Sunday, August 9, 2015

Bangladesh blogger's murder: Fighting for free expression in an age of death squads


How can free thought, science, and humanism in Bangladesh best be defended? What should you do when you know that the state cannot protect you?
The death squads of fundamentalist Islam have taken the life of yet another Bangladeshi blogger. On Friday, Niloy Neel, who espoused atheist views, was hacked to death in his home in Dhaka. Some months ao, Ananta Bijoy Das was murdered in Sylhet, Avijit Roy and Washiqur Rahman were killed in in Dhaka while Rafida Ahmed Bonya survived with serious injuries.

The champions of death promise more. Two years ago, the Hefazat-e-Islam, an Islamist movement based in madrassas, delivered to the Home Ministry a list of 84 atheist bloggers they wanted punished for blasphemy. The crime of those included: they used words that offended the self-appointed guardians of Islam. Despite their belief in an all-powerful Allah, the death squads were not ready to leave judgement in his hands – what this says about their own belief in a supreme being is a contradiction they never address.

Though narrow and frequently precarious, there has long been room for free thinking and unbelief in Bangladesh. But with the country entering a time when more and more people are murdered for what they think and speak, I fear for the land of my birth. A certain opening that has existed for 20 years is closing.

Fundamental differences

The latest killing has brought forth a range of reactions.

Among those who knew Ananta and his work or value free speech, there is sadness for sure but, beyond that, considerable dismay at the realisation that the Bangladeshi state, despite claims to a certain kind of secularism, cannot protect the lives of those who hold dissident beliefs about religion.

There are others, though, who believe the bloggers went too far and that if they stop intruding into public space, peace will return.

That hope, however, is undermined by the bloodlust among many who celebrate these deaths. Right after Ananta’s murder, his Facebook page was riddled with comments applauding his death. There have also been comments and posts that pledge death for other so-called apostates, such as Shias or Ahmadiyyas. It may be hard to believe, but there are people who believe today’s Pakistan, with its routine killing fields, should be the future of Bangladesh.

When an Islamist takes a cleaver to the head of someone for what they think, there seem to be people who are attracted to this, who say to themselves that they want to be the kind of men who step into those shoes. But isn’t it the case that there are perhaps more humans who recoil from such cruelty, asking, if this be religion, I want none of it?

For many like me who came of age in the 60s, the shocks of 1970-71 moved us away from religion. In 1970 the terrible Bhola cyclone took away over a 100,000 lives. People who went to do relief work came face to face with scenes of massive destruction and bodies stripped of skin. The war of 1971 brought even more brutality, this time from soldiers of Pakistan carrying the banner of Islam.

Quite often it is death, either unexplainable by religion or committed by the religious, that drives people away from religion.

Free thought

In Bangladesh, freethinkers have lived among a largely conservative, religious-minded population. Most are private and many go about their lives through one or another kind of compromise with the dominant culture. Besides unbelievers and skeptics, the country is of course home to a larger humanist population that draws inspiration from the Bauls or Tagore instead of organised religions.

At the same time, there have always been atheists in the public sphere for whom unbelief is a cause. Reacting to the harmfulness of superstitious thinking and believing in science and reason, they believe that this needs to be addressed in books, articles, or lectures. Some have found homes in academia. Others were affiliated with communist groups, though in the main communists tended to keep their notions about religion to themselves.

At least one remarkable skeptic emerged from village society.

In early 1991, when society opened up after the fall of the dictator Ershad, I was visiting Dhaka and attended a gathering in Purana Paltan at the office of a communist-affiliated writers group. The meeting celebrated the life of a self-taught free thinker, Aroj Ali Matabbar. This was the first time I had heard of the man.

Matabbar began to look at religion with a critical eye after a distasteful encounter with the mullahs. His mother died when he was in his teens. Wanting a memory of his mother he took a photo of her dead body. The mullahs refused to perform the janaja for her. He found it unfair that his mother would be punished for an action he had committed. This experience led to a lifetime of questioning. Aroj Ali wrote a couple of books that were eventually published after Bangladesh became independent. He had been persecuted in the Pakistan period

For many years, Matabbar was mostly known to a small group of people. Since the 90s, his books have been published by a mainstream publisher and also released in English translation. He became an inspiration for newer generations of free thinkers.

The democratic opening after the fall of Ershad also brought other voices of unbelief into the public arena. Taslima Nasrin, who had started to publish even before the dictator fell, came into conflict with religious zealots. They forced her into exile.

Within a few years, the internet emerged as a new way for people to communicate with one another and with the public. Freethinkers who had started communicate on electronic mailings lists soon launched the website Mukto-Mona.

