Monday, December 7, 2015

Free speech is under threat in Bangladesh!

Anisur Rahman
Is there no end to attacks on secular life in Bangladesh? On October 31 publisher Faisal Arefin Dipon of slain writer-blogger Avijit Roy was hacked to death.  Hours before, another publisher, Agmedur Rashid Tutul was attacked. All in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka. 
It is enough, now! This insanity must stop for the sake of Bangladesh. It is not only an attack on the secular writers, bloggers and publishers, but also on the stability of the country. It is not an isolated thing. It has serious political ramifications and a long historical background. Let me go into why these attacks on secularism still continue. 

We have reasons to believe that some elements within the current administration have sympathy for the killers. The authority has been trying to undermine the bloggers who were seeking asylum in Europe following their critical blog posts about religion. The government has been afraid of losing the support of the majority Muslim voters. This is a dangerous strategy for a democratically based government. It is to be noted that in 2015 not only the writers and bloggers were killed, but two foreigners, policemen, religious leaders and Shia Muslims were killed.
There seems to be a hidden agenda to bring down Bangladesh - step by step. 84 bloggers are targeted, but we must widen our focus: there is another 1200 newspapers and 30 television channels in the country to be intimidated and chilled. 
Let me focus on recent history. After a barbaric British colonial rule in Indian sub-continent, today’s Bangladesh became the part of a joint state together with Pakistan. As a state, Pakistan has a religious and military character from its birth. However, the Bengal combining Bangladesh (the then East Bengal) and West Bengal lies in India today. Bengal was popularly known as “the golden boat” where rich cultural, secular spirit, religious harmony, and prosperous economy thrived. Moroccan traveller Ibn Batuta and American intellectual Noam Chomsky have praised this. Before British imperialism there was little religious conflict or chaos on the Indian sub-continent. 
However, the British had their clever strategy of imposing a divide and rule policy. Religious riots and conflicts among Hindu, Muslim, Buddhists or Shikhs or Christian is an outcome of that dangerous policy. Even the creation of Pakistan and India in 1947 was part of that divide and rule policy. Obviously Pakistan got a religious character. Writer Rabindranath Tagore along with secular cultural practice was banned in Pakistan. Attack was made on Bengali culture and language. Impositions were made by the Pakistani authority that Bengali be written in Urdu letters. The consequence was the historic Mother Language Movement in 1952. UNESCO later declared the day of Language Movement as the International Mother Language Day, 21 February. After a struggle over two decades, Bangladesh emerged as a secular country under the leadership of founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. His secular leadership faced an uphill struggle, and a series of domestic and international conspiracies and threats.
Turning from a religious state Pakistan to a secular nation was a huge step for Bangladesh. Let me share one more fact that can give you an idea how big it was.
Aroj Ali Matubbar (1900 – 1985), who could be called the Nietzsche or the Kierkegaard of Bangladesh, was banned for 15 years under Pakistani rule. He was only allowed to express his thought after Bangladesh was liberated in 1971. On the other hand Islamist parties including Jamaat-e-Islami were banned in newly liberated secular Bangladesh. This is a single example that shows the difference between the two states, the past Pakistan and Bangladesh after 1971. However, this only lasted a short time. 
The military became part of domestic and international conspiracy when they killed Sheikh Mujib, all his important colleagues in his cabinet and their family members. His two daughters Sheikh Hasina and Sheikh Rehana escaped the tragedy as they were in Germany at the time. Immediately after this tragedy, Pakistan, China, Saudi Arabia and other communal states recognized Bangladesh. From 1975 till 1990 military dictators ruled the country. Military dictators allowed the Islamist parties to run religious parties and they rehabilitated a lot of war criminals, offering them ministerial posts and positive discrimination. Today’s administration has chosen a pragmatic strategy where honesty is of no importance. Just carry on your business and carry on your corrupt life. She is now surrounded by basically corrupt elements. 
In 1994, during the BNP-led administration, Taslima Nasrin left the country. She is now a Swedish citizen, currently living in New York. Members of a militant Islamic group raided the home of a leading Bengali poet, Shamsur Rahman, in Dhaka in 1999. Poet Shamsur, who was well known in Bangladesh for his secular views, was at home with his wife, when men, armed with pickaxes stormed the building. Two men from the clandestine Islamic group, Harkatul Jihad, were restrained by some neighbours and arrested after the assault. Later on, the Bangladesh authority banned the Harkatul Jihad.
Humayun Azad was another pioneer dissident in Bangladesh. He was attacked in 2004 on his way home from the Book Fair in Dhaka, and later died. 
Support for religious fundamentalism has in general not increased in Bangladesh, but the conspiracy surrounding this religious fundamentalism, and also the investment in this fundamentalism has increased. Religious fundamentalism does not have any strong public support in Bangladesh. In times of elections, religious fundamentalists don’t do well. In the parliamentary elections in 2008, the fundamentalist party had only three parliament seats out of the 300. In the present Parliament, the fundamentalist parties do not have any seat. It is an indication there is no thriving fundamentalism in the country. But in the bureaucracy there are still fundamentalists with networks into the military elites. 
Politics is not in the hands of politicians today. Politics are controlled by businessmen and military forces. Professor of economics at Dhaka University Abul Barakat disclosed that 241 NPO (non-profit organizations) trustees having ties with the elements within the Bangladesh government, business groups in USA and Jamaat-e-Islami, the main extremist party and a major party in the BNP-Jamaat alliance,  is a barrier for trying this killing. On the other hand, the chairman of the National Commission for Human Rights in Bangladesh, Professor Mizanur Rahman, stressed that people were naïve not to believe that parts of administration or security forces had connived with the attackers and was preventing identification and arrest of the offenders. 
A message should go to the Bangladesh government that the extremists have attacked writers, they have attacked bloggers … and they have now attacked publishers. It seems that the attacks are slowly escalating. Everyone is very apprehensive, especially in relation to the failures of the law enforcement agencies. 
Another consequence is that there is an ongoing trial of War Criminals. Two heavy-weight war criminals Ali Ahsan Mohammad Muzahid from the Jamaat-e-Islami and Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury from the Bangladesh Nationalist Party are waiting for the final verdict for their committed crimes in 1971, like rape and killing during the Liberation War of Bangladesh. They have sponsored sabotage, created unrest and contributed to the killing of secular voices. However, the current prime minister Sheikh Hasina-administration will have to identify the killers and present them for trial. 
The government has an obligation to protect the fundamental citizen’s right and secure everyone’s right to practice one’s beliefs. If the government is afraid of something, they can make the terms of hate speech clear. On issues of hate speech, the government, when they tell people not to not talk against religion, they should also make it clear that this doesn’t only mean Islam; but also other religions, and we should include atheism into that. But today the government is not clear in its message. 

