By Tahmima Anam
April 3, 2015
Blogging has become a dangerous profession in Bangladesh. In February, a Bangladeshi-American computer engineer and founder of the secularist website Mukto-Mona, Avijit Roy, was hacked to death in a Dhaka street. Then this week, an atheist blogger named Washiqur Rahman was murdered in a similarly bloody attack. Both were killed for their views on religion.
In Bangladesh, we take pride in defining ourselves against the country we could have been. Between 1947, when the British left India, and 1971, when we became an independent country, we were part of Pakistan. Now, whenever there is news of a tragic event involving violent extremism in Pakistan, we say to ourselves: That could have been us.
Thank goodness we are no longer a part of that country, we say. That country is full of religious bigots. Look at the way it treats minorities. Look at the brave citizens who have gone up against the fundamentalists and lost.
But now we have to think not about the country we could have been, but the one we are. Which is this: a country where three bloggers have been murdered in the last two years. A country where a writer’s books were withdrawn from sale because of death threats against a distributor, and where the writer himself, Mr. Roy, can be brutally assassinated in broad daylight.
Mr. Roy’s murder was heavy with symbolism. He had come to Dhaka for the publication of his new book at the Ekushey book fair, which takes place on the grounds of Dhaka University — historically, the center of the independence movement. The campus was where the Pakistani Army and allied militias chose to attack at the outset of its 1971 genocidal pogrom of minorities and pro-independence intellectuals. On Feb. 26, Mr. Roy had just left the university, and was on his way home, when machete-wielding assailants set upon him and his wife.
In 2013, the blogger Rajib Haider was stabbed to death a few feet from his home. His connection with the events of 1971 was not the university or the book fair, but the Shahbag movement, a protest incited by the war crimes trials of 2013. Mr. Haider had been prominent among those calling for the death penalty for the pro-Pakistan Islamists convicted of atrocities during the war of independence.
Mr. Rahman, the latest victim, was the quietest of the three. He was not particularly educated. He had not, as Mr. Roy had, published books and articles. He mostly wrote posts on Facebook. Why was he targeted? Why, among all the other bloggers, was his name the one that came up?
The police believe that his death was commissioned. Two madrasa students who were arrested at the scene have since confessed, according to reports, to having carried out the murder because of Mr. Rahman’s “writings against Islam.” (A total of four men have now been charged in connection with the killing.)
In the end, it was the digital technology used by the victims that may have brought about their deaths. Both Mr. Roy and Mr. Rahman had already received death threats via social media. Perhaps the person who engineered their deaths did a search for “Bangladeshi atheist blogger” to find a list of people who oppose fundamentalism, champion secularism or declare themselves to be atheist. The murderers admitted that they had never heard of Mr. Rahman or read his blog.
The space between the killers and their victims is the distance of nanoseconds, the time it takes to execute a search. In some senses, their deaths are random and impersonal. But if the technology of targeting the victims is new, the technology of killing them is ancient and intimate. Mr. Rahman’s face was so mutilated by the attack that he could be identified only by his voter-ID card.
As they did last month for Mr. Roy, protesters held a rally and vigil for Mr. Rahman at Dhaka University on Monday evening. It seems we are bound to return again and again to the site that symbolizes our independence movement, to warn against a future that obliterates the values our country was founded on. At the rally, campaigners accused the authorities of not doing enough to safeguard freedom of expression.
In many ways, the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League party has cracked down hard on fundamentalism, banning terrorist organizations and affirming secularism as one of the pillars of the state. But Ms. Hasina’s government is distracted by its battle with opposition parties. So far this year, more than 100 people have died in protests.
If we are to truly recover from this recent spate of violence, Bangladesh’s mainstream religious parties and their allies must take a stand against the murders of the three bloggers. They must say: Not in our name. We wait for them to condemn these attacks with the same vehemence with which they complain of injustices against Muslims elsewhere in the world.
I fear it won’t happen. Mr. Roy and Mr. Rahman were the victims of murderous thugs, but they were also the victims of a poisonous political climate, in which secularists and Islamists, observant Muslims and atheists, Jamaat-e-Islami and the Awami League are pitted against one another. They battle for votes, for power, for the ideological upper hand. There seems to be no common ground.
A month after Mr. Roy’s murder, his wife, Rafida Bonya Ahmed, wrote to protest the government’s lack of action: “This turning of a blind eye,” she said, “feeds both the public’s sense of cynicism and the terrorists’ sense of invincibility.”
Now that there is yet another casualty, and a clear sense of the larger forces at play, the government must act decisively. In this fight for the soul of Bangladesh, the progressive voice must win over the bigot’s.
Tahmima Anam, a writer and anthropologist, is the author of the novel “A Golden Age.”