The killings have gone unpunished … secular activists protest against the murder of blogger Niloy Chakrabarti in Dhaka earlier in August.
Niloy Chakrabarti was only the latest atheist blogger to be hacked to death in the country this year. The government crackdown on ‘blasphemers’ has sent others into hiding.
What is the future for the country’s liberal writers?
In February 2015, Avijit Roy and his wife, Rafida Bonya Ahmed, travelled from their home in Atlanta, Georgia, to Dhaka, the capital Bangladesh. This was their home town, and they were attending the annual Ekushey book fair, which runs all month. They had been unable to attend in 2014 because Roy had received death threats after the publication of his book The Virus of Faith, which criticised religion.
The couple were familiar with controversy. They ran a Bengali-language web forum called Mukto-Mona, or Free Minds, promoting rationalist thought, and had been threatened by Islamic fundamentalists. During their trip to Dhaka, they avoided being out late at night, varied their routines and checked in regularly with relatives. For the first 10 days, the strategy seemed to work.
On 26 February, they attended a series of events at the University of Dhaka, where the book fair is held. They left in the evening, walking back to their car through a crowded and well-lit area. Suddenly, they were surrounded by a group of masked men with machetes. Ahmed doesn’t remember what happened next, as the knives rained down upon them. There were hundreds of people around, including police officers. They did not step in. After the attack, a young journalist intervened and drove them to the hospital. Ahmed survived, severely injured. It was too late for Roy, who died during the drive.
“We knew the risks,” Ahmed told me when we met in central London four months after the attack. She is a small woman in her 40s with short, cropped hair, wide eyes and a youthful face. Because of the attack, she is missing a thumb. “Avi was there on his own in 2012, and he was pretty open and nothing happened, so we were not ready for this. Our daughter” – a student – “says we underestimated the situation. We thought, OK, there could be protests, there could be people yelling and screaming – but not this.” She pauses, struggling with herself. “We knew, we knew how dangerous it could be.”
Ahmed’s scalp and neck also bear scars; she was stabbed repeatedly in the head. She is quick to laugh, but says her thoughts are “scattered” by the heavy medication. She gets tired quickly because of the head injuries.
Roy, who held dual US and Bangladeshi nationality, was the most prominent atheist writer to be attacked in Bangladesh, but he was not the first – or the last. On 30 March, a month after Roy’s murder, another blogger, Washiqur Rahman Babu, was set upon by a group of masked assailants. On 12 May, Ananta Bijoy Das, who wrote for Mukto-Mona on rationalism and science, was attacked in his hometown of Sylhet. On 7 August, men with machetes broke into the Dhaka home of Niloy Chakrabarti, a blogger who used the pen name Niloy Neel. All three men died.
The four murders in 2015 were brutal and happened in quick succession, prompting police action. Three people have been arrested – including a British citizen, Touhidur Rahman – over the deaths of Avijit Roy and Ananta Bijoy Das. But the violence goes back further. It began on 15 January 2013, when atheist blogger and political activist Asif Mohiuddin was on his way to work and was attacked from behind by a group of men with machetes. “I [thought] I would die,” he tells me over Skype from his new home in Germany. “But somehow I survived.” He spent weeks in intensive care, and still finds it difficult to move his neck. “I think I will carry this problem all my life.”
A month later, another blogger critical of Islamic fundamentalism, Ahmed Rajib Haider, was attacked in the same way outside his house in Dhaka. He did not survive. In August 2014, someone broke into the Dhaka home of TV personality Nurul Islam Faruqi, who had criticised fundamentalist groups on air, and slit his throat. A humanist academic, Professor Shafiul Islam, who had pushed for a ban on full-face veils for students, was murdered near Rajshahi University in west Bangladesh in November.
These brutal crimes have gone unpunished; arrests have not led to prosecutions. The government appears unwilling, or unable, to stand with atheists. Instead, in an attempt to appease Islamists, it has ramped up its own actions against “blasphemous” bloggers. Secularists are terrified. Many have stopped writing altogether, some have left the country and others are desperately seeking an exit. Who is behind these attacks on atheists, a tiny subset of the Muslim-majority population? And can Bangladesh’s secular tradition survive in the face of such violence?
Bangladesh was born out of the partition of India in 1947, when it was labelled East Pakistan, officially part of the new homeland for the Muslims of the subcontinent. The independence movement began in the 1950s, and came to a head with the bloody 1971 war of independence, which saw genocide of liberation forces by West Pakistan. The war brought to the forefront tensions within Bangladesh.
