The recent killing of Bangladeshi blogger Ananta Bijoy Das on May 12 was not the first of its kind in Bangladesh. In fact, there have been at least seven assassination attempts on secularist bloggers and activists like Das since 2013. Three of these murders have been in the past four months and the death threats continue. Yet this situation is barely known of or spoken about. International pressure on the Government of Bangledesh would protect those whose free speach is being ignored.
As early as the 1990s, a fatwa was issued against poet and writer Taslima Nasrin for publishing a book that reflected badly on Islamic fundamentalism. Shortly after the novel was published, the Government of Bangladesh banned her book and forced Nasrin to leave the country, leading to more than 10 years of life in exile in the West.
In 2013, three secularist atheist bloggers were brutally attacked a month apart from each other, resulting in one death. In 2014, a sociology professor was murdered outside his home. Finally, three secular bloggers have been murdered in the street just this year, the latest being Ananta Bijoy Das.
Ansarullah Bangla Team, an Islamic extremist organization in Bangladesh, has claimed responsibility for four of the murders. A total of nine members have been arrested for two of the murders. There are other public instances of targeting and threatening secularists, most of which the government seems to ignore.
Although the Bangladeshi government holds an 84-name hit-list of those considered blasphemers by the religious extremists, no governmental aid or protection seems to have been extended to those targeted.
Not only did the current government fail to publicly expressed support for those murdered, but it has targeted and arrested secular bloggers for blasphemy.
In addition to the government being unwilling to extend aid and support to the targeted secularist bloggers, it is unlikely that there will be a popular movement in their support. Because Bangladeshi politics are so dysfunctional and violence is commonly the result of political nonconformity, it is unlikely that many people will stand up for the freedom of speech and thought that is being so ruthlessly targeted.
Several people familiar with the politics and culture of Bangladesh have said that there are many more atheists and secularists in Bangladesh than it seems. Obviously, “coming out” as an atheist is dangerous in Bangladesh, and it is understandable that few are willing to do so. However, if more people stand up in support of secularism and the acceptance of disbelief, the government may have to take notice.
Many people probably feel that this is not a situation that affects them much. However, if you believe that freedom of speech and expression is something that should be protected or even just that people should not be viciously murdered for their ideas, this is a situation that you should be invested in. Not only are secular activists being killed, but these murders are acts of terror that smother free speech of all types in fear.
These killings and arrests are indicative of a social and institutional restriction of free speech. However, the institutional nature of these violations could be the basis for international pressure on the Government of Bangladesh.
The restriction of secular speech is a violation of Part III, Article 39, Part 2A of the Constitution of Bangladesh, which establishes freedom of expression for citizens and Part II, Article 8 of the Constitution of Bangladesh, which lists secularism as one of the fundamental principles of the government of Bangladesh.
The lack of protection for free speech is also a violation of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which was acceded by Bangladesh in 2000 and protects freedom of expression of all kinds. Especially when there is such political chaos, it is necessary for the international community to protest violations of free speech. The government will obviously not protect this right and the unsupported and vulnerable minority who exercise it.
There are several possible avenues for change in this situation. However, protesting these horrifying murders by violent religious extremists is unlikely to have a beneficial effect. Instead, it may be more useful to push for strong international condemnation of the government for not adequately addressing its political problems, going against Article 19 of the ICCPR, and for not giving aid and protection to those who are in danger of assassination.
Increased access to quality education is another route to social change. However, there are obvious difficulties with this in a country that has problems with poverty and overpopulation. Few schools in Bangladesh offer education without mandatory religious classes, a factor that could contribute to social conservatism and lack of acceptance for diverse viewpoints. Although it is possible that more liberal, secular education would be a viable option for social change in Bangladesh, this change would, of course, be extremely slow.
The government has a responsibility to its protect the lives of its citizens. Even if they refuse to ideologically support secularists, they should at the least make every effort to catch the murderers and those ideologically responsible.
Although there are limited ways that we can help this situation, there is one thing that we all can do. We must give our respect to those who, in a situation so full of danger and opposition from both extremists and their own government, continue to peacefully protest, criticize what they find wrong and try to create a freer, more humane society.
Contributions by Alexa Blummenstock and Xue Yan.