At this point it seems Islamic extremists have declared open season on bloggers and anyone they deem to be atheists. Lists of targets named by militants have been around for some time now. That they are now willing to act on them with brutal efficacy imperils not only individuals, but also a relatively open culture, and certainly the authority of the state and its laws.
A history of murder
The murder of Avijit Roy outside the famous Ekushey Book Fair, and the attack on Oyasikur Rahman, within a month of each other, brought the Islamist assault on Bangladesh's free-thinkers to the world's attention.
But the first blogger hacked to death was Rajeeb Haider in February 2013. His killing came at the peak of the “Shahbagh Movement,” which had come about as a direct result of activism by secular bloggers. At that time, the Bangladeshi International Crimes Tribunal had sentenced Qader Molla, a leader of the Islamist political party Jamaat-e-Islami, to life imprisonment as a convicted war criminal.
The movement was triggered by Molla brandishing a “V” sign in glee at dodging the death penalty. The bloggers’ online anger exploded into a street protest that quickly swelled to the thousands.
Shahbagh, however, was not an unalloyed success. It was quickly coopted by groups affiliated with the ruling Awami League. The protesters themselves alienated many, both at home and abroad, with their insistence on the death penalty as the only acceptable punishment.
The Islamists, however, did not wait for the movement to wind down by itself. Using social media, they responded with a vicious but canny ploy to paint the bloggers as “atheists” campaigning against religion, not secularists seeking long overdue justice.
Derailing war crimes trials
The Islamists have resorted to any means possible to try to derail the war crimes trials. In late 2013, as BNP fought for a neutral government to oversee elections, their key ally Jamaat, and especially its notorious student wing Shibir, waged a campaign of violence against civilians. What is clear is that, just as in 1971, Jamaat and other Islamists have no qualms about using violence against ordinary civilians to attain their political goals.
In the long and ongoing contest between an intolerant conception of Islam and a rationalist idea of what it means to be Bengali Muslim, the bloggers sadly are not the first victims. Sceptics, including prominent literary figures like Daud Haider in the 1970s and Taslima Nasreen in the 1990s, have faced strong Islamist backlash and have had to leave the country for good.
Another strong secular voice, Humayun Azad, was in fact the first intellectual to be hacked - and that too right outside the Ekushey Book Fair – in 2003, though he died six months later in Germany.
Attacking the secular strain in Bengali Muslim culture
The recent killing of bloggers, then, should not be seen as a sudden awakening of Islamists to free-thinking. A secular intellectual strain has been part of Bengali Muslim culture going at least as far back as the Buddhir Muktir Andolan of the 1920s. Additionaly, there have been long periods of dormancy in this putative conflict.
Many openly sceptical thinkers, from Aruj Ali Matubbar to Ahmed Sharif, passed their careers with no great threats. Many of Bangladesh's leading literary lights have been sceptics too, if not outright atheist, and vocal to different extents, including iconic figures like Shamsur Rahman, Akhtaruzzaman Ilyas and yet others whom it may no longer be safe to name.
Shamsur Rahman lived much of his life publicly revered, but survived a knife attack in his last years. That attack, along with the assault on Azad, marked the emergence of a more vicious new strain of Islamism.
But even these Islamists seemed aware of the broad cultural disapproval of violence, and such attacks were never as frequent as they have become lately. Until 2013, all mainstream parties too were careful to minimise any civilian casualties.
The BNP-Jamaat movement of 2013 saw, for the first time, the widespread targeting of civilians, crossing a toll of 500 by the end. That kind of violent tactics was repeated by them again earlier this year, taking a further toll of over 150 civilians.
Tolerance versus absolutism
Given Bangladesh’s long tradition of relative tolerance, the killing of bloggers should not be seen as an intensification only of Islamist ambitions. It is tied to a broader history of struggle between those who wish for a fundamentally tolerant society and those who believe in an absolutist one. A mainstream party like BNP signalling violence against civilians as a permissible tactic has surely loosened a sense of constraint.
The current government faces a tough quandary. If it resorts to tougher measures against Islamists, it may be painted by BNP-Jamaat as anti-Islamic, and by its secular allies as autocratic. If the government remains restrained in its response, then the Islamists may feel emboldened.
The trick here might be to ignore the false dichotomy of tough or soft actions, and focus on being much more precise and energetic in response to specific crimes. It also has to make incitement of violence, be it in a Friday sermon or in a digital hole, more punishable.
The Awami League so far has been bold in continuing with the war crimes trials. But that commitment cannot be confined to measures that put extremist leaders in jail, or send them to the gallows. It must also extend to defending the principles of a secular and tolerant Bangladesh by truly making it harder for anyone to kill – or even call for the killing – of another citizen.
Bangladesh is one of the few Muslim nations that chose at birth to be secular. But every time a progressive is felled, and the crime goes without punishment, the voices of a hundred other progressives go quieter. No nation can thrive in the long run if such voices fall silent.
K. Anis Ahmed is a Bangladeshi author of two books – a novel and a collection of short stories – and publisher of the English-language daily newspaper Dhaka Tribune and the literary journal Bengal Lights.
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