Fighting fundamentalism

Bangladesh blogger's murder: Fighting for free expression in an age of death squads

How can free thought, science, and humanism in Bangladesh best be defended? What should you do when you know that the state cannot protect you?

The death squads of fundamentalist Islam have taken the life of yet another Bangladeshi blogger. On Friday, Niloy Neel, who espoused atheist views, was hacked to death in his home in Dhaka. Some months ao, Ananta Bijoy Das was murdered in Sylhet, Avijit Roy and Washiqur Rahman were killed in in Dhaka while Rafida Ahmed Bonya survived with serious injuries.

The champions of death promise more. Two years ago, the Hefazat-e-Islam, an Islamist movement based in madrassas, delivered to the Home Ministry a list of 84 atheist bloggers they wanted punished for blasphemy. The crime of those included: they used words that offended the self-appointed guardians of Islam. Despite their belief in an all-powerful Allah, the death squads were not ready to leave judgement in his hands – what this says about their own belief in a supreme being is a contradiction they never address.

Though narrow and frequently precarious, there has long been room for free thinking and unbelief in Bangladesh. But with the country entering a time when more and more people are murdered for what they think and speak, I fear for the land of my birth. A certain opening that has existed for 20 years is closing.

Fundamental differences

The latest killing has brought forth a range of reactions.

Among those who knew Ananta and his work or value free speech, there is sadness for sure but, beyond that, considerable dismay at the realisation that the Bangladeshi state, despite claims to a certain kind of secularism, cannot protect the lives of those who hold dissident beliefs about religion.

There are others, though, who believe the bloggers went too far and that if they stop intruding into public space, peace will return.

That hope, however, is undermined by the bloodlust among many who celebrate these deaths. Right after Ananta’s murder, his Facebook page was riddled with comments applauding his death. There have also been comments and posts that pledge death for other so-called apostates, such as Shias or Ahmadiyyas. It may be hard to believe, but there are people who believe today’s Pakistan, with its routine killing fields, should be the future of Bangladesh.

When an Islamist takes a cleaver to the head of someone for what they think, there seem to be people who are attracted to this, who say to themselves that they want to be the kind of men who step into those shoes. But isn’t it the case that there are perhaps more humans who recoil from such cruelty, asking, if this be religion, I want none of it?

For many like me who came of age in the 60s, the shocks of 1970-71 moved us away from religion. In 1970 the terrible Bhola cyclone took away over a 100,000 lives. People who went to do relief work came face to face with scenes of massive destruction and bodies stripped of skin. The war of 1971 brought even more brutality, this time from soldiers of Pakistan carrying the banner of Islam.

Quite often it is death, either unexplainable by religion or committed by the religious, that drives people away from religion.

Free thought

In Bangladesh, freethinkers have lived among a largely conservative, religious-minded population. Most are private and many go about their lives through one or another kind of compromise with the dominant culture. Besides unbelievers and skeptics, the country is of course home to a larger humanist population that draws inspiration from the Bauls or Tagore instead of organised religions.

At the same time, there have always been atheists in the public sphere for whom unbelief is a cause. Reacting to the harmfulness of superstitious thinking and believing in science and reason, they believe that this needs to be addressed in books, articles, or lectures. Some have found homes in academia. Others were affiliated with communist groups, though in the main communists tended to keep their notions about religion to themselves.

At least one remarkable skeptic emerged from village society.

In early 1991, when society opened up after the fall of the dictator Ershad, I was visiting Dhaka and attended a gathering in Purana Paltan at the office of a communist-affiliated writers group. The meeting celebrated the life of a self-taught free thinker, Aroj Ali Matabbar. This was the first time I had heard of the man.

