The Virus Of Islamic Fundamentalism Thrives In Bangladesh
From 2013 a series of brutal murders took place in Bangladesh. All the murdered persons were writers who had criticised Islamic fundamentalism. The roots of these murders lie embedded in the freedom struggle of the people of Bangladesh from Pakistan. The Liberation War brought to the forefront tensions within Bangladesh. On one side were Islamists, who supported West Pakistan, saying it was an affront to Islam for Bangladesh to demand independence. On the other were secularists, who wanted a state free of religious strictures and economic marginalisation, that they suffered as part of Pakistan. The latter group won the battle of ideas and the country’s constitution guaranteed secularism as a guiding principle. This unfortunately did not last. Power was seized by the Army in 1975 and as had happened in Pakistan, a process of Islamisation began. In 1977, the military leaders removed the word secularism from the Constitution and declared Islam the State religion. This remained the case till 2010, when the Supreme Court restored the principle of secularism. Islam, however, 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. “There is a rationalist intellectual tradition that goes back to the nineteenth century,” says Dr. Sumit Ganguly, professor of Indian civilization at the Indiana University. “There was already a cultural consensus about an openness to the world, a certain cosmopolitanism reflected in the work of some writers. But this secular tradition did not exist in isolation. There was always a strain of bigotry, of close mindedness—Hindus and Muslims were contemptuous of each other,” he explains. During Bangladesh’s earlier heritage as East Pakistan, various forms of bigotry were actively promoted by the State. Over the years that conservative segment of the population has been empowered by periods of religious-minded military rule. One of the main parties–the Bangladesh National Party (BNP)–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. Against this backdrop, a small community of secularist bloggers began to emerge in the mid 2000’s. The first Bengali public blogging platform was launched in 2005–inblog.net. Gradually one 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 the 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 Quran, and the Bible, because I thought these 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, and how they both came to atheism. His background was Hindu, hers Muslim. They married. They grew and changed, but were committed.
The scars of the 1971 war of independence were reopened drawing to the surface the tension between Islamists and secularists. In 2010, the Awami League began a war crimes tribunal to bring the perpetrators of mass killings to justice. Critics saw it as political score settling by Sheikh Hasina, the Prime Minister and head of the Awami League. Many bloggers were vocal supporters of the war crimes tribunal. The trials 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 stabbed and in February, Haider was killed. Both were active in the Shahbagh movement. After the attack, thousands took to the streets, calling for justice for Mohiuddin and Haider. This is where the tension reached a new level, says Sunit Galhotra, Asia researcher for the committee to protect journalists. But Bangladesh was already on this trajectory. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000 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 eighty bloggers. Newspapers ran inflammatory articles about non-believers. Many went into hiding fearful of vigilante attacks. The group heading the counter protests- the Hifazat-e-Islam issued a thirteen point list of demands. Among other hard-line demands inspired by the Taliban, it called for punishment for the leaders of the Shahbagh movement. Rather than defending the right to freedom of expression, the Prime Minister-Sheikh Hasina capitulated. In April 2013, four bloggers, from the list distributed by the Islamists were arrested. They were officially recognizing the fundamentalist message-that these people are atheists and have to be killed. Prison was a dangerous place for Mohiuddin. He was in jail for three months accused of criticizing Islam and the prophet. When he was bailed out, he left for Germany, and is still there. He reports that he keeps getting threats there.
While tension about the war crimes tribunal has 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. Arrests have been made after the four murders this year, but given that those charged with Haidar’s killing in 2013 have still not stood trial, relatives are not hopeful. The impact on Bangladesh’s bloggers has been drastic. Many have stopped writing. Mohiuddin bears the scars of this battle of ideas on his body. Ahmed speaks about her husband in the present tense and is still grieving. The public space for Bangladesh’s atheist writers and activists is closing all the time.
The Awami League Government after it was elected to power for the present term decided to try known persons who had sided with the Pakistan Army during the Liberation War in 1971 and had committed horrifying crimes against Hindus and Muslims who were sympathetic to the Awami League. They constituted the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) and arrested a number of persons who had openly sided with the Pakistan Army in the Liberation war of 1971 and committed horrifying acts of rape, and murder of innocent Muslim and Hindu people who had sided with the Mukti Bahini, the group who had fought a guerilla war against the Pakistan Army. The ICT began functioning after the present Awami League Government had settled down. The persons who had been identified to have sided with the Pakistan Army in 1971 and had committed rapes and murders of Hindus and Muslims who helped the Mukti Bahini, the Guerilla force set up to fight the Pakistan Army.
