Free Expression

Ten key questions (and answers) about the attacks on atheist bloggers in Bangladesh

The murder of 28-year-old law graduate on Wednesday was the sixth such killing since February 2015.

What can one conclude from Wednesday’s murder of 28-year-old law graduate Nazimuddin Samad who was hacked to death by assailants in Bangladesh’s capital city of Dhaka, bringing to six the total number of men killed in a similar manner since February 2013?

Here are 10 key points about the attacks on young atheists in Bangladesh.

1. Who’s at risk?: If you are currently living or staying in Bangladesh and write, or have in the past written, critically about religion on any website, blog, Facebook or Twitter account, you are at risk from being attacked and killed by Islamic militants.

That may sound dramatic, but that is the unfortunate reality. Social class will obviously play a role – and elite atheist bloggers (so-called, even though some of them seem to have been targeted for expressing themselves on any form of social-media) are less vulnerable than middle or lower middle class people like Samad, who do not have their own cars and who have to walk to work, or take public transport.

The only positive point that can be said is that the attacks are not frequent. It seems that the number of militants involved is small, and they do not have the logistical ability, at present, to organise more than the occasional attack.

2. Who’s responsible?: The organisation Ansar al-Islam Bangladesh, which used to be known as the Ansarullah Bangla Team, issued a statement claiming responsibility for the killing. The local militant group is a known affiliate of Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent and has previously claimed responsibility for a number of the previous killings of “atheist bloggers”.

It is not likely that this Al Qaeda outfit has any actual presence in Bangladesh – Ansar al-Islam has perhaps simply decided to affiliate itself with this international militant organisation for prestige purposes. It is not known the extent to which the Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent actually provides them assistance – or indeed whether these string of murders would have taken place even if there were not this international linkage.

These "blogger murders" appear to be distinct from other killings, involving the murder of foreigners and attacks on Shia gatherings, that have taken place since the middle of 2015, and for which Islamic State have claimed responsibility.

3. Who else faces threat?: According to reports, the Ansar al-Islam statement stated that “We don’t attack people for being atheist in their personal lives …. We only target those who deride Islam and the Prophet.” It then went onto say that they killed Nizam Uddin for committing “blasphemy against our beloved Prophet,” and referred to three particular posts that he had written on his Facebook page.

However, the statement also reportedly went onto threaten to target judges, lawyers, engineers and doctors “who don’t allow others to follow the rulings of the Islamic Shariah.”

It is not clear what this means in reality – since this constitutes an enormous class of people. However, perhaps a greater concern is that other secular activists, who may not necessarily be atheists (or at least do not write publicly about their views ) could be at risk in the future.

This could include for example those who protest against Islamic fundamentalism and campaign in support of imposing the death penalty on those convicted of war crimes at the International Crimes Tribunal (see below). At present, while many "atheist bloggers" are also involved in or support these activities, it is their so-called atheistic writings that makes them the target. It is certainly possible, however that this could change.

4. Why are these attacks happening now?: There are a number of factors, but without the exponential increase in the use of social networks, these attacks would not be taking place. With social networks, anyone can write and publish whatever they want. And anyone in the world with an internet connection can then read it.

Ten years ago, perhaps the same number of people in Bangladesh had views critical of religion – but nobody then knew who they were or read anything they may have written. This has now changed – and intolerant Islamic militants can now read what they say, find out whether they live and target them.

5. Do these murders reflect wider conflicts within society?: Yes, these murders are also a reflection on the longstanding conflict within Bangladesh about the role of religion in the country.

The country fought to be independent from the Islamic state of Pakistan and Bangladesh’s original constitution emphasised secularism, and banned religious political parties. However, after the assassination of the country’s independence leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, things changed. The ban on religious parties was lifted, secularism as a fundamental principle was removed from the constitution, and in time, Islam was made the state religion.

The current government however has reintroduced secularism. Islam, nonetheless, remains the state religion, in apparent acknowledgement of the deep divide within the country about the role religion should play. These murders are a stark reminder that this divide remains very potent.

