” to death by three men with machetes as he left for work. Two of the three killers were captured by local people, who typically do not get involved in such crimes. Rahman, who posted pseudonymously about religion, just one month earlier publicly offered his support following Roy’s murder. He had changed his Facebook profile to hashtag “#iamavijit” on a black background. Rahman’s posts consisted of criticism about religious extremism and extremist parties as well as arguments for minority religious rights. Rahman’s writing was more obscure than Roy’s work, which provoked commentators and activists to highlight the growing dangerous implications of the attack. Mahfuz Anam, editor of Bangladesh’s The Daily Star, wrote that Rahman’s murder “is a spine-chilling warning to us all that we all can be targets.” Calling for “urgent” government action, he continued: “All that needs to happen for any of us to be killed is that some fanatic somewhere in the country, decides that someone or anyone, needs to be killed.”

Other Bangladeshi writers and bloggers worried that without capturing and punishing Roy’s murderers, extremists would only be encouraged to copy the crimes and target more atheists. In March, Ananta Bijoy Das, an atheist blogger, wrote on Facebook: “If the killers are not tried, it is understood that they will hone another machete for another strike!” Unfortunately, this proved true, and Das himself was killed about two months later, in mid-May. His murder followed the same pattern as the previous killings, with four attackers “hacking” him to death after he left his home in Sylhet in northeast Bangladesh. A twitter account posted a photograph of his body and later stated: “Al-Qaeda in Indian Sub-Continent (#AQIS) claimed responsibility of [sic] killing #AnantaBijoy in #Sylhet.” Just one week before, Das was invited to Sweden to speak about the threats facing atheists but was denied a visa by the Swedish embassy. With three secularist bloggers killed in 2015, supporters led demonstrations throughout Sylhet calling for the government to stop the violence and arrest the murderers.

The Bangladeshi government caters to the majority in a republic that has extremist groups and Islamist parties, and it also must protect the rights of a minority that do not believe in the nation’s official faith. At the same time, the country suffers from poverty, a lack of infrastructure, and a literacy rate that lags behind more developed countries. This makes the task of Bengali rationalists and humanists more difficult as they challenge superstition where many people do not have access to education and religion is legally protected. Yet, many secularists continue to educate, despite the consequences of direct and real threats from legal prosecution and death by extremists. Asif Mohiuddin, one of the arrested bloggers threatened with prison and murder, continues to blog and speak out because he takes “issue with people enforcing Sharia law” and extremists “should not decide that a woman shouldn’t go out or not study.”


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Ryan Shaffer is a writer and historian. He has a PhD in history and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Global Studies at Stony Brook University in New York.

Ryan Shaffer

Ryan Shaffer is a writer and historian. He has a PhD in history and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Global Studies at Stony Brook University.