By Omer Aziz
May 15 2015
Something is rotten in the state of Bangladesh. Over the last few months, multiple writers have been killed by Islamist militants for daring to criticize or satirize Islam. Avijit Roy, Washiqur Rahman, and the last free-speech martyr killed this week, Ananda Bijoy Das, have not become household names in the West the way France’s Charlie Hebdo rightfully did, but these freethinkers suffered an even worse fate than that of their French comrades.
Having dared to challenge the Islamist zealots who have become increasingly threatening in Bangladesh, these writers were repeatedly threatened online before their executioners, bearded and superficially devout, hacked them to death in the open street. Their story in many ways symbolizes the story of their country: daring to be independent and paying the price for it.
Bangladesh was born out of a secular and nationalistic struggle against Pakistan in 1971. Three million people were killed and 200,000 women mass-raped by the Pakistani junta in this first Muslim-on-Muslim genocide. The preamble to Bangladesh’s founding constitution pledged the “ideals of nationalism, socialism, democracy and secularism.” Despite this separation of mosque and state, however, Bangladesh was gradually Islamized by military despots willing to use religion to achieve what politics could not, namely, absolute control. When Ziaur Rahman established military rule in 1975, the constitution was amended so that the first principle of Bangladesh became the “high ideals of absolute trust and faith in Almighty Allah.” In 1988, Islam was declared the state religion.
Democracy in Bangladesh today is fractured and fragile. Two parties, the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, dominate the political space and all of its major institutions. They are both led by matriarchs with family ties to the country’s early leaders. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League is the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding father of Bangladesh; Khaleda Zia of the BNP is the widow of Ziaur Rahman.
Both parties exhibit the nepotism that is so prevalent in South Asia, but there is one crucial difference between them. Khaleda Zia’s BNP has operated with the official and tacit support of Islamists, both peaceful and militant, while Sheikh Hasina’s ruling Awami League has attempted to eradicate Islamism from the country.
It is Prime Minister Hasina who has taken the fight directly to the militants. She has restored the constitution’s affirmation of secularism and democracy, provoking riots in Dhaka. She has spearheaded a tribunal to indict and convict the Islamist leaders who attempted to destroy Bangladesh at birth by conspiring with the Pakistani military. The Bangladeshi High Court, undoubtedly with Ms. Hasina’s support, banned the Jamaat-e-Islami, an unofficial partner of the BNP, for its criminality, harassment of Hindus and threats to liberal Muslims. This is the same Jamat-e-Islami that virulently opposed Bangladesh’s independence and assisted Pakistani soldiers who dismembered their fellow citizens. If this is what an “Islamic” party does, it is no wonder that most Bangladeshis reject it.
Compared to Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Pakistan, political Islam has not been able to root itself in Bangladeshi politics or society. This is partly because Bangladesh historically defined itself in opposition to what it was not: an Islamic republic. A Bengali culture rich in music and literature also immunized Bangladeshis against militant Islam. The rising influence of Islamist militancy is therefore a consequence rather than a cause of Bangladesh’s instability.
But for freethinkers and intellectuals, the mob still holds a veto over their minds. There is always a limit to what one can write when a group of zealots will claim offence against even mild satire, will go out of their way to find the co-ordinates of the thought-criminal online, and will hit him or her with a meat cleaver on the back of the head at the start of the work day. Free speech is something that is taken for granted in the West, so much so that 200 writers could boycott a PEN award for Charlie Hebdo that was given in defence of the very speech that got its editors killed.
In Bangladesh, and much of the developing world, there is no police force that will protect the dissident writer from the humourless mob. To write, to construct sentences, to challenge the status quo even if just on social media, is to put one’s life on the line. To do this while understanding that criticism and free inquiry may be one’s undoing is to persist in saying that the rational and the democratic must win over the irrational and the totalitarian; that the ironic must supersede the literal.
Rabindranath Tagore, the author of Bangladesh’s national anthem, would understand this. It was he, this most famous Bengali of all, who wrote of a world “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high / Where knowledge is free / Where the world has not been broken up into fragments.” The assassin’s veto must not be allowed to render the cultivation of such a world impossible.
Omer Aziz is a Kirby Simon Fellow at Yale Law School and a Visiting Researcher at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.