An Appeal from Muktomona to Keep Secular Bangladesh Safe from Religious Fundamentalism

Published on Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Four Writers Killed in Six Months

With the first murder happening in February 2015, so far this year Bangladeshi Islamic fundamentalists have hacked to death four secular, humanist, atheist activist, bloggers and writers. On February 26, Mukto-Mona founder Avijit Roy was attacked from behind and murdered in the Dhaka University TSC area when he was on his way back from the Boi Mela; during the same attack his wife and fellow activist Mukto-Mona writer Bonya Ahmed was severely wounded. Following the murder, the Islamic fundamentalist group Ansarullah Bangla Team, and, later, Al Qaeda's Indian branch (AQIS), released statements claiming responsibility. Although this vicious murder was strongly condemned nationally and internationally, the Bangladesh government, while claiming to be secular, not only refrained from denouncing the murder, it made no official response. In the same way, the law and order forces of Bangladesh have remained inactive and failed to identify and bring the murderers to justice. Thus, although five and a half months have passed since the murder, the killers remain out of reach.

The murderers did not stop once they had killed science writer Avijit Roy under cover of the darkness of night. Encouraged by the culture of impunity, the murderers immediately began planning for the next one. In accordance with those plans, the members of an Ansarullah Bangla Team sleeper cell rented a house in Jatrabari and began readying themselves for the next murder. One member was caught by patrol police while he was practicing how to move about in public while carrying cleavers and other weapons. The other members of the cell, despite having lost one member, moved ahead with their plans.

Within one month of Avijit Roy's murder, on March 30, atheist blogger Washiqur Rahman Babu was murdered when he was on his way to work. Two of the murderers were caught due to the courageous actions of two passersby. According to the two apprehended killers, they had never read any of Babu's writings, had no idea who Babu was. They had hacked Babu to death obeying the instructions of their hujoor. Although the police had two of the killers in custody, they have failed to identify or capture the masterminds that planned the murder.

Within six weeks of Washiqur's murder, on May 12, Ananta Bijoy Das, who was a Mukto-Mona blogger, organizer of the Sylhet Gana Jagoron Mancha, founder and General Secretary of the Science and Rationalists Council, was hacked to death in public, right in front of his own home, as he left for work. The killers chased Ananta Bijoy for about twenty five meters to a pond near his house, and hacked him to death with a cleaver in full view of people.

Neeladri Chatterjee (known as "Niloy Neel"), who was a Mukto-Mona writer, an active organizer for the Gana Jagoron Mancha, and founder of Bangladesh Science and Rationalists Association, was followed by a group of Islamic fundamentalists on his way back from a protest rally being held in Dhaka by the Gana Jagoron Mancha mourning the murder of Ananta Bijoy. When he realized he was being stalked, he informed the police. The police not only evaded any responsibility, they even refused to let him file a General Diary (GD). On Friday, August 7, in broad daylight, a group entered Neeladri's home, threatened his partner and her younger sister with weapons and locked them up, and then hacked him to death in the next room. He wrote in Mutko-Mona, Istishan, Dhormockery, and other blogs, as well as on Facebook under the names of Niloy Neel and NC Neel. Just like Avijit's murder, Ansarullah Bangla Team proudly laid claim to the murders of Washiqur, Ananta and Neeladri.

Not only atheist writers—in the last few years several progressive individuals, including a university professor, was murdered by these fundamentalist groups. To finance their activities as fundamentalists, Ansarullah Bangla Team has committed bank robberies, and during a robbery they killed several people including the bank manager. [1] It is also suspected that they are responsible for the murder of Anjali Rani Debi, an instructor at a Chittagong-based nursing college, for offending Islam. [2] In addition to these killings, to keep fear alive among the common population, and to increase the zeal of their followers and other aggressive Muslims, the fundamentalists have begun publishing new hit lists and sending out threats to people on a regular basis. After Neeladri's murder, a new hit list of 19 individuals was sent to various news media signed by the fundamentalist group Ittehadul Mujahedeen; the very first name on that list was Neeladri's, which had been crossed out in red ink.

