Bangladesh secular writ­ers fear­ful af­ter 2nd blog­ger slain in less than a month

The China Post - - COMMENTARY - BY JUL­HAS ALAM

The writer, a thin young man who fears the grow­ing in­ter­weav­ing of reli­gion and pol­i­tics in Bangladesh, knows his turn could come next. What hap­pened ear­lier this week, when the sec­ond sec­u­lar­ist blog­ger in less than a month was hacked to death in the streets of the cap­i­tal, made it clear he wasn’t safe.

“Any­time they can hit me or my like-minded friends,” said Ananya Azad, a 25-year-old blog­ger who has writ­ten pieces that were crit­i­cal of Is­lamic fun­da­men­tal­ism and pol­i­tics driven by reli­gion. He quit his job as a news­pa­per colum­nist and stopped writ­ing blogs in re­cent months af­ter re­ceiv­ing nu­mer­ous threats, but still posts crit­i­cal com­ments on Face­book.

Ananya says he’s think­ing about flee­ing the coun­try and spends much of his time in­doors th­ese days.

“They don’t hes­i­tate to kill in the name of their be­liefs,” he said. “I’m an easy tar­get for the fa­nat­ics.”

Bangladesh, a ma­jor­ity Mus­lim na­tion long seen as in­su­lated from the most fer­vent strains of mil­i­tant Is­lam, has seen that rep­u­ta­tion crack amid an in­creas­ingly bloody divide be­tween secular blog­gers and con­ser­va­tive Is­lamist groups.

In many ways, the divide is clear: the blog­gers want au­thor­i­ties to ban reli­gion-based pol­i­tics while the Is­lamists are press­ing for blas­phemy laws so that no­body can un­der­mine Is­lam’s holy book, the prophet or ba­sic pil­lars of be­ing a Mus­lim.

In a crowded na­tion of 160 mil- lion, whose re­cent po­lit­i­cal his­tory has been dom­i­nated by a bit­ter power strug­gle that reg­u­larly spills into street vi­o­lence, many fear that reli­gion could fur­ther desta­bi­lize the sit­u­a­tion.

Is­lam is Bangladesh’s state reli­gion but the coun­try is gov­erned by secular laws based on Bri­tish com­mon law. Prime Min­is­ter Sheikh Hasina has re­peat­edly said she will not give in to re­li­gious ex­trem­ism.

Yet over the last decade or so, ex­treme in­ter­pre­ta­tions of Is­lam have steadily gained ground here.

“Th­ese at­tacks are not stray in­ci­dents,” said Ab­dur Rashid, a re­tired army gen­eral and ex­pert on na­tional se­cu­rity. “They are well planned and strings are be­ing pulled in some quar­ters ea­ger to con­trol the fu­ture of Bangladesh.”

He be­lieves Is­lamist po­lit­i­cal par­ties are or­ches­trat­ing the at­tacks to fur­ther po­lar­ize coun­try and ex­pand their in­flu­ence.

“Some po­lit­i­cal par­ties, which have a dis­tant de­sire to come to power in Bangladesh, are ei­ther di­rectly or in­di­rectly con­nected with this rad­i­cal­iza­tion process,” he said.

The past weeks have seen a spike in rad­i­cal at­tacks.

First, a prom­i­nent BangladeshiAmer­i­can blog­ger and writer, Avi­jit Roy, was hacked to death by uniden­ti­fied at­tack­ers in late Fe­bru­ary when he was walk­ing with his wife. Roy bled to death while his wife, also a blog­ger, was crit­i­cally in­jured.

Roy was an athe­ist who pro­moted sec­u­lar­ism through his blog, books and news­pa­per ar­ti­cles. A pre­vi­ous- ly un­known Mus­lim mil­i­tant group, An­sar Bangla 7, claimed re­spon­si­bil­ity for the attack.

Then, on Mon­day, 27-year-old Oyasiqur Rah­man Babu, was at­tacked in day­light as he left his house. Un­like Roy, who had been on the radar of rad­i­cal Is­lamists and had reg­u­larly re­ceived death threats, Babu was a low-pro­file on­line ac­tivist.

Still, his Face­book page in­cludes a car­toon de­pict­ing the Prophet Muham­mad from the French satire mag­a­zine Char­lie Hebdo, and he had openly ques­tioned writ­ings in the Qu­ran.

Two of the three men be­lieved to have at­tacked Babu were caught by passers-by and handed over to the po­lice. A third man fled the scene. The two cap­tured men are stu­dents at lo­cal madrasas. They told po­lice they nei­ther knew Babu nor were familiar with his writ­ings.

In­stead, they said a fourth man had showed them Babu’s pho­to­graphs and some of his writ­ings, and then asked them to kill him. They fol­lowed the in­struc­tions, they said, be­cause they be­lieved it was their duty as Mus­lims, ac­cord­ing to po­lice.

Is­lamist po­lit­i­cal par­ties have de­nied any in­volve­ment in the killings.

Writ­ing has never been a par­tic­u­larly safe pro­fes­sion here. Ananya’s fa­ther was at­tacked a decade ago for his writ­ings against Mus­lim ex­trem­ism, and jour­nal­ists are of­ten tar­geted by po­lit­i­cal thugs.

Bangladesh ranks 146 out of 180 coun­tries on the press free­dom in- dex of the group Re­porters With­out Bor­ders.

The at­tacks come as Bangladesh grap­ples with an on­go­ing po­lit­i­cal stand­off over last year’s con­tentious elec­tions boy­cotted by the main op­po­si­tion Bangladesh Na­tion­al­ist Party and its al­lies. The op­po­si­tion has staged vi­o­lent protests and shut down roads with an of­ten-bloody trans­porta­tion strike.

For more than a decade, Bangladeshi pol­i­tics have been dom­i­nated by bat­tles for power be­tween Prime Min­is­ter Sheikh Hasina and her archri­val, for­mer Prime Min­is­ter Khaleda Zia, who heads the Bangladesh Na­tion­al­ist Party.

Me­dia re­ports say rad­i­cal Mus­lim groups have com­piled lists of blog­gers and writ­ers they view as an­tiIs­lam.

Ananya, who

reg­u­larly meets with oth­ers con­cerned about the rise of fun­da­men­tal­ism, says his name is on some of those lists.

“Fun­da­men­tal­ists glo­rify Al­lah but they think noth­ing about ly­ing. When I try to stand for truth they want to kill me,” he said on a March 12 Face­book post.

Many of those un­der threat, in­clud­ing Ananya, de­mand the ban­ning of Ja­maat-e-Is­laami, a key ally of the Na­tion­al­ist Party. Ananya is also among those who called for a se­nior Ja­maa-e-Is­laami leader to be ex­e­cuted for his role in war crimes dur­ing Bangladesh’s bloody war of in­de­pen­dence in 1971.

“I can’t rely on the sys­tem for my pro­tec­tion,” Ananya said. “We are frus­trated, my friends don’t see a lib­eral Bangladesh where free thought will be en­cour­aged and pro­tected.”

AP

Twenty-five-year-old Bangladeshi blog­ger Ananya Azad works on his com­puter at his home in Dhaka, Bangladesh on Satur­day, April 4.

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