Bangladesh: Another Atheist Blogger Hacked to Death

Chowdhury, Mirza Farzana Iqbal

Mirza Farzana Iqbal Chowdhury (Source: Daffodil University)

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.

Stephen Fry on blasphemyChowdhury, 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.

Bijoy, Ananta FB

Ananta Bijoy Das (Source: Facebook)

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.


One of approximately 200,000 marching in support of the demands of Jamaat-e-Islami

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!

Bangladesh protestUnfortunately, 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.

13 Responses to “Bangladesh: Another Atheist Blogger Hacked to Death”

  1. Todd Steinlage says:

    Really great post Heather, thanks.

  2. paxton marshall says:

    Well said Heather. These killings are barbaric. Especially in a country that has not been a recent victim of western terrorism.

    My question: Should the Jamaat-e-Islami videos calling for the killing of atheist bloggers, also be protected as free speech? Are there no limits?

    • Thanks Paxton. When you’re directly inciting someone to commit a crime, particularly a violent crime, I think that crosses a line. Jamaat-e-Islami is banned. It has been associated with criminal activity, but I think the banning is political. As well as advocating for Sharia , they also want Bangladesh to be reunited with Pakistan. I don’t think the group should be banned, but I think openly calling for the murder of atheists should be prosecuted. It’s the only limit I would place on freedom of speech i.e. directly advocating violence or murder. I’d like to say directly advocating for any criminal activity, but I suspect people could come up with hypotheticals where I wouldn’t agree with myself.

      • Paxton says:

        How about speech in the US, advocating that our military bomb Iran, or Syria, where thousands of innocent people are sure to get killed? Is that ok?

        • Yes it is, because it’s not directed, it’s just opinion (assuming you’re not talking about a presidential advisor or similar). Those who say it have no power to make it happen, and have no valid expectation of being listened to. Those who disagree have an equal opportunity to say why they disagree with taking that option. There can be public debate on the issue, which is good.

  3. paxton marshall says:

    So what if Chowdhury were to go beyond criticizing the atheist bloggers and actively advocated killing them, even though she had no means or intention of killing them herself? Would that be protected speech?

    • It depends on the way she expresses herself. If she tells people to kill atheist bloggers, and they are people who listen to her, they become her weapons, so that is not protected – It’s active incitement to commit murder. If it’s a general comment that she hates atheists and wishes they were dead, that’s protected.

  4. paxton marshall says:

    Heather, so it depends on the influence of the speaker, whether hate speech is protected as free speech or not? If the speaker foments action that is unacceptable, ie killing, then it is not protected, but if the speech has little influence, as that of a testosterone-crazed war lover wanting to invade Iran, Syria and Russia, then it is protected. But what if the speech is from the former head of a major defense contractor, who has been intrusted with great political and military power, and has been a major influence on the development of policies that have killed hundreds of thousands and destabilized the middle east? And he is advocating that the US attack Iran. Is he any better than Jamaat-e-Islami calling on its followers to kill people who they regard as threats. Is the attack on the bloggers, or Charlie Hebdo any different from what Cheney, and Netanyahu, and the House of Saud are doing, on a much larger scale?

    The purpose of free speech is that all ideas get out into the marketplace, for citizens of a democracy to decide upon. The biggest threats to that goal today, are not laws prohibiting the expression of one view or another, but a much more subtle filtering of what and how information is presented to the public. The news media frame the conversation, and the news media, like the government, is the tool of the corporate elite. They, far more than al Qaeda, or Jamaat-e-Islami are the ones who decide whose speech gets heard and whose doesn’t.

    • That’s not what I said. I purposely used the phrase “active incitement to commit murder”. I’m not sure which “former head of a major defense contractor” etc you’re talking about – there’s more than one – but yes the speech is protected. We can’t limit free speech to speech we like. “Testosterone-crazed war lovers” are allowed free speech too. When a f**wit like Oliver North gets on Fox News (and I’ve heard him do it) to advocate bombing Iran, he can do it. When Jamaat-e-Islami calls for laws to establish the death penalty for atheists, they can do it. When Jamaat-e-Islami directly calls for their supporters to kill atheists, that shouldn’t be protected.

