By Dawning Welliver
In Bangladesh, Islamic militant groups launched a string of targeted attacks towards secularist writers and Internet bloggers. Though Bangladesh is officially a secular state, 90.4% of the population is Muslim. An internet “hit list” statement, released in 2014, traced back Islamic militant group the Ansarullah Bangla Team, is threatening the lives of secular freelance bloggers, writers, and activists, accusing them of being “enemies of Islam.” It demands that “Bangladesh revoke the citizenship of these enemies of Islam” and continues to state that “If not, we will hunt them down in whatever part of God’s world we find them and kill them right there.”
Dangerous political and religious tension in 2009 created the tension between secularists and Islamic fundamentalists that would cause the attacks on these bloggers; 2009 was the year that the Crimes Tribunal of Bangladesh was set up in order to investigate war crimes during the War of Independence from Pakistan in 1971. It was headed by the secular Bangladesh Awami League, one of the two major Bangladeshi political parties. From the beginning of the tribunal, several prominent leaders of the country’s Islamic political party, or Jamaat-e-Islami party were indicted sentenced to life in prison.
Secularists were not satisfied however, and insisted that the party leaders be sentenced to death. As a result, secularists began to protest, calling for the Jamaat-e-Islami party to be banned altogether for its involvement in the 1971 war. These protests were met with counter-demonstrations by Islamic groups, and the situation quickly became violent. The Islamic leaders insisted that secular internet bloggers were atheist and accused them of blasphemy. Islamic extremist groups began targeting bloggers, since blog posts have enabled quick, effective and widespread dissemination of liberal ideas that have harmed Islamists’ religious goals and endeavors.
At least four bloggers on the aforementioned hit list have been gruesomely hacked to death in the past year. Avijit Roy was a Bangladesh-born American, and the author of an online blog entitled “Free Thinking.” In February, he and his wife were attacked on their way back from a book fair in Bangladesh. Roy was hit to death in the head with machetes and knives. In March, Washiqur Rahman, a low-profile writer who criticized “irrational religious beliefs,” was viciously killed right outside his house, by men with meat cleavers and knives. In May, Ananta Bijoy Das, an atheist blogger in support of free expression, was also killed on his way to work by four masked men bearing cleavers and machetes. In August, writer Niloy Neel was hacked to death by six men with machetes in his apartment. Prior to this hit list and the resulting deaths this year, a different Islamic extremist group called Ansar al Islam Bangladesh published a hit list online. At least 9 of the 84 people mentioned in the hit list were subsequently killed, and many more were attacked.
Unfortunately for Bangladesh, ending the long-standing conflicts of interest between secularist and religious fundamentalists may be a near impossible feat for the moment. Regrettably, this means that free speech, especially secular free speech will continue to come under fire from Islamic extremists who seek to undermine threatening views, furthering the divide between the two groups in Bangladesh.