By Aasha Mehreen Amin
July 17, 2016
As I write this piece there is that uneasiness at the back of my neck, a feeling I have tried to ignore for the past year or so. I am writing this while still benumbed by the savagery of the July 1 carnage at Holey Artisan Bakery. Everyone I know seems to have known, directly or indirectly one or more of the 20 hostages brutally slaughtered. Eerily a few of my younger acquaintances say they even knew some of the attackers, having gone to the same school or university. Finally, the enormity of this terror has hit home.
Not that we have been oblivious to the fact that extremists have been singling out and eliminating the ‘others’ who do not conform to their twisted ideology. The medieval-style machete killings of bloggers, publishers, foreigners, LGBT activists, non-Muslims and those of various Muslim sects have sent chills down our spines, forcing us to ask that dreaded question: Who’s next?
Then there is the growing uncertainty about the capability and sincerity of state agencies to find the masterminds behind such diabolical acts. The father of Abhijit Roy, the American-Bangladeshi writer and blogger who was hacked to death at the Ekushey book fair last year, bitterly told the media he did not want justice for his son; he was referring to the investigation of the murder that has made no headway. There seems to be an implicit apathy towards victims who have been branded atheists or anti-Islamic (as if the two are synonymous), echoing a growing intolerance among certain sections of society that is the consequence of distorted views of religion and total rejection of theological debate.
But it is not just the threat of religious extremism that is so worrisome. The state’s growing intolerance of dissenting opinion and criticism, no matter how constructive, has had a suffocating effect on free thinking. Section 57 of the ICT Act 2013 states that “If any person deliberately publishes any material in electronic form that causes to deteriorate law and order, prejudice the image of the state or person or causes to hurt religious belief, the offender will be punished for maximum 14 years and minimum 7 years imprisonment.” The ambiguity in this non-bailable section provides the government enough ammunition to clamp down on whatever is construed to be violating the Act, including a careless tweet.
The recent volley of defamation and sedition cases against the editor of The Daily Star, a leading English newspaper, indicate state paranoia of independent voices in the media. Adding to the worries of journalists and writers is the culture of impunity enjoyed by the political elite and law enforcement agents. Murder investigations of a journalist couple in 2012 continue to be shrouded in mystery and deception. The rising number of forced disappearances and deaths in custody persistently haunt us.
Fear, therefore, dominates our psyche. We are afraid of repercussions for any misstep, be it something we say, write or post on social media. Being a woman, and a journalist, makes me even more vulnerable. While the self-appointed moral police dictates what I should wear and how I should live, the space to express my thoughts too seems to be shrinking.
Is this my homeland, a country that was born from a total rejection of religious fanaticism and espoused the notion of freedom in every respect? As Bangladeshis, our uniqueness centred on our ability to blend religiosity with a secular cultural identity without conflict. But over the years we have allowed this beautiful fabric of inclusiveness to be stained by the poison of bigotry and intolerance. July 1, 2016 is a cruel reminder of just how far we have strayed.
However, the shockwaves created by this ghoulish nightmare do seem to have catalyzed an outrage. It has rudely awakened people from the slumber of complacency. Thirty-two eminent personalities including professors, economists, artists and writers have called upon society to stand against militancy. They represent the voices of sanity and peace. The government has also announced various anti-militancy initiatives, including urging Imams to preach against terrorism and emphasizing its contradiction to the principles of Islam.
But it is hard to shake off the nervousness as one enters the now heavily guarded Gulshan area, where the deadly attack took place. But people, even a few foreigners, are walking the streets and the flowers at the makeshift memorial outside Holey Artisan Bakery are always fresh. It will be a while before we return to normalcy. Yet as a people known for their resilience, bounce back we will. We will not give in to fear.