Save the Atheists of Bangladesh

I’ve been getting more and more worried by the news coming out of Bangladesh, where there’s a climate of steadily increasing hostility and hate against nonbelievers. Earlier this year, there were violent riots against “blasphemous” internet posts, and one explicitly atheist blogger was murdered outside his own home. But as bad as that was, in the last few days things have suddenly gotten much, much worse:

Thousands of Islamist protesters marched the streets of Bangladesh’s capital, calling for the death penalty for bloggers who insult Islam. The city ground to a halt as demonstrators demanded the government change the law to punish blasphemers.

The activists gathered in their thousands at Dhaka’s commercial hub on Friday night in protest over blasphemous bloggers who offend Islamist sensibilities on social networks. In a demonstration that lasted well into Saturday, they urged the government to introduce a new law with the provision of the death penalty for those who defame Islam.

As the protesters advanced they chanted: “God is great, hang the atheist bloggers!”

The backstory is that, a few days ago, a hardline Islamist group called Hefajat-e-Islam delivered a list of names to the government, accusing all the people they named of defaming Islam and demanding their immediate arrest. Under intense pressure, and in spite of counter-protests by secularists, Bangladesh’s government did arrest four people for the “crime” of defaming Islam – since blasphemy was already punishable there by ten years in prison. But even that didn’t satisfy the Islamists, who are now demanding those people be punished not by imprisonment, but by death.

Important to note, this isn’t just the ranting of a few ignorant, hate-filled imams or religious bigots in positions of power. That may be how it started, but it’s swelled almost overnight into huge street protests – 100,000 people even by the conservative estimate of the Dhaka police. The last time I wrote about Bangladesh, it was for much the same reason: then, it was Islamists marching against a proposal to give women equal inheritance rights. Now, they’ve turned out to demand the lynching of atheists. It’s the same Dark Ages mentality roaring back, the same fever-dream of frenzied, mindless hatred that preachers of ignorance and xenophobia are so good at evoking.

I don’t know whether all the accused people are actually atheists. Blasphemy laws are often exploited to bring trumped-up charges against political rivals, something that frequently happens in nearby Pakistan. But whether or not they’re really atheists, it doesn’t matter. When theocrats are stirring up murderous prejudice and framing atheism as an evil deserving eradication, it endangers everyone – real atheists most of all, but when the lynch-mob mentality reigns and a mere accusation can be sufficient proof of guilt, no one is safe.

Obviously, there’s no real crime here; no one is even claiming that the bloggers have done anything other than express their own views on social media. This is a naked power play by Bangladesh’s Islamists, who are trying to get some people executed to make everyone else fear them.

I usually steer clear of Nazi comparisons, but this is one case where it’s wholly appropriate. This is how every would-be genocidal dictatorship gets its start: by identifying a specific group of people, always a despised and mostly powerless minority, and demonizing them as evil conspirators plotting to undermine society from within. By inciting bloodlust and calling for these invented enemies to be purged, the eliminationists consolidate their own power, not least by setting themselves up as the true arbiters of good and evil. This is the same blood-stained script that’s playing out in Uganda, except that there, the persecutors are evangelical Christians and the designated villains are gay and lesbian people. And if no one intervenes and it’s allowed to progress to its ultimate end, it always ends in the same shattering atrocities.

I don’t know yet what we can do about this, whether there’s any pressure we can apply to save the lives of the imprisoned Bangladeshi bloggers. I’ll post updates as I find out more. In the meantime, you could do worse than to contact Bangladesh’s ambassador in your country. Here’s his contact information for U.S. readers:

His Excellency Akramul Qader
Embassy of Bangladesh
3510 International Drive NW
Washington, DC 20008
(You can also contact the embassy here.)

Please write to the ambassador and tell him that the four accused atheists should be set free immediately. Prosecuting someone for their opinions is an unconscionable crime against human rights, and if the Islamist savages get their bloody wish, there’s no telling who they’ll turn on next. The eyes of the world are watching Bangladesh!

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  • Joffan

    If you don’t want to use the Nazis, I suggest the Inquisition is an even closer analogy.

  • Steve Bowen

    Letter sent…

  • mahmod

    Free the Bangladesh’s bloggers

  • Theodore Seeber

    The majority of “non-believers” being attacked aren’t atheists- or Catholics- though both groups are getting some cross-violence from this. The grand majority insulting Allah are Hindu.

    Does that change your post any? It shouldn’t.

  • Brian Westley

    Did you have a point, Seeber? All you seem to do in atheist blogs is troll.

  • Yvonne

    You could also start a personal petition at – that can actually be quite effective.

    Contact details for Bangladeshi High Commission, London, UK

    I will get writing in a minute but I also have to write an email for a lesbian who is being deported back to Uganda from the UK and sign an Avaaz petition for the Maasai not to be kicked off their tribal lands so tourists can shoot lions.

  • Yvonne

    Letter sent – this is what I wrote (please feel free to use as a template but remember that your own words are more effective, so rewrite in your own words).

    Your Excellency,

    Disturbing news reports have been coming out of Bangladesh that hundreds of thousands of Islamist protesters have been marching to demand the death penalty for atheist bloggers. In response, the government has arrested some bloggers.

    Some of those arrested may be Hindus, atheists, agnostics or secularists – it does not matter. Freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and freedom of religion are human rights.

    Please contact your government and ask them to free these bloggers immediately and take steps to protect freedoms of speech, conscience and religion.

  • David Hart

    T. Seeber:

    The grand majority insulting Allah are Hindu.

    Does that change your post any? It shouldn’t.

    Of course it shouldn’t. Blasphemy is a human right.
    The ‘crime’ that the Islamists of Bangladesh are looking to see punished is, in effect, defamation of a fictional being. When you frame it like that, one should not think it any less reasonable to protect Hindus who don’t believe in an imaginary Allah from Islamist violence than to protect atheists who also don’t believe in an imaginary Allah.

    The fact that Hindus have their own fictional characters that they think are real is entirely beside the point unless they start advocating violence against those who defame Shiva, Ganesh or Vishnu etc.

    The broader point is this: atheists are generally confident, given the lack of compelling evidence for the existence of any gods, that religions will eventually lose the argument if there is a level playing field intellectually and conversationally, and if enough people are given enough of an education in critical thinking skills to be able to spot superstitious beliefs for what they are. Therefore atheists are generally happy to stand up for everyone’s right to advocate for whatever gods they want – the rough and tumble of the marketplace of ideas will eventually filter out all of the gods which are unsupported by the evidence (i.e. all of them).

    The Islamists of Bangladesh, like all theocrats everywhere, are doing their damnedest to prevent the playing field from becoming level, by making a lot more physically dangerous to be a non-Muslim (or to be the wrong kind of Muslim) than to be (their kind of) Muslim.

  • Atle Hesmyr

    These atheists are the forerunners of an Enlightenment era in the East, and their activities are absolutely crucal for any democratization processes to materialize in the region. Without an atheist breakthrough in Europe in the 18th century, there would have been nothing comparable to democracy in the modern world at all, as before the event of atheism all power was held to derive from god — making the ideological backbone of various forms of absolutism. For instance, the atheist views of the French Encyclopedie editor, Denis Diderot, caused him several terms in prison under the absolutist regime of Louis XV. Luckily, he had strong supporters among the Republic of Letters which united free thinking people all over Europe and the United States. Thus, support to the Bangladeshi atheists would do more to promote democratization in the East than all the military interventions conducted in the region by Western powers through the ages.