Bloggers’ Cause: Bangladesh Should Not Abandon Secularism – OpEd


By Samuel Baid*

Twentieth century playwright Bernard Shaw said when men cannot argue, they fight. We see this truth being dramatised in the world: the people who have no intellectual capability to argue in favour of their conviction resort to machetes, guns and suicide bombings to kill innocent people hoping “their god” will pat them for it. Such stone-hearted fanatics have hacked to death, with impunity, four bright bloggers in Bangladesh in the past 180 days – with no fear of punishment. The four were: Avijit Roy, (Dhaka, February 26), Washiqur Rahman (Dhaka, March 30), Ananta Bijoy Das (Sylhet, May 12) and Niloy Neel (Dhaka, August 8).

These four, along with others, have been crusading for the revival of democratic and secular values which had spurred the Bangladesh liberation movement in 1971. This country’s secular profile began changing after the Islamist militants begun running here and there in the wake of the ouster of the Taliban from Afghanistan in 2001. It was then that the Pakistani ISI pushed many of them into Bangladesh by sea. The arrival of hordes of Islamists put new life in so-far low-lying Islamists in Bangladesh.

The Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) was formed in 1998, but it started its terrorist activities in a big way in August 2005 when it orchestrated serial bomb blasts in different parts of the country. Till then the BNP – Jamaat-e-Islami(JI) coalition government had kept the JMB’s existence a secret. Under this covert backing, it carried out a few terrorist activities. The group considered democrats and secularists as enemies of Islam. Its main targets, besides democrats and secularists, are leftists, intellectuals, Hindus and Ahmediyyas. In other words, the JMB is against everybody who they think think freely or do not follow its interpretation of Islam.

The Harkat-ul-Jihad-ul-Islam of Bangladesh (HUJI-B) is another terrorist organisation which operates in the name of Islam. But its connections with Pakistan’s ISI through its mother organisation Harkat-ul-Jehad-ul-Islam(HUJI) makes it clear that Islamic militancy is just a cover for Pak Army-controlled policy. This organisation also enjoys covert backing of the JI. Since 1992, the HUJI-B existed in Bangladesh but its major operation was on August 21, 2004 when it tried to kill Awami League (AL) leader Sheikh Hasina by bombing a rally she was addressing. She escaped but 23 of her party workers died and 150 were injured. The obvious reason for attacking Sheikh Hasina and her party workers was their commitment to secularism.

Islamic militants in Bangladesh have proliferated exponentially. During the BNP-JI rule, the world feared that Bangladesh would become the second epicentre of global terrorism – after Pakistan. But a big difference between terrorist organisations of Pakistan and Bangladesh is that the former are groomed and funded by the Army to use them as an instrument for advancing Pak foreign policy. This is what the ISI had learnt from America’s CIA during the Afghan War in the 1980s. But in the case of Bangladesh, there is no open evidence of the military’s involvement. Yes, during the BNP-JI rule, the Islamic militant groups did receive covert political support. That ended when Sheikh Hasina’s AL returning to power with a strong commitment to secularism. The fact that the masses were also strongly committed to secularism only made it easier for Sheikh Hasina to tackle the Islamists.

However, in the wake of the recent serial killings of secular bloggers, her ability and the commitment of her party leaders to fight Islamist terror in the country are being questioned. Bangladeshi novelist Taslima Nasreen, whom the Islamists forced to leave her own country, holds Sheikh Hasina’s government morally culpable. She says, ‘I am squarely blaming the state for these massacres in instalment. Its indifference and so-called inability to rein in the murderous Ansarullah brigade is solely predicated on the fear of being labelled atheists. Awami League’s secularism is only on papers. It’s a sham because it has done nothing to save these important and urgent voices of reason. It’s pandering to the lowest of low among Islamic extremists, not arresting machete-wielding killers who roam around in broad daylight threatening anyone who contradicts their absence, barbaric faith’.

Similar views have been expressed in letters-to-the-editor in various Kolkata newspapers. A major part of the problem is that those opposed to the Islamists, both in Bangladesh and Pakistan, have also not come out with a scientific and forward-looking secular narrative to counter the Islamists, without hurting the sentiments of Muslim masses at large. Hence the ‘Two Nation Theory’ propounded by Mohammad Ali Jinnah to mobilise simple Muslim masses for his Pakistan movement, still remains a lethal weapon in the hands of the Islamists. They project secularists, atheists and rationalists as threats to Islam and the gullible Muslim masses are alarmed by the false perception that their religion is in perpetual danger. This gullibility is the Islamists’ biggest asset, as it was for Jinnah and all subsequent exploiters of Islam. This should partially explain why the police, politicians and the administration in Bangladesh, though part of a secular government, hesitate to act in cases like the killing of the four bloggers. Otherwise it would be hard to imagine that the police and intelligence agencies would be totally unaware of the whereabouts of these murderers.

The unsolicited advice of Bangladesh IG of Police A. K. M. Shahidul Hoque that bloggers should not cross the limit and not hurt any one’s religious belief, is also most perverse. When a senior law enforcer starts talking like a social scientist, or attempts to define the limits of free speech, it raises doubts on his capability to handle his job, besides also encouraging the perpetrators to plan further attacks.

Practising secularism is not easy in Bangladesh, but abandoning it will doom the country. Bangladesh is not a lost case. There is no dearth of people who fight religious obscurantism and even lay down their lives for their beliefs. The four bloggers killed, had argued their case well, and even those who killed them, could not prove them wrong.

*Samuel Baid is a veteran journalist who writes on South Asian affairs. He can be reached at [email protected]

South Asia Monitor

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