23 March 2015


By Rupak Bhattacharjee*

The recent developments in Bangladesh suggest an alarming and simultaneous rise of religious fanaticism and atheism, complicating the already volatile political scenario of the country.

In the last four weeks, Bangladesh witnessed the killing of a writer dubbed as atheist by the fundamentalists, conviction of five Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen-Bangladesh (JMB) militants and arrest of eight suspected Islamic terrorists. Many in Bangladesh find the current trend both disturbing and confusing. Dhaka’s intelligentsia is particularly concerned over the turn of events in which two extreme groups of young people are confronting each other: political Islamists opposing the present secular-democratic dispensation and the atheists who like to be called “progressives” but appear intolerant towards “anyone who believes in god”. This peculiar phenomenon has been developing in the country for two years or so.

On February 26, Avijit Roy, a Bangladesh-born US blogger and writer, was ruthlessly murdered near Dhaka University (DU) by suspected Islamists who accused him of propagating atheism in a predominantly Muslim country. Roy had received numerous threats from the fundamentalists during the last one year for his writings. Such threats had gone up after the release of his two books at the Ekushe Book Fair dealing with certain issues which are considered sensitive in a Muslim society.

Several young Bangladeshis proud of their rich Bengali heritage and the glorious Liberation War have not found the aggressive approach and content of radical writings too inspiring. They strongly condemn the gruesome murder and support Roy’s freedom of expression, even though they may not be in conformity with the writer’s thoughts.

Roy had created ‘Mukto-Mona’ (Free Mind) blog that published scores of articles focusing on scientific reasoning and political use of Islam. His harsh criticism of religious fanaticism infuriated the Islamic fundamentalists who want to transform Bangladesh into a theocratic state. Roy’s two latest books, “Obisshahser Darshon” (Philosophy of Disbelief) and “Bishwasher Virus”(The Virus of Faith) dealing with liberal thinking, skepticism and scientific reasoning made him an easy target of the ultra-right and reactionary forces although his narratives earned critical appreciation in some quarters.

The members of the country’s civil society strongly condemned the killing of a writer. They apprehend that freedom of expression is under serious threat and all liberal practitioners are at great risk in Bangladesh.

Roy was the fourth writer and blogger attacked for allegedly spreading atheism. In 2004, Dhaka University professor and renowned writer, Humayun Azad, was assaulted by the Islamists. In 2013, two more bloggers came under violent attacks for similar reasons. The repeated attacks on bloggers and liberal thinkers sparked countrywide protests by the secular nationalist groups demanding immediate ban on all fundamentalist organisations.

The religious extremist forces staged counter-rallies clamouring for public execution of atheist bloggers and introduction of stringent laws, including Pakistan-type anti-blasphemy act, to curb writings critical of Islam. In early 2013, a radical Islamic outfit named Hefazat-e-Islam had sprung up from madrassas; it prepared a list of 84 bloggers identifying them as atheists and blasphemous. In its bid to pacify the Islamists, the Awami League (AL) government promptly ordered arrest of seven bloggers and removed controversial sites from the internet. The Islamic hardliners claim that most of the blogs were filled with obscene language. They vowed to punish those who had been spearheading slanderous campaign against Islam and its prophet.

In another significant development, on February 11, 2015, five JMB militants were awarded death penalty by a Bangladesh court in southern Jalakathi district for killing public prosecutor Haidar Hossain. His murder was an act of retaliation. Hossain was targeted soon after six JMB leaders, including founder Abdur Rahman and military commander Siddiqul Islam alias Bangla Bhai, were executed following their conviction for murdering two assistant judges of the same court — a case which he had prosecuted. The JMB militants carried out several attacks targeting the judiciary across Bangladesh.

Meanwhile, the AL government is continuing its policy of zero tolerance towards terrorism and there has been no let-up in crackdown against the Islamic militants. The country’s elite paramilitary force Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) arrested three suspected terrorists from southeastern Chittagong district and recovered huge cache of explosives and weapons from their possession on February 28. Earlier on February 21, RAB unearthed a militant training camp in the same district and arrested five persons along with firearms and training equipment.

The government has also undertaken firm steps to contain terror financing after some local banks were found to be involved in it. In February, Bangladesh’s central bank issued fresh directive to the commercial banks to take the “highest level of precautionary measures” against the use of banking system for terror financing at home and abroad. It may be noted that the country’s largest Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, has already made deep inroads into the economy. The party oversees the functioning of numerous commercial, educational and philanthropic institutions with the ulterior motive of capturing state power. It remains to be seen how the AL government counters the growing influence of the fundamentalists as they have succeeded in developing huge stakes in the economy since their rehabilitation in the polity by the first military junta of Ziaur Rahman.

Despite Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s sincere efforts to protect the secular fabric of the country, she cannot roll back the polity that succumbed to state-sponsored Islamisation during the military rule. In her second tenure (2009- 2014), Hasina restored a few secular provisions of the Constitution which were either diluted or deleted all together by successive military regimes. But while doing so, her government decided to persist with some of the clauses that were incorporated to recognise the importance of Islam in the country. Besides, the government felt obliged to allay fears among the conservative forces who had accused the AL of not giving Islam its rightful place in the past. All these factors have made the current party leadership to adopt a pragmatic approach. Bangladesh is the fourth largest Muslim nation in the world with nearly 90% of the population adhering to Islam.

The ongoing violence and political unrest have emboldened the religious fanatics to launch the latest offensives. The security experts observe that the law enforcement agencies’ present focus to quell street violence has given the religious extremist groups much needed reprieve to reorganise themselves. The young bloggers are also required to guard against recklessness and any radical interpretation of people’s faith in a traditional society like Bangladesh as that may only end up arousing raw emotion and disturbing social harmony.

*Dr. Rupak Bhattacharjee is an independent analyst based in Delhi. He can be reached atcontributions@spsindia.in

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