Public atheism

As we entered the 21st century, new books on religion were published, some original and others in translation. In 2006-9 when I was on an extended stay in Dhaka, I browsed bookshops and book fairs and found books by Aroj Ali Matabbar and Ahmed Sharif who had been a professor at Dhaka University. I also discovered a book titled Why I do not believe in religion, a translation of Bertrand Russell’s Why I am not a Christian. There were also dystopian novels that imagined a country taken over by Islamists: Humayun Azad’s Pak Sar Zamin Shad Bad and Masuda Bhatti’s Banglastan. Anisul Hoque’s Ondhokare Eksho Bochhor appeared in the 90s, but it remains out of print. More recently books and translations on evolutionary biology and other scientific topics have also come out.

With the end of the military regime and the election of the Awami League in 2008, the explosion of blogs and social media led to the emergence of an active public atheism from within the blogging community. This also coincided with a time when internet access became widely available, especially through mobile phones.

Some had been inspired by Mukto-Mona. But this new atheism was more combative and visible to a larger population because of the spread of internet access.

Reality bites

Among some of them, mockery of religion became common. Partly this was the result of youthful fervour that seemed to take pleasure in scoring points against fundamentalists. Partly it was triggered by the scale of evil perpetrated worldwide these days by religious followers as well as the memory of atrocities committed by the Pakistanis and their collaborators in 1971. There seemed to be a feeling among some atheists that they had carved out a secure space within Bangladesh. Since the Awami League government had initiated war crimes trials and sometimes talked about secularism, there seemed to be a belief that now the state would offer an umbrella for all those raising voices against political Islam and religion in general.

Reality has turned out different.

The state has shown that it cannot ensure security to bloggers. In a public statement, the Prime Minister’s son, himself an adviser to the government, indicated that the ruling party is nervous that its support for secularism might imply closeness to atheists. This appears to be a formula to defend inaction.

Beyond that, the state has long shown that it cannot ensure security of life even more generally. Most murders that involve some type of controversy, usually involving people or groups with power, go unsolved. This is testimony to both the weakness of crime solving among police institutions and the lack of political will.

Even more insidiously, the state itself has set an example of extrajudicial murder through ‘crossfire’ killings by police forces that have been given a license to kill. Somehow the state believes that this is solving the problem of crime. Instead the stakes are raised and the country becomes the scene of even more gruesome crimes. Sometimes the police forces themselves are implicated in crimes carried out for the benefit of private circles.

Yes, pressure needs to be maintained on the state to defend the right to life and expression. But it’s also necessary to look squarely at how things have turned out. We have entered a time when bloggers and writers, publishers and bookshop owners, all have to deal with the new reality of blogger murders. What should you do when you know that the state cannot protect you?

This isn’t just a question for individuals as they sort out how they will approach self-preservation and their public roles. There is a broader issue: how can free thought, science, and humanism in Bangladesh best be defended in an age of death squads? The times call on freethinkers and humanists to take a longer strategic view. Each person needs to ask what they want to achieve. What kind of writing and expression are essential? How can the internet and social media best be used? This is a discussion that needs to take place within the larger humanist community.

Bangladesh - Silencing the secular

A Bangladeshi blogger, Niloy Chatterjee, who used the pen name Niloy Neel and was a critic of religious extremism, was killed by suspected Islamic militants on August 7. This is the fourth time that a blogger has been hacked to death with a machete in Bangladesh this year. Chatterjee was an atheist of Hindu background. Those that have been killed in the past have had varying religious identities and backgrounds. All of the four men that have been killed this year were on a list of 84 “atheist bloggers” that was submitted to the government and circulated publicly. Not all of these bloggers were atheists but they had been part of a campaign to promote secularism in Bangladesh. The only thing that all these attacks have in common is that they were all directed against bloggers who have raised their voice against the rising trend of Islamic extremism in the world and have demanded that the perpetrators of atrocities in Bangladesh’s 1971 war should be brought to justice. Bloggers in Bangladesh, Chatterjee among them, had been demanding the prosecution of Islamic leaders accused of being involved in war crimes during the 1971 war of independence. The Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, set up a tribunal to conduct trials for war crimes in 1971 and several leaders of an Islamist party that had carried out massacres have so far been convicted, of whom a few have been hanged. The recent rise in violence from Islamic extremists could be a backlash against this drive. The Bangladeshi government, under Sheikh Hasina, is expected to do everything in its power to bring to justice those who perpetrated these attacks. The government should also provide security to bloggers, journalists and all others vulnerable to such attacks.

Imran Sarker, the leader of a network of activists and bloggers has condemned the attack, saying, “We are speechless. He was demanding justice for killing of other bloggers. Who will be next for demanding justice for Niloy?” As Sarker has suggested, these attacks are attempts to silence all secular voices in Bangladesh. Perhaps one of the reasons for the recent escalation of religiously motivated violence in Bangladesh is the increasing prevalence of radical Islamic terrorist groups and ideologies. It is quite admirable that these bloggers continue to provide an alternative narrative to the growing fundamentalist propaganda by groups such as Islamic State, knowing that they are risking their lives in doing so. Such individuals, anywhere in the world, should be celebrated and protected and the world must realise the importance of promoting and defending a secular counter-narrative to fundamentalism. 