      You’re conflating governance issues and free speech a bit too. There’s a helluva difference between a threat to a state and a threat to a belief system, and to conflate the two is disingenuous. No-one has the right to force their belief system on another person, which is what Jamaat-e-Islami is trying to do, via murdering atheists to bully them into submission. Netanyahu has a responsibility to protect millions of citizens and his nation from attack. (And I don’t want to get into the rights and wrongs of how he does that – we’ve been there before. Suffice to say, some of the ways he does that are good and some are bad imo.) That is not about free speech – it’s a whole different issue.

      The purpose of free speech is that all ideas get out into the marketplace, for citizens of a democracy to decide upon.

      I agree completely. And there is a problem with how that’s presented to the public. Some countries are better than others. New Zealand is one of the better ones. (We’re 2/175, USA is 17/175.) See here. However, if extremist Islamists had their way, we’d be a lot worse off. All the worst countries in the index have Sharia, and that is what Jamaat-e-Islami, Al-Qaeda and the other extremist organisations want.

      As I’ve said before, I was opposed to the invasion of Iraq, but you can’t mix that up with the attack on Charlie Hebdo. Yes, innocent victims were killed in both, and in Iraq they numbered in the millions, but that’s no justification. If we think like that we’ll be locked in tit for tat murders forever. Besides, that has nothing to do with freedom of speech. You’re basically framing it as if because innocent Muslims were unjustly killed or otherwise suffered in Iraq, it’s OK for Jamaat-e-Islami to go around killing atheists in Bangladesh.

      The point is that fundamentalist Islamists in Bangladesh are trying to stop atheists using their constitutional right to freedom of speech by murdering them, and the government there is doing little to stop them.

  5. paxton marshall says:

    Heather, when Bush/Blair launched their invasion of Iraq, were they not trying to force their belief system on others? Bush called it a war for democracy. He said in his 2003 State of the Union speech, just prior to the invasion: “Americans are a free people, who know that freedom is the right of every person and the future of every nation. The liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world, it is God’s gift to humanity.” That’s not trying to impose our (or his) political and religious ‘belief system’ on others? And ‘active incitement to commit murder’? Were we not trying to ‘bully them into submission’? Was Netanyahu not trying to bully the Gazans into submission?

    You say I’m justifying Charlie Hebdo etc because of Iraq, but you have it backwards. Iraq was justified by 9/11. Neocons and war profiteers are even now justifying an invasion of Iran because of Charlie Hebdo and similar acts. Failing to recognize the enormous discrepancy in human lives and suffering between the two types of action is what is disingenuous about the comparison.

    I accept that you are/were opposed to the Iraq invasion (though you still seem to consider the Gaza slaughter justified). I’m not defending the actions of Jamaat-e-Islami or any other terrorist organization. I’m saying that in the present political environment, to focus on Islamic atrocities without acknowledging the far greater western atrocities against Muslims is to encourage further retribution by the west, whether that is your intention or not. The failure of the Bangladesh government to protect atheists’ free speech there is worthy of criticism and I applauded you for it. But to make this a part of a continuing focus on the misdeeds of Muslims {“Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas”), while never balancing that criticism by pointing out the misdeeds of the ‘secular’ west against Muslims, is to miss the forest for the trees, if not to deliberately distort the situation. I liken it to all the stories in America from the 17th through the 20th centuries about the atrocities of the ‘savage’ Indians against the white settlers, while little was ever mentioned, and is not still, of the atrocities of both the white settlers and the US government against the indigenous inhabitants.

    • Sorry Paxton, but I’m not going to put up with this continuing conflation of principles and mischaracterization of my position. You feel guilt for what your country did in Iraq. That’s laudable. My country wasn’t there and we didn’t buy into the rhetoric. In fact, if a NZ politician had tried to use God as a reason we should be there, it would have been the end of them. (There were politicians who thought we should be there, but none of them went down the God route.) And it should be quite clear to anyone who reads anything I write that I don’t think liberty etc are God-given – we have them because of the Enlightenment.

      There are people calling for an invasion of Iran. I haven’t seen any of them use Charlie Hebdo as a justification. And yes they’re free to call for it. I think they’re wrong, you think they’re wrong, and more importantly, Obama thinks they’re wrong. It’s highly unlikely America will bomb Iran, especially with a Democratic government. So even if you have to hold your nose at the candidate that gets nominated, the best thing you can do is work for that to happen in 2016.

