South Asia

Islamist Violence Continues Unabated in Bangladesh: Time for Sheikh Hasina to Act

Unchecked Islamist violence is also harming Bangladesh’s liberal democratic credentials. The government must act without delay to curb such violent fanaticism.

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Nazimuddin Samad and Xulhaz Mannan. Credit: Facebook

Bangladesh has been experiencing a spurt in Islamist violence with at least ten bloggers, rights activists, secular writers, liberal intellectuals and publishers brutally murdered over the past two years. Four of those who died were butchered in April this year alone. Most of the slain activists had been outspoken critics of injustice and religious extremism, and of the government’s apparent inaction in bringing the perpetrators to justice.

In a gruesome incident on April 25, suspected Islamic militants hacked to death leading gay rights activist Xulhaz Mannan and his friend Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy, a theatre and LGBT activist, in Dhaka. Mannan was a cousin of former Foreign Minister Dipu Moni and worked as programme officer for the United States Agency for International Development, or USAID. He was also editor of Rupban, Bangladesh’s first magazine for gay, bisexual and transgender people, launched in 2014. Thirty-five-year-old Mannan was vocal in promoting gay rights. In a Twitter post, Ansar al-Islam, the local unit of al-Qaeda in the Indian Sub-continent, said their “mujahidins” had assassinated Mannan and his friend for being “pioneers of practicising and promoting homosexuality” in the country. The international community has denounced the twin murders and expressed concern over the shrinking space for freedom of thought and expression in Bangladesh.

Local reports suggest that Mannan spoke several times regarding the hostility he had confronted while working for gay rights, an issue viewed as taboo in Bangladesh. Following his killing, London-based Amnesty International accused the Bangladeshi authorities of “harassing” the country’s LGBT community instead of protecting them. According to Amnesty, LGBT activists find it difficult to report any threat against them as homosexual relations are considered a crime under Bangladeshi law.

The twin murders took place just two days after Reazul Karim Siddique, an English language professor at Rajshahi University in northwestern Bangladesh, was killed in a similarly barbaric manner. The Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility for Siddique’s death for “calling for atheism”. However, according to his colleagues, although Siddique was involved in cultural activities, he never spoke or wrote anything about religion or Islam. Besides, he was not affiliated to any political party. Bangladesh’s home minister, Asaduzzaman Kamal, rejected the ISIS’s claim, blaming domestic militants instead, while the police suspect Siddique was targeted by Islamic militants as he was proactive in cultural activities.

Many in Bangladesh believe that Siddique’s progressive outlook could have incurred the wrath of Islamic hardliners who are known for their apathy towards cultural activism and secular lifestyles. Siddique was the fourth professor from Rajshahi University to have been killed in the last 12 years. In November 2014, AKM Shafiul Islam, a sociology professor, was murdered in an identical fashion for saying that students should not be allowed to wear burkhas during exams. Meanwhile, police arrested an alleged activist of the Islami Chhatra Shibir, Jamaat-e-Isami’s militant student wing, for Siddique’s murder.

On April 6 this year, Nazimuddin Samad, a 28-year-old post-graduate student at Jagannath University and a blogger, was hacked and shot dead in Dhaka by suspected radical Islamists. Police suspect that Samad was targeted for his outspoken atheism and for supporting the Shahbag movement in early 2013 to demand capital punishment for the war criminals of 1971. He was an active member of pro-liberation socio-cultural organisation Ganajagaran Mancha, which had spearheaded the historic Shahbag movement. He criticised radical Islam and advocated secularism in his Facebook posts. Fellow online activists described Samad as a “loud voice against any social injustice”.

Samad’s writings focused on the growing ideological rift between secular-nationalists and orthodox religious groups in Bangladesh. He was critical of state religion in the country’s Constitution and had expressed his views on Facebook. He observed: “Evolution is a scientific truth. Religion and race are invention of the savage and uncivil people”. The outspoken online activist was among the 84 people named on the ‘hit-list’ that a group of radical Islamists had drawn up and submitted to the home ministry. Samad was threatened many times for his strong criticism of religious fundamentalism. He went into hiding, but eventually could not save himself from the Islamic militants. Ansar al-Islam claimed responsibility for his killing. In a statement posted online, the outfit claimed Samad had “abused God, the Prophet Muhammad and Islam”.

There have also been a series of violent attacks against Shiite shrines, Hindu temples and priests, Christian missionaries and foreigners across the country since September 2015 — a disturbing phenomenon hitherto unknown in the moderate Muslim nation. In recent weeks, a Sufi preacher and Buddhist monk were brutally murdered by suspected Islamist hardliners. On February 21 this year, two assailants attacked a Hindu priest at a temple in northern Bangladesh, an attack subsequently claimed by ISIS. Some other deadly assaults in 2015, including the killing of a Hindu priest and two foreign development workers were also claimed by the outfit. But the Awami League government has repeatedly denied that ISIS or al Qaeda have a presence in Bangladesh, and have said home grown Islamic radicals are behind the attacks.

The occurrence of such incidents with disturbing regularity clearly demonstrates the increasing religious intolerance in Bangladeshi polity. The continuous killing of liberal thinkers, rights activists, bloggers and religious minorities has raised fears of Islamic fundamentalists gaining a foothold in the country. As the death toll rises, activists and prominent members of the intelligentsia believe that the failure of law enforcement agencies to catch the culprits will send the wrong signals to the Islamic militants and will likely embolden them.

Following the murder of Mannan, the head of the Blogger and Online Activist Network in Bangladesh and spokesperson of Gana Jagaran Mancha, Imran H. Sarker received a death threat from Islamic radicals.

Both domestic and international rights groups have pressed the government to do more to stop the killings of liberal thinkers and activists. Amnesty noted that even after a series of horrific attacks, the government has not provided protection to “threatened members of civil society”. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees also urged the government to initiate urgent and concrete measures to ensure the security of those who have been threatened by the religious extremists operating in the country.

Many of those included in the ‘hit-list’ of radical Islamists are desperately trying to move out of Bangladesh for safety. In early April, the US government said it would consider granting asylum to a number of Bangladeshi secular bloggers confronting imminent danger from Islamic extremists.

There is a feeling among the secular-rationalists and a section of liberal intellectuals that the government lacks the political will to fight the growing radicalisation in the country. Some have even accused the Awami League of appeasing the religious extremists to prolong its stay in power. Facing criticism from various quarters for not doing enough to prevent the recurrence of such dastardly acts, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina recently blamed opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its alliance partner Jamaat, the largest fundamentalist party, of being behind the “planned” killings of bloggers and intellectuals to destabilise the country.

It is high time that the Hasina government, which swears in the name of secularism, undertakes comprehensive measures to save the helpless online activists and free thinkers from religious fanatics who appear determined to annihilate so-called atheists one by one. The government must act without further delay as unchecked Islamist violence is also harming Bangladesh’s liberal democratic credentials before the global community.

Rupak Bhattacharjee is an independent political analyst focusing on issues related to Bangladesh and India’s North East region.