On one side were Islamists, who supported West Pakistan, arguing that it was an affront to Islam for Bangladesh to declare independence. On the other were secularists who wanted a state free of the religious strictures and economic marginalisation they suffered as part of Pakistan. The latter group won the battle of ideas, and the country’s constitution guaranteed secularism as a founding principle.
It didn’t last. Power was seized by the military in 1975 and, as had happened in Pakistan, a process of Islamisation began. In 1977, military leaders removed secularism from the constitution and declared Islam the state religion. This remained the case until 2010, when the supreme court restored the principle of secularism. Islam remained the state religion. This fractious history points to an unresolved question: what is the true identity of Bangladesh? Perhaps unsurprisingly for a debate born out of such violence, it is a polarising subject.
‘The government was officially recognising the fundamentalist message’ … Asif Mohiuddin was attacked by men with machetes in 2013. He survived and then was imprisoned twice. He now lives in Germany.
“There is a rationalist intellectual tradition that goes back to the 19th century,” says Dr Sumit Ganguly, professor of Indian Civilisations at Indiana University. “There was already a cultural consensus about an openness to the world, a certain cosmopolitanism, reflected in the work of prominent writers.” But, he explains, this secular tradition did not exist in isolation. “There was always a strain of bigotry, of closed-mindedness – Hindus and Muslims were contemptuous of each other. During Bangladesh’s earlier heritage as East Pakistan, various forms of bigotry were actively promoted by the state.”
During the years, that conservative segment of the population has been empowered by periods of religious-minded military rule. One of the two main parties, the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), is allied with religious groups. The other, the Awami League, is secular. But, as religion has become an ever more sensitive topic, they too have capitulated to the religious lobby.
It was against this backdrop that a small but committed community of secularist bloggers began to emerge in the mid-2000s. The first Bengali-language public blogging platform, somewhereinblog.net, was launched in 2005. But gradually, some noticed an increasing volume of religious material.
“Day by day, I saw the Islamisation of blogs,” says Mohiuddin. “In Bangladesh, Islamic groups control the mainstream media and TV channels – and they were trying to control the blogs as well.” He and other writers started their own sites, contributing to each other’s blogs and starting Facebook discussions on history, philosophy, science, law and feminism. Some posts were explicitly critical of the government; others dealt with religious texts. “I criticised many verses of the Qur’an and the Bible because I thought those verses were not compatible with modern society,” says Mohiuddin.
It was through this virtual group of Bangladeshi atheists that Roy and Ahmed first made contact. They began to speak on the phone, discussing their ideas, how they both came to atheism. His background was Hindu, hers Muslim; he had abandoned faith at 19, she had at 13. Both came from liberal families who accepted their non-belief. On the phone, she teased him that he’d discovered atheism so late. They debated ideas and swapped stories about their family lives. They soon met and became a couple. “That marriage was a lot of work,” she says. “We grew and changed all the time and we didn’t agree on everything – but we were committed.”
When they first met in 2001, Roy had recently established Mukto-Mona as a small Yahoo forum. In 2002, Ahmed helped him set up the first Mukto-Mona website. Mukto-Mona became one of the central points for Bangladesh’s small community of atheist writers. They grew close; Ahmed describes Bijoy Das, murdered three months after her husband, as “a little brother”. She had recently come out of the intensive care unit when she heard about his death. “Every time I went to Bangladesh, I would give him the bus fare to go home, because he was a student,” she says. “I just lost my whole recovery when I heard about him.”
The scars of the 1971 war of independence have recently been reopened, drawing to the surface the tension between Islamists and secularists. In 2010, the Awami League began a war crimes tribunal aimed at bringing the perpetrators of mass killings to justice. From the outset, it was controversial. Critics saw it as political score-settling by Sheikh Hasina, prime minister and head of the Awami League, for the slaughter of her father in the military coup of 1975.
Many bloggers were vocal supporters of the tribunal. The trial came to a head in late 2012 and early 2013, and it was at this point that fundamentalists turned their attention to atheist writers.
In January 2013 Mohiuddin was knifed, and in February Haider was killed. Both were active in the Shahbag protest movement, comprised of secularists supportive of the war crimes tribunal. After the attacks, thousands took to the streets, calling for justice for Mohiuddin and Haider. “This is where the tension [reached] a new level,” says Sumit Galhotra, Asia researcher for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “But Bangladesh was already on this trajectory. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, there were authors who had to flee the country, long before the current crisis.”
