No space for love in Bangladesh

Bangladesh is currently suffering from, perhaps not a wave but more of a persistent flood of extremist attacks, manifesting in the form of assassinations of various free-thinking, secular or atheist bloggers, publishers, writers and journalists. While this trail of blood may be linked to a point of origin with the murder of blogger Avijit Roy in February last year, this is something that has existed under the surface of Bangladeshi society for much longer. Conservatism, the quashing of more progressive ideals, rising belief in Islamic homogeneity, and a vicious intolerance for anything that does not fit the Sunni, Bengali Muslim identity. As mysterious men, armed with machetes chip away further and further at all opposing ideologies with violence, the space for liberal and progressive ideals in my country is disappearing. The latest in this bloody spree of “divine” executions came on April 25, when gay rights activists and editor of the country’s first and only LGBT magazine, Xulhaz Mannan, along with his friend, colleague, and fellow activist, Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy were brutally murdered by unknown assailants, linked with larger, global Islamic terrorist outfits.


The two murdered activists – Xulhaz Mannan (left) and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy (right)

(Source: Dhaka Tribune)

Mannan started the magazine, Roopbaan, to promote LGBT rights in Bangladesh. This by itself is an amazing achievement in such a conservative country. In the face of such disapproval and adversity, Roopbaan took off in 2014. Long an advocate in the development sector, especially working with LGBT rights, Mannan’s work went from strength to strength. In fact, on 14 April 2015, when Mannan successfully organized a “rainbow rally”, Bangladesh’s version of a pride parade, during the Bengali New Year celebrations, for a second, Bangladesh’s liberals believed again that the country was moving forward and for the LGBT community, especially the gay and lesbian communities who are legally oppressed, it was a landmark achievement – an announcement that these people not only exist, but are unafraid to stand up and be counted, as people, in Bangladeshi society. For me as well, long having been frustrated by regular news of tragedy, misfortune, oppression and intolerance, reading about the “rainbow rally”, during the New Year celebrations no less, brought me immense pride, and in one of those rare moments, I may have felt something akin to patriotism.


Pride parade in Dhaka, 2015


I could swell with pride for how far my country has come, and like the rest of Bangladesh’s liberals, once a proud tradition in its own right, feel hope for the future. Mannan’s murder feels like a nail on the coffin for a dream that I once thought could be reality.

This dream now seems a long way away. This year, the second “rainbow rally” was cancelled due to death threats and intimidation from a section of society that cannot bring themselves to respect (or even tolerate) other human beings. And the worst part is, this seething hate is winning. And we, Bangladesh as a nation, are allowing it to win. A Buddhist monk had his throat slit earlier this week. University professors, a profession held in such high esteem in my society, are being hacked down for no good reason. The violence is more senseless than usual. The government refuses to acknowledge that we have a terrorist crisis on our hands for fear that we start remembering that their role in how we got here. So they tell us that these murders are unrelated. That we should stay quiet. They tell us to be silent and let hate win. But for Xulhaz, for the LGBT community in my country that have now had to flee for their safety, we cannot. The pride parade is a symbol of love triumphing over everything else, and I hope, for our sake, I see it next New Years. Only then will I remember the dream that me, Xulhaz and everyone that looks forward and looked forward in my country once dreamt.


Cover photo source: Wikipedia Commons


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:

(Cover image source)

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

Street Food Fiesta

street food

Fuchkas (also known as pani puri, which are small crispy shells filled with mashed potatoes and chickpeas), Puris (bread stuffed with potatoes or lentils) and muri makhas (spicy puffed rice) are what rule the streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh. When I came to Clark, it took me a while to accept the fact that I wouldn’t be able to make a pit stop around the corner of the street and get something cheap to eat before I head out to do my daily errands. Christmas in New York City this year somewhat reminded me of my days back in Dhaka city. The Gyro and hot dog stands in almost every street at the heart of NYC were the perfect solution to my endless cravings for street food.

The street food in developing countries is quite a simple affair: street food vendors will have their own cart or a box of the food they want to sell and they will set it up in the most crowded parts of the city. Many would be surprised to know that these food bites on the way to go actually make up 40% of one’s daily diet in the developing world. However, in many cases, it may not be the healthiest choice; but it definitely is one of the most convenient and inexpensive ones.

marinated potatoes                                         pretzels

Marinated potatoes sold on the streets of India.                                                         Pretzels on the streets of Germany


Dhaka city In Dhaka city many who work far away from home will grab a Paratha (fried bread made with flour) with fried eggs or vegetable curry during their lunch breaks. Some vendors have benches at the back of their cart where customers can sit down and eat, while others just choose to stand. The popular culture of tea-drinking in Bangladesh is complemented by the numerous tea-stalls on every street. Trust me when I say this: a cup of tea worth BDT 4 (approximately $0.05) is one of the most delicious drinks you’ll ever have.

One of the biggest concerns of the consumers of street food is if the food they eat is hygienic and safe. Most vendors are struggling, unemployed workers trying to make a living by selling food. Many of them resort to buying low-quality ingredients while others are not educated enough to know proper hygiene standards. Hence, eating street food can sometimes make people ill. Even though the harmful consequence of street food is a common knowledge, many choose to consume them anyways. The street food industry is booming in many developing countries. It has become more than just a means of survival. These stalls of food on the sidewalks are such an important part of the city’s culture that it has become a tourist attraction.

Every Momo sold on the streets of Nepal or every Gyro sold on the streets on NYC, has a piece of the neighborhood’s culture is attached to it. It’s the distinct culture of a city and the hard work of the vendor who makes his lot of the day, which makes every street food have its unique taste. And as long as there are people like me who eat Fuchkas the first day they are back home, our respective cultures will be preserved.

By Suaida Firoze