Killing of Humayun Azad, Razib Haider, Avijit Roy, Washiqur Rahman, Ananta Bijoy Das, Nilandri Niloy and Faisal Arefin Dipon are not isolated incidents. They first started killing authors, then the bloggers and now they’ve targeted the publishers. Next they will target the readers. They want to cripple the free and secular character of Bangladesh. 
What was believed to be the first attack on Shia Muslims in Bangladesh, banned Islamic militant groups have killed more than a dozen Sufi Muslims and attacked Hindus and Christians during the past two years. 

After the tragedy on 31 October, hundreds of people, including writers, publishers and bookshop owners, took to the streets of Dhaka to protest what they said was government inaction over a series of attacks. As colleagues writers and journalists from other countries have much reason to extend their solidarity and support for a Bangladesh where one can feel free safe and secured and thus express oneself. Since we are talking about hundreds of colleagues which are now in dire straights, foreign countries are not likely to offer safe havens to all.
Therefore the international platform, for instance, of the International PEN along with their international partners should organised a World Congress in Dhaka on the state of free expression and free thought in Bangladesh to give a message to the current leadership of Sheikh Hasina’s administration calling her into action and to encourage our Bengali colleagues not to stop their good work.
And thus we can also give a signal to international conspirators and mafia that there is no future for their destructive work. 
Enough is enough. We cannot wait for any more attacks on secular Bangladesh.
Otherwise, it will be too late for the Sheikh Hasina administration and we could end down the path of Afghanistan or the IS: For the sake of the Bangladesh, she must identify and put perpetrators on trial! 

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