Interview | 'Fundamentalists Are Holding Hasina Govt to Ransom': Exiled Bangladeshi Blogger

Human rights activist Asad Noor has been forced to live in hiding after receiving death threats and facing police ire. He breaks down the impact of religious leaders and India's 'influence' on Bangladesh.

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Kolkata: Atheist blogger and human rights activist Asaduzzaman Noor, better known as Asad Noor, has played with fire.

Noor’s views have turned him into a noted enemy of Islamic fundamentalists in Bangladesh and he faces several death threats. His criticism of the Sheikh Hasina government has also invited the ire of police, who want him on various charges of hurting religious sentiments and violating the Digital Security Act.

Asad Noor. Photo: By arrangement

Noor spent eight months in jail in 2018 on charges of insulting the Prophet Mohammad. As soon as he was released on bail, he faced demonstrations calling for him to be hanged. He was re-arrested, this time on a charge of drug peddling.

After getting out on bail four months later, he secretly left Bangladesh in February 2019 and has been living in hiding outside Bangladesh since then, continuing his activism online, using Facebook and YouTube.

In 2020, global human rights watchdog Amnesty International condemned Bangladesh for the harassment Noor’s family faced since he left the country. The United Nations Human Rights Office also sought clarification from Bangladesh on Noor’s case.

Earlier this year, Humanists International again raised his issue during a general debate at the 46th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council.

A relentless critic of the vilification and persecution of religious and gender minorities in Bangladesh, Noor has been very active on social media since the latest round of anti-Hindu violence started on October 13, highlighting the administration’s lacklustre approach to tackle the root of the division and in debunking misinformation.

He spoke to The Wire over the phone from an undisclosed location. Excerpts from the interview follow:

You have been following the recent incidents of communal violence quite closely. What is your understanding of the chain of events? 

This happened as part of a planned campaign led by fundamentalist Islamic clerics and scholars, aimed at the vilification of the religious minority with the ulterior motive of forcing them to either leave the country or live like second-class citizens.

Some people are saying it happened because of the politicians, as the elections are not far away. The Awami League is blaming its political opponents, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, while others have blamed the Awami League.

But I do not see it as a political conspiracy. It happened because Islamic fundamentalists have created such an atmosphere across Bangladesh that even the slightest of provocations can trigger bloody riots and people with vested interests are making good use of the situation.

Also read: Interview | ‘Bangladesh Hindus Deeply Upset With India’s Response on Violence’: Community Leader

Could you elaborate on what do you mean by ‘a planned campaign’? 

It cannot be seen as an isolated incident. It could have been, had it remained confined to Cumilla, where the first incident happened. But it spread to almost all parts of Bangladesh over the following five days.

Islamic scholars and clerics from different parts of the country started issuing provocative statements, one after another. In videos of those incidents, we saw boys as young as 12 years old or men in their early 20s among the vandals.

Where did a 12-year-old learn communal hatred from, if not at home or the madrasas where he is studying? This cultivation of communal hatred has been going on in a concerted way for about a decade now.

What makes you think there is a concerted effort by clerics and religious scholars? 

Because there is a pattern – frame a Hindu, or a Buddhist, on false charges of insulting Islam or the Prophet. People will instantly go mad about it and the opportunity will be used to target the religious minority in as many areas as possible.

The pattern is simple – create pretexts to vilify, bully and persecute the religious minority.

I can cite at least 12 examples from the past 10 years, from the case of the Buddhist youth Uttam Kumar Barua in the Ramu area of Cox’s Bazar district (Barua still remains ‘missing’), and the case with the Hindu youth Rasaraj Das of Brahmanbaria in 2016 (charges against Das are yet to be dropped) to the case of another Hindu, Biplab Chandra Shuvo, in Bhola district in 2019 – the modus operandi has been the same: hack into a social media account or create a fake account, post remarks and photos insulting Islam or the Prophet, stage demonstrations demanding government action and engineer a riot simultaneously.

That all these Hindus and Buddhists were innocent is on police records, in every single case.

How is the government dealing with this trend? 

