Four bloggers in Bangladesh have been killed and several were seriously injured this year alone by alleged Islamist extremists, in grisly murders that sparked debate in the Muslim-majority country over freedom of speech.
While officially secular, government officials have weighed in, warning journalists not to “cross the limit” when it comes to offending one’s religion. Over 90 per cent of Bangladesh’s 166 million people are Muslim.
In 2013, hardline Islamists demanded the government pass an anti-blasphemy law, but they did not succeed in their quest. However, the issue of the law created mass protests involving thousands of people in the capital, Dhaka. Islamist-led riots erupted, demanding that the bloggers accused of blasphemy be executed. Shortly after, a series of violent attacks started against Atheist bloggers and activists believed to act against Islam, claiming the lives of at least 6 people so far.
Who Are the Murdered Bloggers?
- Ahmed Rajib Haider (killed February 15, 2013): an Atheist Bangladeshi blogger, found dead and mutilated in a pool of blood in the capital city of Dhaka. Haider was leading the Shahbag movement, which called for bringing war criminals to justice. His blog sparked the gathering of 100,000 protesters in Shahbagh Square. Haider is considered to be Bangladesh’s first such victim of religious fundamentalism, but unfortunately he is not the last to lose his life to extremism in the country.
- Shafiul Islam (killed 15 November, 2014): the 48-year-old head of the Sociology department in Rajshahi University was beaten to death with a sharp weapon. A fundamentalist Islamist group claimed responsibility for the killing, indicating that their motive was fuelled by the professor’s refusal to permit female students wearing the full burqa covering in his department. Islam was accused by the fundamentalists of discriminating against religious teachers.
- Avijit Roy (killed February 26, 2015): U.S.-born Bangladeshi blogger. The 42-year-old was the founder of the Mukto-Mona website in 2001, which calls itself a “community of rationalist, humanist, secular writers and activists”. Its name means “Free Mind” in Bengali. Roy, who was also a U.S. citizen, was hacked to death as he rode home in a rickshaw with his wife near Dhaka University. His wife, Rafida Ahmed Bonna, survived, but was wounded in the calculated attack.
- Washiqur Rahman (killed March 30, 2015): 26-year-old blogger. Rahman was an ardent supporter of Avijit Roy. After Roy was killed, Rahman took to social media in solidarity, using the hashtag #iamavijit on social networking site Facebook. A member of civil society group Atheist Bangladesh, Rahman wrote on Facebook about what he called “irrational religious beliefs”. He also allegedly penned a satirical anti-religious series. He was killed in the morning on a busy street in Dhaka, by three men wielding meat cleavers.
- Ananta Bijoy Das (killed May 12, 2015): 32-year-old secular blogger. Das was killed in the northwest of Bangladesh, in Sylhet, after allegedly receiving threats from Islamist extremists. He was approached whilst walking down the street, and subsequently hacked to death. Das was a regular contributor to Mukto-Mona. His brutal demise has sparked controversy within Sweden, where he had been invited to attend a conference on the freedom of expression. A month before his death, the Scandinavian country turned down a request for a visa, fearing he might not return to his native Bangladesh. Swedish PEN, who organized the conference, is now demanding the Swedish embassy in Dhaka to provide a reason for the refusal, suggesting that the visa would have largely helped him escape death.
- Niloy Chatterjee (killed August 6, 2015): 40-year-old Hindu-born writer and blogger. Using the pen name Niloy Neel, Chatterjee was a fiercely atheist blogger, who took to social media to demand the Bangladeshi government introduce the death penalty for Islamist leaders behind the atrocities of its war of independence in 1971. Chatterjee was also a sharp critic of religious extremism, particularly that which led to violence and the bombings of mosques, his peers have said. Though born into a Hindu family, Chatterjee self-identified as an atheist and a “freethinker”. He was killed by men who broke into his flat in Dhaka, where they slit his throat.
On August 18, Bangladeshi authorities reported that they had arrested a trio of men in connection with the murders of Roy, Das and Chatterjee. The three suspects, who include a British citizen, are suspected Islamist extremists. They belong to Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), an outlawed Islmaist fundamentalist group. The Briton, 58-year-old Touhidar Rahman, is believed to be the ring-leader.
The men who killed Washiqur Rahman are still at large. Al-Qaeda in South Asia has also claimed responsibility for the four murders in 2015.
The List of Death
In 2014, an extremist group called “Defenders of Islam” circulated a list of 84 Bangladeshi writers, bloggers and known Atheists, whom they wanted dead. The group demanded the government execute the people listed, claiming that they act against Islam.
According to some, such as the Dhaka Tribune’s editor Zafar Sobhan, five of the 84 have been murdered. Others, such as The Indian Express, estimate that eight from the list have been killed. Sobhan says the number is in dispute as the list contains partial names.
The Bangladeshi authorities are accused of turning a blind eye to the murders, by neglecting to conduct a thorough investigation and arrest the people responsible for the murders and the creation of the list.
The lack of trust in the Bangladeshi authorities has led to wider fears regarding the religion of the remaining names on the bloggers’ list. Sadly, without firmer action against the extremists’ threat, the others could face violence and even death.