6. What role does the International Crimes Tribunals play here?: These attacks also have to be seen in the context of the International Crimes Tribunal which were established in 2010 to prosecute those accused of war crimes during the country’s independence war and which pits the State against the leaders of the islamist party, the Jamaat-e-Islami. These attacks also have to be seen in the context of the International Crimes Tribunal which was established in 2010 to hold to account those accused of war crimes during the country’s independence war. What that meant in effect was the State being pitted against the leaders of the islamist party, the Jamaat-e-Islami.

The trials, in which supposedly pious religious politicians faced the prospect of the death penalty, always created the risk of some kind of blow-back – a risk that was perhaps exacerbated by criticisms regarding the fairness of the trials. And whilst there is no evidence to suggest that Jammat themselves have been involved in these blogger killings, it is very possible that the perverted minds of the men involved in these murders consider their involvement in “avenging blasphemy” as similar in some way to the death penalties imposed by the state following these trials.

7. Is there a connection with the Shahbagh Movement as well?: The secular progressive anti-fundamentalist mass protests, which were triggered by a decision by the Tribunal in early February 2013 to impose a sentence of imprisonment rather than that of death on a convicted Jamaat leader, known as the Shahagh Movement, is also significant.

In order to delegitimise this movement, its opponents began claiming that the huge daily protests taking place in Shahbagh crossing were connected with "atheist bloggers" whose comments about Islam were published in some newspapers.

On February 15, 2013, Ahmed Rajib Haider, an atheist who wrote critically about religion, and was also involved in organising the Shahbagh protests, was hacked to death, the very first such murder.

8. Is lack of democracy also responsible? In the Wall Street Journal, Shafquat Munir, a respected security analyst at the Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies is quoted as saying that “The shrinking democratic space and the absence of a credible opposition creates a political void which then allows radicals, extremists and fringe elements to take centre stage.” This general position also seems to be reflected in a new report published by the International Crisis Group

Whilst Bangladesh’s lack of democratic space – due to the absence of legitimate elections in 2014, the brutal crackdown on opposition leaders and activists including the filing of hundreds if not thousands of apparently false criminal cases, and the countless disappearances and extra judicial killings, along with the crackdown on the independent media – is certainly a very serious problem in Bangladesh, it seems too simplistic to suggest that this provides an explanation for recent killings.

Of course, if proper democratic politics does not return to Bangladesh, more people may will turn towards the extremes. But, even if Bangladesh's opposition was allowed to function, it is likely that for the reasons set out above, these killings would still have taken place.

9. Can the police protect these bloggers?: Apart from the authorities not having the capacity and resources to protect such a large number of potential victims, the police cannot be trusted to be on the side of the so-called bloggers. This is because Bangladesh has a panoply of laws that criminalise those who write critically about religion.

Under the 1860 Penal Code, it is an offence to deliberately “outrage the religious feelings” of any class of citizen as well also deliberately intend to “wound the religious feelings of any person”. It is also an offence under the Information, Communications and Technology Act 2006, to write something on the internet that “causes to hurt or may hurt religious belief” which has attached to it a minimum sentence of seven years imprisonment.

It should therefore be no surprise that “atheist bloggers” are wary of seeking the protection of the police, as they could be arrested for any of these offences. Many social network activists claim that they fear being arrested if they seek protection from the police. “I have not gone to the police because police actually tried to arrest me in 2013,” CNN reported one atheist blogger in Bangladesh as saying.

10. What is the government’s stand in all this? Whilst most Bangladeshis would expect that the government to unconditionally condemn these killings, the government seems unclear quite how to react. Whilst there are voices within the government that do condemn the killing, others also seem to have half an eye on its lack of diligence in enforcing the laws criminalising “hurting religious feeling”, and the other half on not wanting to be seen by religious constituencies in the country supporting people with views critical of religion.

This confusion, results in a failure of the government to take a clear principled position against the killings. Instead, for example, one has the home minister focusing on what exactly it was that Nizam Uddin wrote. “It is needed to see whether he has written anything objectionable in his blogs,” he told the BBC Bengali service.

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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:

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