The government is scared to the bone and cannot take on religious leaders. They can get away with anything as long as they are not associated with the Jamaat-e-Islami, which contests elections in alliance with the BNP. While the government has pushed the Jamaat to the wall, other fundamentalist organisations, such as the Hefazat-e-Islam and the Islami Andolan Bangladesh, have pocketed the government with the promise that they will not mobilise people against it.

BNP supporters shout slogans as they set fire to posters during a protest in a street in Dhaka, Bangladesh on February 8, 2018. Credit: Reuters/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

BNP supporters shout slogans as they set fire to posters during a protest in a street in Dhaka, Bangladesh on February 8, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Mohammad Ponir Hossain/File

Why is the government scared of religious leaders, especially when the political opposition – BNP and the Jamaat – hardly have visible presence? 

The government has, in a rather undemocratic way, weakened the BNP and the Jamaat, using the state machinery. But they also know that they did not win the elections fair and square.

Bangladesh has not seen a free and fair election since 2008 and the government is scared that there are pent-up grievances waiting to come out in the open. They do not allow any protest, except for when it is staged by religious leaders.

Most of the government’s critics – I can name many of them, including journalists Kanak Sarwar and Tasnim Khalil and BNP-Jamaat supporter Pinaki Bhattacharya – had to secretly leave the country to evade persecution, while their families keep facing harassment in Bangladesh.

So, they want to keep clerics and Islamic scholars who are not associated with the Jamaat in good humour so that the government is not branded as anti-Islamic. Since the government has literally broken the backbone of the political opposition, it fears that only an anti-Islamic tag can cost them their rule.

Also read: Have the Bullies of Yesterday Become the Bigots of Today?

You mean the religious dispensation calls all the shots now? 

This is what religious fundamentalists have achieved through their concerted vilification campaign. They have succeeded in brainwashing millions of people whom they can get to dance to their tunes. And with this radicalisation of the masses, religious leaders have also turned the government into their puppet.

Sheikh Mujibur Rehman. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Sheikh Mujibur Rehman. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Awami League carries the legacy of secularism in Bangladesh politics. Isn’t it an exaggeration to call them puppets of religious fundamentalists? 

Let me give you another example and you can then decide for yourself.

In November 2020, the government announced its plan to install a statue of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who is considered the ‘father of the nation,’ on the occasion of Mujib’s birth centenary celebrations in Dhaka.

But fundamentalists organised a series of militant protests, arguing that statues were haram in Islam and even an existing statue of the Bangabandhu was vandalised in Kushtiya.

The government backed out. The statue has not been installed.

In recent years, India, too, has witnessed a rise in religious majoritarianism and communal vilification. Do you think the developments in India have any effect on the happenings in Bangladesh?

Yes, certainly. Since the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Uttar Pradesh in 1992, incidents of injustice or atrocities against Muslims in India have had immediate repercussions on the Hindus in Bangladesh.

Muslim leaders in Bangladesh have time and again said that Hindus in Bangladesh will have to bear to cost of the sufferings of Muslims in India. Incidents in the Indian states like Assam and Uttar Pradesh are leaving their impact in Bangladesh.

Also read: Who Let the Bigots Out?

Would you say that the rise of religious fundamentalism is the biggest threat that the Indian subcontinent faces?

Yes, the radicalisation of the masses is the biggest cause of concern. But the religious leaders are not the only players. Politicians are strategically using religion to divert public attention from their failures in governance. This has allowed religious fundamentalists to have an upper hand over politicians, and subsequently, governments.

The recent incidents have earned Bangladesh quite some disrepute globally. Do you think this can prompt the Sheikh Hasina government to deal with religious fanaticism in a stricter way?

No, I do not see that willpower in the government. Something of an ‘eyewash’ will happen but it will only go as far as forging understandings with influential clerics and religious scholars.

If the government really wants to deal with the problem, it should create at least one instance of exemplary punishment to the culprits behind the latest violence, including the conspirators and the religious leaders who issued provocative statements against Hindus. But I do not see that happening.

Snigdhendu Bhattacharya is an independent journalist and author based in Kolkata.