On 21 April, Bangladesh’s The Daily Star published an opinion article entitled The extent of freedom of expression. It was written by senior law lecturer Mirza Farzana Iqbal Chowdhury of Daffodil International University, a private university in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka.
It took the same line I have seen over and over again from Bangladeshi academics – that atheists should stop aggravating fundamentalist Islamists. If they would just do that, these commentators say, everything would be fine and atheist bloggers wouldn’t disturb the peace of Bangladesh by getting themselves murdered. Chowdhury focused mainly on the murder of Dr Avijit Roy, the second of (then) three atheist bloggers hacked to death in the streets, which I wrote about six weeks ago. In her article she says:
Being ‘Atheist’ is your right but offending other religion and religious personalities is not certainly ‘Exercise of your Freedom of Expression’. Atheism means you are a ‘disbeliever’ and you should not hurt or attack other ‘believers’ of other religions. You should be placid about your stand and you should not poke into other’s lives.
Movements of ‘Atheist Bloggers’ in Bangladesh seem to be quite apart from this basic notion of ‘Atheism’. Instead, by this way or that way their actions are resulting in breeding anarchies in society which is a clear menace to the national integrity. [all sic]
In my post referred to above, I wrote of another of those blaming atheists for their own murders, Dr Rupak Bhattacharjee. In an article in the Eurasia Review on 21 March entitled ‘Rise of Religious Extremism and Atheism: Ominous Signs for Bangladesh’, Bhattacharjee wrote:
The young bloggers are also required to guard against recklessness and any radical interpretation of people’s faith in a traditional society like Bangladesh as that may only end up arousing raw emotion and disturbing social harmony.
Chowdhury, Bhattacharjee, and others like them simply do not understand the principles of freedom of speech and expression, enshrined in their own constitution. It means people have the right to criticize others. You may not like what they have to say, but they have a right to say it. This right is the most important there is in maintaining freedom and democracy.
The appropriate response to an argument you don’t agree with is to make a better one. It should never be violence or murder. In Bangladesh, it is fundamentalist Islamists who seem unable to control themselves when someone talks about their religion or religious figures in a way they don’t like. To them I say, “If your faith and your prophet can’t handle a bit of criticism, they must be pretty weak.” Bangladesh’s atheist bloggers are not doing anything wrong. They are expressing their opinion on websites, which no-one is compelled to visit, and they live in a secular country that has had the wisdom to include the right to freedom of speech in their constitution.
Now we have the sad news that a fourth atheist blogger, Ananta Bijoy Das, was murdered by four machete-wielding attackers in the street on Tuesday (12 May 2015). This time it was in Sylhet, a city of more than half a million people in the north-east of the country. Although at this stage the police won’t comment on a motive for the murder, Das was known to be on a hit list of atheists drawn up by Islamist fundamentalists. Presumably Chowdhury and Bhattacharjee think this is entirely his own fault.
According to The Guardian, Ananta Bijoy worked as a banker in Sylhet, but also wrote for the website Mukto-Mona (Free Mind). He mainly wrote about science and evolution, but occasionally wrote about subjects like rationalism too. He was also editor of a quarterly magazine called Jukti (Logic), and was leader of Sylhet’s science and rationalist council. In 2006, Das won Mukto-Mona‘s annual rationalist award for “deep and courageous interest in spreading secular and humanist ideals and messages”.
Mukto-Mona was originally set up by Dr Avijit Roy, a well-known atheist writer and blogger. Dr Roy was murdered on 21 February this year, also in a machete attack. A week ago, Al Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent (AQIS) claimed responsibility for his death via a video from their leader, Asim Umar. In the same video, Umar also claimed responsibility for the death of Ahmed Rajib Haider, who was found outside his home in a pool of his own blood along with two machetes on 15 February 2013. The third of the four atheist blogger murder victims is Washiqur Rahman, who was killed in a machete attack outside his home in March.
Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch said yesterday via press release,
This pattern of vicious attacks on secular and atheist writers not only silences the victims but also sends a chilling message to all in Bangladesh who espouse independent views on religious issues. The Bangladesh government needs to act swiftly to bring to justice those responsible for these brutal attacks, and to make clear public statements that attacking freedom of religion and expression will not be tolerated.
When the authorities jail atheist or secular bloggers for nothing more than expressing their opinion about religion, it suggests that the government agrees with radicals who are butchering people on Bangladesh’s streets. This sends the wrong signal to society, which should be hearing from the government that it stands with those expressing peaceful opinions.
The problem as I see it is that there is a fundamental contradiction between the constitution and the law.
Bangladesh’s constitution, section 39. (2) (a) guarantees “… the right of every citizen to freedom of speech and expression”. However, there is also a blasphemy law, which applies to all religions. Since 1993, Jamaat-e-Islami, a fundamentalist Islamist political organization, has been trying to get that blasphemy law extended. They want the law to provide additional special protection to the Qur’an and the prophet Mohammed, to also cover criticism of Sharia, and for the range of punishments to be extended to include life imprisonment and death.
