Just two days before, a professor of English in the city of Rajshahi was stabbed in the neck by a student. A notice from the Islamic State's online media agency hailed the killing, saying it was the result of the academic's "calling to atheism." Authorities expressed doubts that transnational terror groups had a direct role in any of these murders, but it's now undeniable that Bangladesh is in the grips of a shocking and almost systematic purge of outspoken secularists by self-appointed Islamist vigilantes.
In 2015, five secular bloggers were killed in separate attacks. Each incident sparked headlines and outrage, but the grim toll has continued into this year. Ever since a hit list of secularists was published in 2013, fringe Islamist groups have made it known that bloggers and secular activists who speak out against religion or in favor of atheism will be under threat. This has been compounded by the inability of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's government to rein in extremist violence in a country with a long history of extrajudicial murder and impunity.
"The first mistake by Ms Hasina’s government was to yield to hardline Muslim views on the supposed horrors of atheism or homosexuality instead of standing up for pluralism and secularism," writes Financial Times journalist Victor Mallet. "The second was the sustained assault by security forces and the judiciary on government opponents, including editors and liberal and Islamist politicians." He adds: "The truth is that the government faces a challenging task in fighting terrorists, who are usually local radicals impressed by international brands such as [the Islamic State], but is making the job still harder by persecuting its legitimate opponents and driving them underground."
Caught in the dragnet are an increasingly embattled set of activists, scientists, free-thinkers, Hindus and humanists, endangered by Islamist enmities and not sufficiently protected by a state that has distanced itself from the cause of vocal atheists. Below are just a few extracts of what some of the slain bloggers wrote. (A far greater collection of posts and essays in Bengali can be found through links in these websites.)
Avijit Roy, a Bangladeshi-American blogger, was killed on a Dhaka street by a group assailants wielding cleavers in February 2015. His wife was also grievously injured in the attack.
"I have profound interest in freethinking, skepticism, philosophy, scientific thoughts and human rights of people," he had written earlier on his Facebook page. Roy, an engineer by training, was outspoken about his secular views and wrote numerous books. The Guardian cited a scathing extract from one of his writings:
If one considers Qur’an as a scientific book then, they should be able to show us at least one scientific principle that is disclosed in the Qur’an without using any mumbo jumbo words and hocus pocus boring tricks of difficulty with confusing translation of the Qur’an… Moreover, if a perfect book written by a perfect God having intention to reveal a scientific idea, it should not have been so vague and metaphoric, but accurate and scientific enough that it can be put in a physics /chemistry/biology textbook without the need of any change. Not a single verse in the Holy Books contain even one scientific term, like atom, electron, cloning, theory of relativity, uncertainty principle etc.
Washiqur Rahman, a 27-year-old blogger, was murdered outside his Dhaka home by a trio of men armed with machetes just weeks after Roy's death. A banner on Rahman's Facebook page declared at the time #IAmAvijit, in solidarity with his slain colleague. A poetic lament that Rahman had earlier written was circulated in the wake of his death:
Today is Bangladesh’s liberation day
The Mullah has freedom, extremists have freedom, Muslims have freedom, the corrupt have freedom, political leaders have freedom, adulates of the political leaders have freedom, rapists are free, the armed forces are free, so-called civil society is free, intellectuals who support Islamists, they also have freedom, religious leaders have freedom, the garment factory owners have freedom, the ferry owners have freedom.
Not free: the farmers and labours
Not free: indigenous people and minorities
Not free: Freethinkers
Not free: All the people who just want to be human…
Ananta Bijoy Das, another popular blogger, was murdered last May in Sylhet, a region to the east of the capital. Among other things, Das wrote strenuously on his Facebook page against those who believed in secession from the rest of Bangladesh:
We must rise in protest against this anti-progressive regionalism at once. Positive results cannot be arrived at in a competitive world by keeping ourselves organised in groups. No one with a free mind can be indoctrinated in regional fundamentalism or limit themselves within the walls of narrowmindedness. The world is very large, but our well-behaved hypocrites are still quite primitive, it’s time for them to crawl out of the well and view our enormous universe from a new perspective.
Niloy Chatterjee, who went by the pen name Niloy Neel, was murdered in August in his apartment, his body brutally mutilated by his attackers. "His blood [was] spattered all over the books he loved," noted a Bangladeshi secularist blog. Not long after the death of Das, Chatterjee had posted a notice on his Facebook page detailing an incident where be believed he was being tailed by suspicious individuals.
"I was quite scared, and hurried into a unfamiliar alley. Later when I looked back, I noticed that another young man, who had also been on the bus, had joined this young man, and they had not followed me into the alley; they were waiting at the alley entrance. Then I was quite certain that I was being followed," he wrote.
He said that he tried to file a complaint, but no police officers would accept it. "A police officer had told me in confidence that the police do not want to accept" such complaints, Chatterjee explained with bemusement, because then the officer would have to be "accountable to ensure the personal safety of said individual. If the said individual faces any difficulty, then the relevant police officer may even lose his job for negligence in duty." Then he was told: "Leave the country as soon as possible."
Nazimuddin Samad, a university student, was killed earlier this month by suspected Islamist militants. He wrote satirical posts on his Facebook account, including this jab at Islamists' ambitions: "Please let’s have Sharia Law for just five years in Bangladesh... I guarantee you, after this 5 years, no Muslim of Bangladesh will ask for Islamic law! The loss and damage we will have after five years, it will take 1400 years to restore us to a modern country."
He also warned that the ruling government was headed toward disaster, in a post translated from Bengali: "The situation of the country, deterioration of law and order in the country, speak that maybe you cannot stay long in power."
This post has been updated.