On April 25, Islamists butchered LGBTQ activists Xulhaz Mannan and Tonoy Mahbub in the presence of Xulhaz’s mother at Mannan's home in Dhaka, for being “the pioneers of practicing and promoting homosexuality in Bangladesh (sic)”. Two days before that, extremists hacked to death Rezaul Karim Siddique, a Muslim professor of English at Rajshahi University in northwest Bangladesh. His killers accused him of “calling to atheism”.
At the time of writing this piece, news of the hacking of a Hindu tailor accused of insulting the prophet has just come in – reportedly the doing of the Islamic State or its local agents. Along with the murder of the blogger Nazimuddin Samad earlier this month, the red hues greeting the Bengali New Year have been painted with blood.
The most recent killings mark the widening range of targets of the unconscionable machete-wielding Islamists in Bangladesh. A total of 35 such fatal attacks have taken place since 2004, and counted Hindus, Christians, moderate Muslim preachers, secular intellectuals and activists, and foreigners as their victims. By turns, Al Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent and the Islamic State laid tenuous claims on these heinous killings – including ones that preceded their appearance in this region.
The war against secularism
Attacks on progressive intellectuals in Bangladesh date back to the country’s birth in 1971. They resumed again in the early 2000s, with the attacks on celebrated poets Shamsur Rahman and Humayun Azad. While Rahman survived with minor injuries, Azad died of his injuries months later. Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s biggest Islamist party, and its proxies played a crucial role in the war crimes of ’71, including listing and rounding up leading intellectuals for revenge killings in the final three days of the war. Ziaur Rahman, the founder of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the country’s president from 1977 to 1981, rehabilitated the Jamaat in politics after the assassination of the nation’s founder, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, in 1975.
The BNP and Jamaat have drawn closer over the decades, and during their last tenure in government (2001-2006), Bangladesh saw a sudden new rise of Islamism. During that time, Ahmadiyyas were branded as non-Muslims with a new vigour and minorities were subjected to communal violence on an unprecedented scale. That period also witnessed the rise of homegrown terrorist organisations such as the Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami and the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, with full patronage of the BNP-Jamaat regime.
Many observers who have taken an interest in Bangladesh’s Islamist crisis mainly since the advent of the so-called blogger killings overlook that such killings go much further back than 2013, and include targets well beyond the bloggers. Yet, some commentators seek to paint this new spike of Islamist terror as an outcrop only of the political tussles of recent years. It has become fashionable to argue that as democratic space has shrunk under the ruling Awami League, it is natural for Islamist terrorism to rise.
This line is spouted not just by BNP-Jamaat members, but also by sections of liberal society who have their own reasons for their deep antipathy towards the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League. Though this claim seems reasonable on the surface, it is found to be fallacious on closer inspection, and effectively serves as an alibi for the crimes of Islamists.
The Shahbag movement link
The argument goes that if the Awami League was not as heavy-handed as it is, and had left space for Opposition and dissenters, then one would not witness such vicious forms of protest. But Bangladesh’s democratic period has been limited and flawed – it has known repressive regimes in the 1970s and 1980s. The state of emergency of 2007-’08 was possibly the most restrictive period in recent memory, yet terrorist violence was not automatically engendered. The main opponents of that regime – the Awami League and even the BNP then – never chose to use violence targeting civilians as a tool.
To understand why this is happening now, one has to look at the timing more carefully. Rajib Haider, the first of the bloggers to die, was killed at the peak of the pro-war crimes trials movement of 2013. Known as the Shahbag Movement, it was triggered by young bloggers – who demanded that people guilty of war crimes during Bangladesh’s struggle for Independence from Pakistan in 1971 should be brought to justice – but drew the support of the mass population.
The BNP-Jamaat and allied Islamists, such as the Qawmi madrassa-based network of fundamentalist clerics called Hefazat-e-Islam, sought to discredit the pro-trials protesters. From Rajib to Nazimuddin, the bloggers who have been maimed and murdered were on hit lists announced by fundamentalists that comprised solely of people involved with, or supportive of, the Shahbag Movement.
Crimes of omission
BNP-Jamaat know that they have no real case against trials that ought to have taken place a long time ago. Thus, they have mounted multi-million dollar lobbying in Western capitals to discredit the International Crimes Tribunal – set up in 2009 to investigate war crimes by the Pakistan Army and its supporters during Bangladesh’s struggle for Independence – and highlight repressive measures taken by the Awami League (leaving aside the fact that they presided over similar actions and far worse – bombings from 2001-’06 killed both top Awami League leaders and many civilians).
They have further painted the bloggers who spearheaded the Shahbag Movement as atheists – a condemnation that carries a death sentence at the hands of Islamist vigilantes. BNP-Jamaat’s decades-old anti-secular ideology and the consequent rise of more vicious and secretive Islamist outfits is the real fuel for dangerous extremism in Bangladesh.
For its part, the Awami League, which claims to be the last bastion of secularism in Bangladesh, has failed miserably to stand by victims of fundamentalist attacks. Any party in an overwhelmingly Muslim country may be wary of being seen as defending atheists or blasphemers, but its appeasing tone is emboldening the fanatics. The Awami League cannot both seek credit for being secular, and then appease Islamist sentiments to detrimental degrees.
The party needs to unequivocally condemn murders as a violation of both law and human decency, irrespective of what the victims may have done or said. It seeks credit as the last defender of secularism, but its shameful victim-blaming must stop.
One can condemn the BNP-Jamaat for playing with human lives and with dangerous ideologies that they too will not be able to control someday, as seen from cases elsewhere in the world, however, the onus of preventing such crimes and prosecuting the perpetrators rests with the ruling Awami League. Sheikh Hasina’s government cannot both enjoy being in power and shirk the responsibilities that come with that privilege.
BNP-Jamaat are constantly blamed by pro-government quarters for the crimes they commit, but it’s time that the government remembers that crimes of omission can be just as grievous.
Ikhtisad Ahmed is a columnist for the Dhaka Tribune, and author of the socio-political short story collection Yours, Etcetera. He is on Twitter as @ikhtisad.