The Government's Failure and Placing Blame on the Writers

Following these four pre-announced killings in the space of six months, after demonstrations and protests, the government of Bangladesh and the police force finally made a formal public response. However, instead of solving these serial killings, the authorities justified these murders by indirectly placed the responsibility and blame on the shoulders of the bloggers and writers being attacked—leaving us stunned.

Two days after Neeladri was murdered, on August 8, the Prime Minister mentioned the blogger killings at a program organized by the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs. She said, "We cannot allow this to continue in Bangladesh. Bangladeshis are peace-loving. The Father of the Nation gave us liberation. Therefore, we must uphold the consciousness of that liberation… There are all kinds of things happening in the country and the government is dealing with them. At least our government is not sitting idle." She said, "On the one hand they're murdering people, and on the other they'll use religious sensibility to gain political mileage. We will not let that happen…at least not in Bangladesh." [3]

We thank the Prime Minister, for announcing, even if after all this time, that her government is 'not sitting idle'. Although it is hard to find any reflection of this announcement in the actions of the state ever since this festival of writer and blogger murders commenced, still we were hopeful that perhaps this time the state's 'idleness' would truly dissipate, they would try to catch the murderers, they would rip apart the web of fundamentalism that exists in Bangladesh and try to destroy them. But our hopes were crushed, because with astonishment we noted that senior government officials seemed to suddenly revive from their idleness and become vocal against the atheist bloggers, they became engaged in trying to arrest them and bring them to justice! Because of the politics of religious sensibility, after Avijit Roy's murder, the Prime Minister was unable to say anything in public, she had to telephone Avijit Roy's family in secret to condole with them. We found out the reason for such secrecy later from her son Sajeeb Wazed Joy. In response to Bonya Ahmed's Reuters interview where she criticized the government's handling of the Avijit Roy murder investigation Joy stated that the situation in Bangladesh was too volatile for his mother to comment publicly on the murder; so she condoled with Avijit Roy's father personally. After mentioning Avijit Roy as an 'avowed atheist', the Reuters article went on to quote Sajeeb Joy: "We (the Awami League) do not want to be known as atheists. But this does not deflect us from our key principles. We believe in secularism." [4]

Joy is not wrong. Although Awami League allegedly believes in secularism, they do not want to do anything to uphold the rights of atheists. Because that would place their votes at risk. So, greedy for power, Awami League's policy has become to keep the mask of secularism on while indulging the religious extremism as they dance to the tune of the Islamic fundamentalists. In 2013, at the peak of the Gana Jagoron movement, when Hefazat-e Islam announced their long march to Dhaka demanding that atheists be hanged, there were attempts made to divert the whole movement to a question of atheism vs. faith to try to stop the demands for capital punishment for war criminals. At that time, our secular Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, instead of reminding us about the citizens' rights to freedom of speech and expression as enshrined in the constitution stated that Hefazat-e Islam was not needed—she herself was enough. On the eve of the long march making 13 point demands, including death penalty for atheist bloggers, at an Awami League meeting held on March 31, 2013, Sheikh Hasina, addressing the Islamic groups, "There is no need for you to engage in a protest movement. As a Muslim, I myself with take appropriate steps. We have already decided to take action against those who are hurting religious sensibility through internet and blog posts." [5]

This promise made by Sheikh Hasina, the Prime Minister who vowed to run the state in accordance with the Charter of Medina, proves that she would only safeguard the faith of Muslims, she would only be sensitive to Muslim sensibility. In the guise of religious sentiment, this is actually Islamic sentiment. As if, in Muslim majority Bangladesh, there's no question even regarding the safeguarding of the rights of citizens of other faiths, or citizens who adhere to no faith at all.

In 2013, astonished, we saw that after the state authorities received a listing of atheist bloggers from the Islamic fundamentalists, the authorities patted them on their heads and assured them that the authorities would look into this issue. Right away, in a shocking display of allegiance, the state arrested four bloggers from that list and brought them up before the courts. Immediately, almost one lakh Islamists marched in the streets of Dhaka demanding not only capital punishment for the bloggers, but also demanding that the new education policy, where women's education was a key feature, be scrapped. The government compromised with them this time as well. Since 2013, the government has continued giving in to one after another of the direct demands made by the Islamists.