It did not take long for Islamists to form counter-protests, calling for the death penalty for blasphemers and atheists. Protests descended into violent clashes. Islamist fundamentalists published a hit-list of 84 bloggers. Many had used pseudonyms; now they were outed. Newspapers ran inflammatory articles about non-believers. Many went into hiding, fearful of vigilante attack. Mohiuddin took to covering his face with a mask when he left the house.
The group leading the counter-protests, Hefazat-e-Islam, issued a 13-point list of demands. Among other hardline demands apparently inspired by the Taliban, it called for punishment for the leaders of the Shahbag movement. Rather than defending the right to freedom of expression, Hasina capitulated. In April 2013, four bloggers from the list distributed by Islamists were arrested. One of them was Mohiuddin, who had been attacked with machetes three months earlier.
“I was very angry when the government started arresting secular bloggers,” he says. “They were officially recognising the fundamentalist message – these people are atheists and they have to be killed. We had problems now from Islamic groups and the so-called secular Awami League.”
Prison was a dangerous place for Mohiuddin. His name and photograph had been in newspapers, and Islamist groups had incorrectly labelled him the leader of the country’s secular bloggers. “The first day I was in prison, all the prisoners shouted that in the morning they will cut me into pieces. I thought, this is the end of my life, and tomorrow morning they are going to kill me.” At one point, he was placed in a cell with two of the men who had attacked him. They were unrepentant.
Mohiuddin was in jail for three months, accused of criticising Islam and the prophet. He was bailed for a month before being imprisoned again for nine days. After that, he went to Germany to take up a scholarship. He plans to remain in Europe for several years, until it is safe for him to return home. “They are still looking for me. Just a few days ago I got threats. It has become very normal for me, but I still have to take care. I don’t share my location anywhere.”
Niloy Chakrabarti claimed officers ignored threats weeks before he was hacked to death in his Dhaka flat, the fourth such murder this year
Mohiuddin’s ordeal neatly crystallises the double threat faced by bloggers – Islamist violence on the one hand, and official repression on the other. The crisis faced by atheist writers is unfolding against a backdrop of a wider clampdown on press freedom. “It’s been a really bad time for the media,” says Galhotra. “Sheikh Hasina’s government has been going after anyone reporting critically on her.” The editor of Amardesh, an opposition newspaper, is behind bars, while two TV news channels affiliated with the opposition remain off-air. Some Islamist bloggers have been arrested.
While tension about the war crimes tribunal has now died down, violence against atheist writers has surged. “One of the reasons is that Bangladesh has allowed a culture of impunity to flourish over the years,” says Galhotra. Arrests have been made after the four murders this year, but given that those charged with Haider’s killing in 2013 have still not stood trial, relatives are not hopeful. The attack on Roy and Ahmed this year gained international attention, but the Bangladeshi government made no comment. Eventually, in May, Hasina’s son, Sajeeb Wazed, spoke to Reuters: “Our mother offered private condolences to Avijit’s father. But the political situation in Bangladesh is too volatile for her to comment further … given that our opposition party plays that religion card against us relentlessly, we can’t come out strongly for him. It’s about perception, not about reality.”
The impact on Bangladesh’s close-knit group of secularist bloggers has been drastic. Many have stopped writing. Mohiuddin bears the scars of this battle of ideas on his body; when he wakes up each morning, he has to stay still for 20 minutes before he can move his neck. But he is most distressed by the loss of his work. When the government banned his blog, they deleted all its content from the server. “I cannot live my life without writing. I am breathing, so I have to write. I was very upset for that blog. I have to start everything from the beginning.”
Ahmed speaks about her husband in the present tense, and is grieving her loss. “It’s a process. I am still under treatment. It’s going to take a while. I feel nothing any more, absolutely nothing.”
Throughout their relationship, the couple gave each other handwritten letters. Ahmed’s last letter to Roy was written on 12 February, two weeks before he died. In it, she remembered that, when they first met, she criticised him for neglecting books because he was too focused on the internet. “I wrote to him and said, ‘Now you read so much more, and I have slowed down. You encourage me and remind me that I need to get back to that. I guess that’s the strength we have, that we encourage each other.’”
Her phone bleeped with messages from Mukto-Mona’s international network of moderators, determined to keep the discussion going. But the public space for Bangladesh’s atheist writers and activists is closing all the time.
A longer version of this piece appears in the Autumn 2015 edition of New Humanist magazine. See newhumanist.org.uk Photograph: Muni Uz Zaman/AFP/Getty Images