In my opinion, as the constitution is supposed to trump any law where these is a contradiction, there should not even be a blasphemy law. Every attempt at prosecution should be stopped by appeal to the constitution. This hasn’t happened, and there have been several successful prosecutions.
It’s the recent history of Bangladesh that makes the situation so complicated. The main source of conflict is over the 2013 conviction of Abdul Quader Mollah (aka the Butcher of Mirpur) for multiple horrific war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International War Crimes Tribunal. Mollah’s crimes were committed during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. He and others convicted at the same time were mostly members of the Jamaat-e-Islami party. There was strong support within Bangladesh for him to receive the death penalty, and when this did not occur there were peaceful protests in Dhaka (initial attendance estimated at over 100,000) which lasted for about eight weeks and spread to several over centres. This became known as the Shahbag Movement. Those originally calling for the protests included atheist bloggers. It was during these protests that Ahmed Rajib Haider was murdered.
Mollah’s sentence was later overturned and he was sentenced to death. This lead to a counter protest by supporters of Jamaat-e-Islami on 5 May 2013. It was at this protest that we saw the infamous images of people calling for atheists to be killed. The protesters had thirteen demands relating to making Islam and Sharia a greater focus of the constitution. During the protests though they chanted only two things: ” Allahu Akbar” and “One point! One demand! Atheists must be hanged!
Unfortunately, these protests degenerated and dozens of government offices, shops and vehicles were wrecked. In retaliation the Police and security forces attacked. Twenty-nine were killed, including seven members of the security forces. The government handled the whole situation extremely badly and much of the violence meted out on protesters was punitive and unwarranted. The government has never properly acknowledged their faults in the situation, but as a way to appease Jamaat-e-Islami four atheist bloggers were arrested and charged with “hurting religious sentiments with their ‘derogatory’ postings on blogs and social networking sites”.
Jamaat-e-Islami blamed the whole situation on atheists, although most of those calling for the execution of those convicted of war crimes were actually the Muslim majority. (Bangladesh is 90% Muslim, 9% Hindu, and all other religions plus atheists are included in the other 1%.) They characterized all those who protested originally as atheists out to destroy Islam, and slick YouTube videos were produced demonizing atheists. They are all in Bengali, but the one linked above has a partial transcript. Mukto Pran, who posted it, says this about the video:
This video is in Bengali, mashed with verses from Quran and Hadith, was produced to encourage a mass killing of atheists and apostates wherever they are found. The translation of the part of manifesto is provided below.
1. Punish all the bloggers, writers, columnists, cartoonists and commenters who are like-minded to “Thaba Baba” (Razib) and criticizes Rasool (PBUH). If you have the capacity and opportunity to kill these apostates consider these hadiths and do so.
2. Identify the IP addresses of these atheists and collect their home addresses in an online database. So that, today or tomorrow we can kill these apostates.
3. Add photos of these atheists-apostates in the database to correctly identify them
4. Locate and identify the work place, home and permanent home address of these atheists-apostates and make it available to everyone using online blog and forums. So that any mujahideen can kill them.
5. Those brothers and sisters knows how to hack, hack down the sites such as “Nagorik Blog” and other similar blogs which harbors atheists.
6. We have to inform the Islam loving people so that a violent and protest is made against the work of Thaba baba and others like him. And terrorists like these are punished, so that atheist blogs such as “Nagorik Blog” and others are closed and they cannot say anything against Rasool (PBUH).
7. If you know anyone from any Islamic organization, Kaumi Madrasa, Aliya Madrasa or any other Islamic political party, show this video and inform them about these atheists-apostates.”
Ananta Bijoy Das, Washiqur Rahman and Ahmed Rajib Haider were all murdered within metres of their homes.
In less than four months we have seen the brutal murders of three atheist bloggers. Their deaths were called for by Islamist extremists, and the list surely includes more names. All those arrested so far are connected to fundamentalist madrasas or Islamist extremist political organizations.
The difference between the atheists and the Islamists is that the atheists are not trying to force their beliefs on anyone else. They are simply using their constitutional right to freedom of expression. This is not the case with the Islamists – they wish to compel others to live by their interpretation of the Qur’an and Hadiths.
The Islamists are setting up the atheists as an enemy of the people, making it acceptable to knock them down. We have seen this tactic used by totalitarian regimes throughout history. While the atheists call for the law to deal with the illegal actions of the Islamists in vain, the Islamists make up their own laws, pronounce sentences of death, and carry out those sentences with impunity. Instead of recognizing that the murdered atheists have done nothing wrong, they are frequently blamed for antagonizing their killers as if there is some justification on the part of the murderers.
If the government of Bangladesh wasn’t so mired in corruption (they’re 145/175 on the Global Corruption Index) and so desperate to retain power, perhaps they could sort this out. As it is, it looks like the atheists are on their own. And if the opposition party regains power, the fate of the atheists would likely be even worse. At least the current government is committed to secularism.