Two days after Neeladri's murder, AKM Shahidul Hoque, Inspector General of Police (IGP) held a press conference along with other senior officials from different branches of the law and order forces. During that conference, he presented his advice not to write anything that might hurt religious sensibility as the most important thing. At the same time he enjoined people to inform the police if someone's writing was of the kind that hurt religious sensibility. [6] When asked why, after four murders occurring within such a short span of time, the police had failed to take adequate measures, or why they were not concerned with ensuring the safety of the bloggers who were being murdered off a hit list, the IGP responded, "But what we must also take into consideration…according to the existing law of the land, offending religious sensibility is a crime. The punishment for offending religious sensibility is 14 years of incarceration. But if someone is killed because of hurting religious sensibility, that is not acceptable." He also stated, "Alongside, I request those who are freethinkers, who write, and those of you who are here, let us not cross the limits. One should not write anything that could hurt the religious feelings or faith of others."

On that same day, in a ministry meeting held on law and order issues, the decision was made to consider as criminals and to pursue arrest for bloggers who identify as freethinkers and write against religion. It was noted that thenceforth investigators would keep track of what the bloggers were blogging about. If objectionable comments or invective against religion were to be found on any blog, the writer would be arrested. In addition, instructions were given to speedily identify and arrest, in accordance with the law, those who were murdering bloggers. [7] In a continuation of these events, on August 10, Joint Commissioner for the Detective and Criminal Intelligence Division of DMP, Md. Monirul Islam said in a press conference, "Those who are involved in the blogger murders, and those who write irrationally on these blogs against the Prophet Mohammed, the Quran, and religion—all of them will be brought to justice. Because those who write baselessly against religion are also extremists." The State Minister for Home, Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal also spoke of arresting bloggers. Not only that; although the government is merely saying that atheist writers writing critically of Islam should be brought to justice, the Awami Olama League went one step further and, in tune with Hefazat-e Islam, demanded the death penalty for these writers.[8]

The proof that freedom of speech does not exist in Bangladesh is that even after Islamists murdered four writers who critiqued religion, the state and the police are vocal in calling for judgment against writers who critique religion and believe in free speech instead of bringing the killers to justice. And the government-supported extremists took it one step further and called for the death penalty for these same writers. Although the Prime Minister paid lip service in stating that blogger murders would not be tolerated, she immediately made sure that state officials made clear that they are actually interested in imprisoning the bloggers.

On the Issue of Free Speech and Religious Feelings

We think it is important, in the light of this most brutal assault on free speech in Bangladesh, to clarify, again, Mukto-Mona's position with regard to free speech and religious sentiment. We consider religious sentiment to be similar to other sentiments or feeling that people have, and think it is reasonable to hurt this feeling just as it is reasonable to hurt any other feeling. In 2012, when the allegedly secular government of Bangladesh shut down one website and several Facebook pages, thus initiating this tragic period, Mukto-Mona editor Avijit Roy wrote about religious feeling:

"There is nothing in the world that is not critiqued. When teaching history to students, no historian is stymied by the fear that Genghis Khan cannot be criticized lest the Genghis-feelings of some are hurt! No one, in studying history, thinks that the torture carried out by the Nazis, or the barbarisms of the Japanese during WWII, or the brutality of the Pakistani Army during our war of independence should not be talked about. No one says, this is hurting the historical-feelings of some, they will file a case against you. When a newspaper like Prothom Alo publishes the most rampant nonsense calling it science, we do not run to the courts claiming our science-feelings are hurt. Yet in the case of religion, everything is exceptional. The fragile feelings of the faithful are wounded at the slightest. Their religious feelings are hurt if the torture visited upon people of other faiths in the name of holy wars are mentioned; they take offense if the inhuman actions of prophets, god's messengers and the like are discussed; they are offended if it is observed that women are imprisoned and their rights violated; even noting the unscientific ayats or sloka from the divine books offends their religious sentiment. And satire or ridicule is the worst—as if the sky, that 'roof that god holds up without pillars' crashed down on their heads. Although religion has always been a veritable font for satire, somehow or other, the issue of satire or humor has been reciprocal with the faithful. They have no compunction in applying ridicule or humor to literature, politics, economics, social policy, sports, or anything really. It is only in the matter of religion that they turn about face."
Far from allowing the right to hurt religious sentiment or critique religion, the Bangladesh government is equating the extremism of these cleaver-wielding fanatics with the act of writing critiques of religion, thus diminishing the severity of the crime perpetrated by these murderers. This is not acceptable. Just as we are strongly criticizing the government's failure to take a strong stand against the killers, we are also strongly criticizing the government's attempt to punish by law those who critique religion. Mukto-Mona is and will remain uncompromising on the broader question of free speech, and we also support the right to critique anything including religion. Critiquing the philosophy, religion, or opinion of any person, or hurting the feelings of someone through words or writing does not constitute actual harm. But if someone is murdered, if their fundamental, universal human rights are violated, that constitutes direct harm. In fact, any criticism or ridicule of religion almost never cause for actual harm, let alone it being illegal. Hurt feelings not only does not constitute direct harm, it does not constitute harm at all. If someone's feelings or sentiment is hurt, then they can respond: they can respond in writing, they can engage in debate, but they cannot file a court case because of it, let alone commit murder. Today, in the twenty first century, given the point where the values of human civilization have evolved to, these medieval laws and policies of oppression are no longer acceptable at all.

