The Backstory on the Murdered Bangladeshi Bloggers

The Backstory on the Murdered Bangladeshi Bloggers June 4, 2015

Joseph Allchin has an article in Foreign Policy magazine about the murders of several atheist bloggers in Bangladesh that explains the backstory behind those killings. Specifically, how they were exploited by the major political parties in that country for political and financial gain.

The attack on Mohiuddin came after he and other secular voices had rallied Bangladeshis to protest in early 2013, calling for maximum punishment for Islamists on trial for committing war crimes during the country’s brutal war of independence from Pakistan. Some of the accused were senior politicians from opposition political parties, including the country’s largest Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami. Protesters were concerned that the accused would be able to escape justice in Bangladesh’s weak legal system. The protests, which became known as Shahbag, after the road junction of the capital where they gathered, were huge, and captured the nation’s imagination. But they also provoked a powerful backlash.

Both of Bangladesh’s largest political parties saw the secularist protests as an opportunity to score political points. Sensing their huge appeal, the ruling Awami League (AL) party — which is nominally secular and had promised to bring the war criminals to trial — initially tried to co-opt the movement. “When they saw we had huge support, they wanted to get that support,” said Mohiuddin. To appease the protesters, the government allowed the prosecution in the war crimes trials to appeal sentences. The prosecution did precisely that — and, instead of life imprisonment, Jamaat leader Abdul Qader Mollah received a death sentence. The man known as the “butcher of Mirpur” (a suburb of the capital) was eventually hung in December 2013.

For the largest opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the secular protests were an opportunity to rally conservative voices against the government, which they said was in league with forces who wanted to “destroy Islam.” An Islamist group called Hefezat-e-Islam, which arose from the country’s madrassas, promulgated lists of liberals to be targeted. These lists — along with the targets’ real names and locations — were republished in the Amar Desh, a popular tabloid connected to the BNP. The BNP also fielded Hefezat leaders as candidates for Parliament and expressed support for the group’s demands, which included introducing the death sentence for blasphemy and making it illegal for men and women to mingle in public.

Seeing that the secularist protests continued growing, Hefezat-e-Islam bussed in hundreds of thousands of its followers into the capital in April 2013 to demand, amongst other things, the death penalty for blasphemy. “The fundamentalists were thinking that the bloggers were powerful, that they need to be stopped,” said Mohiuddin.“The fundamentalists were thinking that the bloggers were powerful, that they need to be stopped,” said Mohiuddin.

Hefezat-e-Islam’s rise caused the AL government to panic that its support for the Shahbag protesters, and the atheists associated with them, would prove too politically costly. In an attempt to appease the Islamist group, the government jailed Mohiuddin, who was still badly injured from the machete attack, and some fellow bloggers, in July 2013. In essence, the AL government had now twice used legal interventions to appease rival movements. In the end, press reports and observers suggest that the government succeeded in buying Hefezat-e-Islam’s quiescence. A huge Hefezat rally just prior to the January 2014 election was cancelled at the last minute — and the group went quiet.

As in many countries with weak institutions and endemic corruption, Bangladesh’s two main political parties compete not only for political power, but also for control of state institutions that offer lucrative possibilities for patronage to their leaders and supporters. When out of power, parties become divorced from their sources of revenue. As a result, the country’s political contests are winner-takes-all battles, inducing desperate measures to stay in power. This means parties are prepared to jump onboard, however hypocritically, with virtually anything that appears expedient. The Prime Minister’s son, Sajeeb Joy Wazed, made this very clear: “We don’t want to be seen as atheists. … But given that our opposition [BNP] party plays that religion card against us relentlessly, we can’t come out strongly for [Avijit Roy]. It’s about perception, not about reality.”

Seeing that mainstream parties are willing to appease them empowers radical groups such as Hefezat-e-Islam. Their ability to hold sway over hordes of devout, impressionable young men becomes a potent form of political power. This political climate has run concurrently with a global resurgence of harsh Wahabi Islam. As a result, Bangladesh has become ripe for exploitation by groups sympathetic to Al Qaeda and IS. The government’s failure to respond forcefully to the public butchering of those who question religion acts like a green light for such groups.

In other words, they got sold down the river by a government that doesn’t care about human rights or human lives, only about power. Since Bangladesh and similar countries have shown no willingness at all to protect the lives and rights of atheists, it is incumbent upon us to do what we can to protect them by providing a means of escaping to safety as we did with Taslima Nasrin. You can help do that by donating to CFI’s Freethought Rescue Project.

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