The interesting point about the prosecution of known collaborators during the liberation war was that the action was being taken by the Awami League after more than thirty years of the liberation war. During the intervening period, they were in power only for one term and probably did not feel confident to carry out the trials. Regrettably the international press was highly critical of the ICT saying that the accused were being tried after nearly thirty years of the suspected crimes. The Awami League Government persisted with the trials despite the international criticism. When the first accused was convicted and given life imprisonment, there was a spontaneous reaction by the public who had been following the trials closely. When the verdict of life imprisonment for Khader Mullah was announced, suddenly crowds began to collect in a ground in the heart of Dacca called the Shabagh squire and began chanting that Khader Mullah, the accused should get a death punishment. This accused had earned the epithet of the Butcher of Mirpur during the 1971 war for having raped and killed dozens of Hindus. Within days the crowds at the Shabagh squire had crossed more than a lakh. The Awami League Government then amended the ICT act and introduced a provision to appeal for a death punishment if the judge had given a life sentence. After the Government amended the act, they appealed for a death punishment and Khader Mullah was hanged.
Regrettably the International media kept criticizing the Awami League government. I had published a piece on this issue, comparing this to the case of Adolf Eichmann who had sent hundreds of Jews to concentration camps in Hitler’s Germany and later fled to Argentina. Thirty years after the holocaust, after the Jews had set up their own country, Israel, their Intelligence organisation the Mossad traced Adolf Eichmann in Argentina, and in a commando operation kidnapped him and brought him to Israel, tried him in a legal trial and executed him after he was given a death punishment for crimes committed in Germany when Israel did not even exist. If Israel could carry out this, what was wrong in Bangladesh trying and executing their citizens who had collaborated with Pakistan and killed innocent citizens?
Unfortunately, the second main political party in Bangladesh–the Bangladesh National Party–has generally supported the extremist groups in Bangladesh. When the Awami League commenced the trials of those people of Bangladesh who collaborated with the Pakistan Army in the Liberation war, it was the BNP who generally supported the people who had persecuted the Bengali Hindus and the Bengali Muslims who backed the Mukti Bahini against the Pakistan Army. Because of this background, the BNP opposed the ICT tooth and nail and tried their best to scuttle the trials.
It is in this background that elements of the people of Bangladesh have supported extremist elements against all moderate people of Bangladesh. And it is these extremist groups who have attacked and brutally killed people who had courageously come out with moderate statements. The Awami League Government has backed all moderate elements in Bangladesh. However, there are extremist groups who keep a watch on all liberal persons and strike when they can. That is why till date four bloggers have been brutally killed for having publicly aired their views. The Awami League Government have taken quick action and arrested the suspected attackers. It is an uphill task, but the Awami League is trying its best.
The four murders since the beginning of the year were brutal and happened in quick succession. Three people have been arrested including a British citizen-Touhidur Rehman over the deaths of Roy and Bijoy Das. But the violence goes back further. It began on January 15, 2013, when an atheist blogger and political activist, Asif Mohiuddin was attacked from behind, when on his way to work by a group of men with machetes. Luckily he survived. A month later, another blogger, critical of Islamic fundamentalism, Ahmed Rajab Haider was attacked the same way outside his house. He did not survive. In August 2014, some one broke into the Dacca house of TV personality, Nurul Islam Farooqi, who had criticised fundamentalist groups on air and slit his throat. A humanist academic, Prof. Shafiul Islam, who had pushed for a ban on full faced veils for students was murdered near Rajshahi University. These brutal crimes have gone undetected. 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, some have left the country. Who is behind these attacks? And can Bangladesh’s secular traditions survive in the face of such violence?
Unfortunately, Bangladesh is politically divided. Its two major parties are diametrically opposed to each other. While the Awami League headed by Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of Mujibur Rehman, is moderate in its political views, the Bangladesh National Party is openly supportive of Islamic extremist groups. The BNP had ruled for several terms and during these periods, the fundamentalist elements in Bangladesh were patronised by the BNP leadership. It is these fundamentalist groups who are behind the killings of four bloggers, who had spoken or written out their views on Islamic fundamentalism and organisations like the Jammat-e-Islami Bangladesh and the Hifazat-e-Islam, which opposed the trial of brutal killers during the liberation war.
The Awami League government has to ensure that the assassins of the four bloggers, who have been brutally killed for the liberal views and for opposing Islamic fundamentalism, are arrested and prosecuted for their brutal murders of the bloggers. After this, the government should protect all leading persons who are critical of religious fundamentalism and publicly express their opinions and should not succumb to threats from fundamentalists. It is only when the government clearly takes a stand on this issue that the fundamentalists will be scared to attack and kill bloggers.
By EN rammohan
(The writer is former Director General, BSF)