      I’m not failing to recognize the discrepancy in suffering. I’m saying all suffering is wrong.

      And you’re the one who imagines any mention of Islamist extremism is some kind of attack on all Muslims. That is not what I think or how I think. It seems to me you’re the with the problem here – you can’t see the difference between criticizing an idea and the people who hold it. When I rail against right-wing Christians in America, you don’t attack me because most Christians in America have no time for them either. You have a blind-spot.

      The biggest atrocities are actually Muslim vs Muslim. Sunni vs Shi’a usually. What DAESH is doing to their fellow countrymen is appalling. I’m sick of people who call themselves liberals, then stand up for regimes that consider women worth half that of men, require them to be constantly covered, imprison them when they’ve been raped because it was their fault for being out alone, legally allow them to be beaten, allow the men in their families to decide who they marry, allow men to have up to four wives, throw gay men off buildings, execute people for leaving the religion, execute people for (what amounts to) thought crimes like blasphemy, stone people to death for adultery, and you know this list could go on for ages. Extremist Islamists want those things. I am not going to say, “OK, go ahead. You can do whatever you want without me protesting because some Westerners instituted bad policies that resulted in a whole lot of Muslims dying.” I have free speech and I think Sharia is disgusting and I’m not going to stop criticizing it. If you can’t see the difference between that and criticizing actual people, you’re the one with the problem.

      Bullying someone into submission is war. Active incitement to commit murder is a battle.

      Yes, Netanyahu is trying to bully the Gazans into submission. And Hamas and Hezbollah and others are trying to bully the Israelis into submission with missiles and suicide bombs too. You can’t criticize one in that situation without the other. Yes, Israel has come off best in those encounters. That’s not their “fault”, it’s because they used concrete to build bomb shelters instead of tunnels for suicide bombers. There needs to be a two-state solution – both sides have stopped that happening over the years.

      And I do not support any kind of slaughter, and if you say that one more time, you’re out.

      I say again, you cannot keep tying every incident to do with violence by Islamist extremists back to the Iraq War. What was done to the citizens of Iraq then does not give Islamist extremists the world over a free pass to commit any act of violence they want. You are not doing Muslims a favour by supporting the extremists – they want their actions stopped too.

      • paxton marshall says:

        Heather, I keep tying things back to the Iraq invasion, because 1) that is clearly the antecedent to what is going on in Iraq and Syria now, and still has repercussions throughout the middle east, and 2) because the same cast of characters is now pushing a militaristic policy towards Iran, DAESH, and other Muslim states, including Palestine. We rehash the past so we can learn from our mistakes. I feel no guilt, because I personally opposed the invasion. But I feel my country should atone for its mistakes, rather than compounding the damage we have created. You don’t have the direct responsibility that I have as a citizen of the offending country, but you do as a public intellectual in the western world.

        We can denounce Daesh, Iran, Assad, Hamas, Hezbollah, J-e-I, etc. all we want, but to oppose one, we advance another. And most Americans make no distinction among them. They are Muslims, who if they are not evil are at least crazy. But how much do you hear about the death penalty for the only democratically elected President in Egyptian history, who was overthrown by another in a long line military dictators supported by the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia. The dictator, al-Sisi was himself responsible for the Rabaa massacre in which a thousand people were murdered. But this wasn’t Islamic radicals killing atheists or Christians, or Jews. It was a thug being paid by atheists, Christians Jews, and fellow thuggish Muslims, to murder the “Islamist radicals” of the muslim brotherhood. Perhaps, some influential people found it inconvenient for this event to get too much press?

        I’m afraid you do not have much understanding of the destructive power of modern weaponry. Israel has not come out best in its “wars” with the Palestinians “because they used concrete to build bomb shelters instead of tunnels for suicide bombers”. Besides the fact that the tunnels were primarily used to evade the Israeli blockade, there is no protection the Palestinians could conceivably develop against power of Israel’s weapons. I know you would never support slaughter of innocents, but you have to understand then when such disparity of firepower is utilized, it is not war, it is slaughter. A little bit like the Europeans and the Indians, or the Maoris.

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