Bangladesh secular blogger Niloy Neel hacked to death in his home in fourth targeted killing this year

Attackers armed with machetes have killed another blogger in Bangladesh, the fourth killing of an online critic of religious extremism in the Muslim-majority country in less than six months.
Niloy Chakrabarti, 40, a blogger who advocated secularism and published under the name Niloy Neel, was killed in his flat in the capital, Dhaka, police official Mustafizur Rahman said.
Police confirmed the 30-year-old had been murdered by a group of four people who had pretended they were looking for somewhere to rent.
"They entered his room in the fifth floor and shoved his wife aside and then hacked him to death. He was a listed target of the Islamist militants," Imran Sarker, head of a network of activists and bloggers, said.
"We are speechless. He was demanding justice for killing of other bloggers.
"Who will be next for demanding justice for Niloy?"
Deputy police commissioner Muntashirul Islam said Mr Chakrabarti's wife, Asha Moni, had been "confined to another room" during the attack.
Ms Moni told reporters that during the incident one of the attackers was shouting "Allahu Akbar [God is great]".
She said she pleaded with the assailants not to kill her husband but they dragged her to a veranda and confined her there, according to online newspaper

Al Qaeda affiliate warns of further attacks

The Bangladesh branch of Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), Ansar al-Islam, claimed the killing and warned of more to come, according to monitoring group SITE.
"If your freedom of speech maintains no limits, then widen your chests for freedom of our machetes," the group, which also claimed to have murdered secular blogger Washiqur Rahman in March, said in posts on Twitter and Facebook.
Mr Chakrabarti was a critic of religious extremism that led to bombings in mosques and the killing of numerous civilians, Mr Sarker said.
He was also one of hundreds of bloggers driving a movement demanding the death penalty for Islamist leaders accused of atrocities in Bangladesh's 1971 war of independence.
Police said Mr Chakrabarti had been one of the organisers of large-scale protests in 2013 against Islamists convicted of war crimes during the conflict.

Bloggers go into hiding

Militants have targeted secularist writers in Bangladesh in recent years while the government has tried to crack down on hardline Islamist groups seeking to make the South Asian nation of 160 million a sharia-based state.
In February, machete-wielding assailants hacked to death US citizen of Bangladeshi origin and critic of religious militancy Avijit Roy and seriously injured his wife and fellow blogger Rafida Bonya Ahmed.
They were attacked in Dhaka after leaving a book fair.
On March 30, Washiqur Rahman, another secular blogger who aired his outrage over Roy's death on social media, was killed in similar fashion.
Another secular blogger, Ananta Bijoy Das, was attacked by machete-wielding attackers and killed in the north-eastern district of Sylhet on May 12.
In a Facebook post on May 15, Mr Chakrabarti said he had been followed by two young men after protesting Das's murder, but police refused to register the complaint and instead told him to leave the country.
Most secular bloggers have gone into hiding, often using pseudonyms in their posts. At least seven have fled abroad, according to Canada-based atheist blogger Farid Ahmed, who helped several of them.
Activist groups say they fear Islamist hit squads have lists with the bloggers' real names and addresses.
Asif Mohiuddin, another blogger who himself survived an attack in 2013, described Mr Chakrabarti as an atheist "free thinker" whose posts appeared on several sites.
"He was critical against religions and wrote against Islamist, Hindu, Christian and Buddhist fundamentalism," Mr Mohiuddin said.

Pakistan - Human rights tragedy: Bilawal Bhutto condemns #Kasur #childabuse

Chairman Pakistan Peoples Party Bilawal Bhutto Zardari denounced the reported child abuse scandal in Kasur district of Punjab, the country’s biggest ever child abuse scandal which discovered 400 video recordings of more than 280 children being forced to commit indecent acts where most of the victims were under 14. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari said that this type of scandal is a slap on the provincial government of Punjab, which keeps harping on other smaller issues but kept the nation in darkness over this worst human rights tragedy. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari also condemned the police torture of parents of the victim children, who demonstrated against the failure of local police to prosecute the criminals who orchestrated the scandal. Chairman Pakistan Peoples Party urged for an impartial enquiry into this scandal and for the culprits to be taken to task.

Bilawal Bhutto in Sukkur to review flood relief efforts

Pakistan People's Party (PPP) Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari arrived in district Sukkur of Sindh to review flood relief efforts on Sunday, Samaa reported.
According to Samaa correspondent, the PPP Chairman is accompanied by the opposition leader in National Assembly Syed Khursheed Shah, Chief Minister Sindh Syed Qaim Ali Shah and other ministers.
Bilawal will be briefed about the situation of flood by Irrigation Department officials during his visit to Sukkur where he will review relief and rescue efforts by government authorities.