The ICT Act

We would like to discuss certain elements of Clause 57 of the pseudo-Blasphemy-Law the ICT Act; the same Act that is being trotted out to threaten the bloggers—instead of safeguarding them, instead of upholding their rights to free speech. In 2006, at the end of their tenure, the then BNP-Jamaat government first promulgated the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act. The ridiculous, and unreasonable Clause 57 from this Act was reformed by the secular Awami League, the party that led the war of independence, at the end of their first term in office and turned into a draconian law. They passed the reformed law making the ill-defined 'crime' cognizable, unbailable, and with a minimum penalty of seven years.

This sort of law has the potential of being used to harass innocent people. That fear became real with the arrests of bloggers Russel Parvez, Subrata Shubho, Mashiur Rahman Biplob, and Asif Mahiuddin. The government arrested them under the allegation of hurting religious sentiment primarily to appease Hefazat-e Islam. In Pakistan, we have frequently seen that even conflict over land or property has led to complaints about hurting religious sentiment being levelled against individuals to get them into trouble with the state and fundamentalists. If, instead of uncovering the true nature of these heinous attacks on secular, humanist atheists, instead of taking steps to tackle this, the government of Bangladesh wants to resolve the issue by laying blame on the victims, by threatening the victims with imprisonment, then Mukto-Mona would like to remind them that while today we are the ones under attack, and you are blaming us, the time will come when the fundamentalists will have done away with us and will come after you. If you are paying attention you will note that in this festival of atheist-killings that began during the Shahbag days, many non-atheists have become targets as well. In the new hit lists, bloggers are accompanied by teachers, ministers, writers—no one will be spared.

In This Context, On Behalf of Mukto-Mona, We Demand that the Government:

  1. Identify those involved in the blogger-writer-activist murders and bring them to justice. Identify and eradicate all fundamentalist terrorist networks. For speedy tribunals and assure exemplary punishment for those involved. The lack of justice is encouraging these fundamentalist terrorists to murder again and again. The attempted murder of Professor Humayun Azad (in February 2004) has not yet received adequate justice; although the attackers of Rajib Haider were arrested there appears to be no visible progress in that case. The administration's inactivity and negligence in pursuing arrest for the murderers of Avijit Roy, Washiqur Rahman, Ananta Bijoy Das, and Niladri Chatterjee is quite clear.
  2. Ensure the safety of every citizen on the terrorist hit list.
  3. Reform the Penal Code Section 295a which stands in opposition to the right to free speech as enshrined in the Constitution. Abrogate Clause 57 of the ICT Act which is unconstitutional.
  4. The Inspector General of Police, the DMP Commissioner, ministers, bureaucrats and other senior government officials should stop making irresponsible public statements. Stop trying to justify the murders by placing the blame on the writers instead of the killers.
  5. With the objective of eradicating religious extremism from the country, reject this policy of propitiating Hefazat-e Islam, Awami Olama League, Jamaate Islam and other religion-based fundamentalist groups. Involve the common people in making a stand against them and take speedy measures to save Bangladesh from fundamentalist forces.


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