Matabbar began to look at religion with a critical eye after a distasteful encounter with the mullahs. His mother died when he was in his teens. Wanting a memory of his mother he took a photo of her dead body. The mullahs refused to perform the janaja for her. He found it unfair that his mother would be punished for an action he had committed. This experience led to a lifetime of questioning. Aroj Ali wrote a couple of books that were eventually published after Bangladesh became independent. He had been persecuted in the Pakistan period

For many years, Matabbar was mostly known to a small group of people. Since the 90s, his books have been published by a mainstream publisher and also released in English translation. He became an inspiration for newer generations of free thinkers.

The democratic opening after the fall of Ershad also brought other voices of unbelief into the public arena. Taslima Nasrin, who had started to publish even before the dictator fell, came into conflict with religious zealots. They forced her into exile.

Within a few years, the internet emerged as a new way for people to communicate with one another and with the public. Freethinkers who had started communicate on electronic mailings lists soon launched the website Mukto-Mona.

Public atheism

As we entered the 21st century, new books on religion were published, some original and others in translation. In 2006-9 when I was on an extended stay in Dhaka, I browsed bookshops and book fairs and found books by Aroj Ali Matabbar and Ahmed Sharif who had been a professor at Dhaka University. I also discovered a book titled Why I do not believe in religion, a translation of Bertrand Russell’s Why I am not a Christian. There were also dystopian novels that imagined a country taken over by Islamists: Humayun Azad’s Pak Sar Zamin Shad Bad and Masuda Bhatti’s Banglastan. Anisul Hoque’s Ondhokare Eksho Bochhor appeared in the 90s, but it remains out of print. More recently books and translations on evolutionary biology and other scientific topics have also come out.

With the end of the military regime and the election of the Awami League in 2008, the explosion of blogs and social media led to the emergence of an active public atheism from within the blogging community. This also coincided with a time when internet access became widely available, especially through mobile phones.

Some had been inspired by Mukto-Mona. But this new atheism was more combative and visible to a larger population because of the spread of internet access.

Reality bites

Among some of them, mockery of religion became common. Partly this was the result of youthful fervour that seemed to take pleasure in scoring points against fundamentalists. Partly it was triggered by the scale of evil perpetrated worldwide these days by religious followers as well as the memory of atrocities committed by the Pakistanis and their collaborators in 1971. There seemed to be a feeling among some atheists that they had carved out a secure space within Bangladesh. Since the Awami League government had initiated war crimes trials and sometimes talked about secularism, there seemed to be a belief that now the state would offer an umbrella for all those raising voices against political Islam and religion in general.

Reality has turned out different.

The state has shown that it cannot ensure security to bloggers. In a public statement, the Prime Minister’s son, himself an adviser to the government, indicated that the ruling party is nervous that its support for secularism might imply closeness to atheists. This appears to be a formula to defend inaction.

Beyond that, the state has long shown that it cannot ensure security of life even more generally. Most murders that involve some type of controversy, usually involving people or groups with power, go unsolved. This is testimony to both the weakness of crime solving among police institutions and the lack of political will.

Even more insidiously, the state itself has set an example of extrajudicial murder through ‘crossfire’ killings by police forces that have been given a license to kill. Somehow the state believes that this is solving the problem of crime. Instead the stakes are raised and the country becomes the scene of even more gruesome crimes. Sometimes the police forces themselves are implicated in crimes carried out for the benefit of private circles.

Yes, pressure needs to be maintained on the state to defend the right to life and expression. But it’s also necessary to look squarely at how things have turned out. We have entered a time when bloggers and writers, publishers and bookshop owners, all have to deal with the new reality of blogger murders. What should you do when you know that the state cannot protect you?

This isn’t just a question for individuals as they sort out how they will approach self-preservation and their public roles. There is a broader issue: how can free thought, science, and humanism in Bangladesh best be defended in an age of death squads? The times call on freethinkers and humanists to take a longer strategic view. Each person needs to ask what they want to achieve. What kind of writing and expression are essential? How can the internet and social media best be used? This is a discussion that needs to take place within the larger humanist community.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

Play

This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.