Censorship by Machete : Silencing Secularism in Bangladesh

In February, Avijit Roy and his wife walked through the bustling stalls and the shadows of foliage in the Dhaka University campus. Because it was February, the annual book fair was taking place, and they had, like thousands of others, come out to experience an event tied quintessentially to the country’s national identity. Sixty odd years ago, the first big spark of the nation, of independence had been lit under the bullets of police when students had taken up the charge for their right to speak in their own language. Sixty odd years later, Avijit Roy, a noted atheist blogger, a US citizen, on those same streets that had once been awash with the blood of those who wished to speak, was hacked to death by religious extremists slighted by his writing.

As a child growing up in Bangladesh, I had gone to mosque on Eid just as I had gone to Hindu temples on Durga Puja, celebrated Buddha Purnima and had Christmas dinner. Religion to me had always been part of my culture, with its varying beliefs and traditions, and I had always looked on all of them with warmth. But while it appeared that these diverse religious practices were accepted, or more precisely, tolerated, atheism was not. I chose to not be religious when I was 12. And soon after, I chose to be an atheist.

This choice was not always liked by people, even parts of my extended family, but they would always tolerate it. I wrote a blog when I was younger, mostly ridiculous nonsense, yet I would openly exclaim my lack of faith. I was never afraid that someone would hurt me for it. I wasn’t living in an intolerant society such as Saudi Arabia or one of those other countries that had blasphemy laws. Today I worry that someone will find my teenage ramblings in some corner of cyberspace and promptly murder me in cold blood.

Avijit has not been the first, nor the last, in this rampage against secularist voices. In 2013, Rajib Halder, a blogger tied to the Gonojagoron Mancha (National Awakening Platform) was killed by similar machete wielding assailants. The Gonojagoron Mancha had been calling for the banning of the Jamaat-E Islami, the largest Islamic political party. Since Avijit’s death, at least three more bloggers, Oyasiqur, Ananta Bijoy and Niloy Neel, have been murdered in similar fashion. The latest was an attack on Avijit’s schoolmate and publisher, Faisal Arefin.


This spate of bloody murders offer a few different interpretations, but they require delving into the intricate cluster of factional, vindictive and populist politics of the country, especially its recent history, which is still by any measure a sizeable tome of information. What has struck me personally however, as a secularist, as someone who has rejected religion like these victims, is the intolerance that has been on display throughout these murders. I have always tried to understand the roots of radical Islam, the roots of fundamentalism in general and have defended against the xenophobia that is prominent in the typical Western response. “Not all Muslims” was the message splattered on my social media after the Paris attacks. “ISIS does not represent Islam” someone piped up. And I agree.

Radical Islam is not the same Islam that I saw in my country. This brand of intolerant Wahabbi Islam is not what I had seen in the mosques as a child. In fact, to speak to this, Islam in Bangladesh had never even resembled so closely the Islam of the Arab states, just as Islam in Indonesia had never resembled the Islam of the Indian subcontinent. Islam in the Bengal delta came with Sufis, many emigrating from what is today Turkey and others from Persia. Sufiism is an offshoot of Islam that is a lot more flexible, more musical in its traditions. To see that brand of tolerant, accepting Islam be replaced by this hateful breed of Wahabbi Islam is hurtful. To see it being used to silence people with differing points of views, is repulsive.

However, as nice as it may be for me to whimper about a tolerant, cultural religion that I witnessed, the reality is that there are militants in Bangladesh hunting down secular and atheist writers and bloggers. The murder of two foreigners, a Japanese and an Italian, over the last few months has brought to question that these assailants, who have claimed ties to Al Qaeda and ISIS, may soon start mobilizing against others, including Hindu and Buddhist minorities. A shootout at a Shia mosque last week is another ominous sign. In fact, the latest issue of the ISIS online publication, Dabiq, highlights Bangladesh as the next hotspot of ISIS activity.

But while these elaborate, intricate political game of spies happens, there are still those who would dissent, who would speak out, not even just about their religious views, who must now hide for fear of losing their lives over their opinion. And isn’t that exactly what these attackers want? Regardless of my own views, no one should ever have to die for stating what they believe, or for that matter, what they don’t believe. To balk in the face of such adversity would be to concede, would be to give in to radicalisation. And it is not just secularists or atheists that must act to hold on to the ideals of secularism, it is the diverse religious communities in Bangladesh. I stand for free speech. I stand for tolerance and acceptance of all faiths. And maybe, that’s why I’m writing this article.


For further reading: http://shunyastan.org/2015/11/27/blogger/

(Cover image source)

Bareesh Chowdhury (Clark ’17) is a new writer on our blog, from Dhaka, Bangladesh. Welcome, Bareesh! 


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