With growing religious intolerance in Bangladesh, is the country heading for the same path as Pakistan, asks Raza Rumi?
The brutal, cowardly murder of freethinker Avijit Roy on the streets of Dhaka is a reflection of embedded intolerance in many Muslim societies. Bangladesh, despite its secular credentials, is no exception.
On February 26, Roy was hacked to death by extremists with machetes, while his hapless wife, Rafida Bonya Ahmed, was also injured. What’s even more shocking was the fact that a good number of people witnessed the crime but did not intervene. Many were taping the violence on cellphones. Worse, according to media reports, the attack took place near a police check-post, erected for traffic control.
This incident left me deeply disturbed. As someone who was also subjected to (missed) bullets in 2014, Roy’s murder brought back memories of my close brush with death, subsequent exile and the fear of returning to my own country, Pakistan. Like Roy and many others, Islamist extremists found my views unacceptable to the extent that physical elimination was the only answer. I miraculously escaped the assassination attempt, but my driver was killed and another companion was injured.
While a few gunmen were arrested, the trial lingers on. But from my experience as an analyst, Pakistani courts seldom punish attackers, and the masterminds are never apprehended or brought to book.
I had never met Roy, but I was aware of his powerful work. It is not easy to profess atheism when you belong to a Muslim country. Roy lived in the United States and ran a blog called Mukto Mona, (free mind), and he was vocal in opposing religious bigotry and intolerance. While he remained in the relatively safer climes of the US, he was still part of the discourse in Bangladesh, and this is why he was a threat to Islamist extremists.
He received regular threats on social media — an irony of the ostensibly postmodern 21st century. The online store that sold Roy’s books was also harassed, and later it stopped displaying them altogether. In 2014, an Islamist said that Roy would be killed when he returned to his native country.
So the doomed blogger had gone back to Bangladesh for his book promotion when extremists found the right opportunity to attack and kill him. His latest book, Bishwasher Virus (The Virus of Faith), says it all.
One can disagree with the approach that some atheists take to matters of faith, but it is utterly disconcerting to note that the space for such ideas is shrinking in Muslim countries. And Bangladesh is no Saudi Arabia or even Pakistan. Its liberation in 1971 from Pakistan was an act of defiance to preserve the political and cultural rights that the so-called Islamic Republic of Pakistan was trying to suppress. For Bangladesh to become more like Pakistan is even more tragic.
In addition to Bishwasher Virus, Roy was also promoting his book, Shunno Theke Moha Bishwo (From Vacuum to Universe), at the Immortal 21st Book Fair held each year in late February. The date of the festival coincides with an important period of Bangladesh’s secular history, when students were killed by security forces for demanding equal rights for the Bengali language. At that time, Pakistan had tried to impose Urdu as a national language on East Pakistan, which later became Bangladesh in the war of 1971.
Four days after the murder, Bangladeshi authorities arrested a radical Islamist named Farabi Shafiur Rahman, who had threatened Roy on Facebook. The country’s elite Rapid Action Battalion says that Rahman is affiliated with the banned pan-Islamist outfit Hizb ut-Tahrir. According to police, Rahman had written: “Avijit Roy lives in America. So it’s not possible to kill him at this moment. But when he’ll return to the country, he’ll be murdered.”
Earlier, in February 2013, Rajib Haidar, another secular writer and blogger, was murdered near Shahbagh, where thousands of Bangladeshis were protesting to punish the individuals who were involved in war crimes during the 1971 conflict. Like Haidar, Roy campaigned for the punishment of all those accused.
Rahman was arrested in 2013 when he threatened a cleric for leading the funeral rites of the slain Haidar. Consistent with the way the criminal justice system works in South Asia, Rahman was released on bail in August of that year.
February is perhaps the cruelest of months for Bangladesh. In February 2004, a professor of Dhaka University, Humayun Azad, was attacked after attending the same book fair as Roy. Luckily, Azad didn’t die. However, he later died in Germany during a professional trip. His death remains a mystery.
The enduring fault line in Bangladesh since its independence has to do with the existence of Islamist groups such as Jamaat-e-Islami, which opposed the creation of the country and found greater political space due to its alliance with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the main opposition outfit. Both these parties boycotted the 2014 elections and, therefore, are excluded from the current system of governance.
But there are other, softer versions of Islamism that are rising in Bangladesh. For instance, the Tablighi Jamaat has found major traction in society. Like in other Muslim countries, Islamist ideas are appealing to the younger segments of the population.
For decades, Bangladeshi governments, like their nemesis in Pakistan, have appeased religious passions. A clear case is that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina covers her head. There is no Quranic injunction for women to wear a hijab (headscarf). This was true for Pakistan’s slain prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, who also demonstrated similar acquiescence to religious fervor by not only covering her head with a scarf, but also donning Islamic rosary beads to prove piety and credentials of being a devout Muslim.
Media freedoms have also been under threat as the incumbent Bangladeshi government has, on occasions, tried to muzzle critical commentaries on elections and the democratic evolution. But surely the religious opposition to free-thinking remains the most serious challenge, leading many to leave the country and not return. Taslima Nasreen, a writer, has been in exile for decades, scared of the radicals back home. Ironically, she is blamed for being too “extreme” in her views.
I had always admired Bangladesh as a secular nation and even wrote about its cultural and intellectual space. Sadly, it is only following the country it left behind in 1971: Pakistan. But when it comes to religious bigotry, few Muslim countries are safe for writers, bloggers and those who challenge extremist interpretations of Islam.
I am afraid of returning home to Pakistan. I was lucky to have narrowly escaped the fate of Roy and perhaps will not be as fortunate next time. The Taliban affiliate that tried to kill me number in the thousands, are well-organized and entrenched. Their level of intolerance is such that I am not even an atheist, yet I am a target.
I mourn Roy’s loss and also lament the state of exile that pernicious extremist ideologies have forced me into.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.