A spate of assaults confirms that secular Bangladeshi bloggers, and apparently those who dare to publish their work, are very much under attack in the one of the world’s most populated Muslim countries.
Yesterday, two separate violent attacks on the lives of publishers and bloggers in the country’s capital, Dhaka made it clear that there is no end in sight for the culture of fear these deaths have helped cultivate.
Publishing house owner, Faisal Arefin Dipan was stabbed to death in his office just hours after men stabbed another of the blogger's publishers, Ahmedur Rashid Tutul, along with two other writers.
Both of the men had published the writings of Avijit Roy, the Bangladeshi-American who was hacked to death during a book fair earlier this year. In both attacks "the perpetrators locked the victims inside their offices before leaving the scene,” local newspaper The Daily Star reports.
While a local Islamist group Ansarullah Bangla Team claimed responsibility for the blogger killings, and recently threatened to kill even more, it was another militant group, Ansar al-Islam, allegedly the Bangladesh division of Al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent, that issued a statement claiming responsibility for the attacks on publishers Faisal Arefin Deepan and Ahmed Rahim Tutul, according to Reuters.
On Twitter Ansar al-Islam justified their actions by stating, "These two atheist-apostates have published books that have attacked the honour of the Prophet (Mohammed) and mocked Islam.”
Bangladeshis have been shaken to their core by a year that has seen no shortage of bloodshed. Since the beginning of 2015, four secular bloggers have been hacked to death with machetes in their homes, at public book fairs, squares and on their morning commute to work. In April, just five weeks after Bangladeshi-American writer, Avijit Roy was butchered in public alongside his wife at a book fair in the city, blogger Washiqur Rahman was hacked to death on the street.
These most recent assaults come on the heels of a series of attacks claimed by Islamic extremists in Bangladesh, which include the blogger killings and the recent killings of two foreigners, a Japanese and an Italian man. In addition, on October 24th, a bomb attack on thousands of Shiite Muslims in Dhaka injured more than 100 other people and killed a young boy.
Although the attacks may appear unrelated, their message remains the same: a climate of fear is replacing a once religiously tolerant country. For the attackers, there is no room for diversity or pluralism, two of Bangladesh’s once greatest strengths.
"The situation is becoming increasingly dangerous for those brave enough to speak their own minds,” Abbas Faiz, Bangladesh Researcher at Amnesty International, told Al-Jazeera. “The latest heinous criminal attacks are a deliberate assault against freedom of expression in the country. Given the horrific pattern of violence, we have reason to believe many other lives are now at risk."
The blood of bloggers has filled a gaping hole normally occupied by the political violence and strikes between the ruling Awami League and the opposition BNP (Bangladeshi Nationalist Party) that usually paralyze the country.
But there is clearly another power struggle for the soul of Bangladesh which is taking place between the secularists and the religious extremists and their message is very clear: Dare to go against us, and we will kill you, we will slaughter you in broad daylight.
Having to choose over a secular or religious identity is déjà vu for the average Bangladeshi because in many ways our country was born from this very choice. Bangladeshis fought, and won, a bloody Independence War in 1971 from Pakistan, and much of that had to do with the majority of Bangladeshis wanting a Bengali identity, specifically language and culture, over an Islamic one.
Yet people wanting an extremely religious identity for Bangladesh remained, and despite the victory of the secularists, here we are more than four decades later with similar lines drawn in the sand.
The attack on writers is not about silencing those who are writing offensive or anti-Islamic work, but about eliminating anyone who has the audacity to question or even ponder an alternative belief system.
“There is a group operating in this country who are determined to make Bangladesh a religious state,” a Bangladeshi former Member of Parliament and prominent women’s rights activist, speaking on condition of anonymity, tells me. “They are forcing people to follow a very strict interpretation of Islam which is not aligned with the peace and the true essence of Islam. Very bright, young voices are being slaughtered as a warning. These attacks have echoes of our Liberation War when eliminating the country’s intellectuals was a very strategic war policy.”
Once again Bangladeshis return to the battle field in a clash of ideologies that has the potential to tear the country apart.
And with no issue resorting to abhorrent acts of violence, for now the extremists are controlling the number of days Bangladesh has as one of the world’s few Muslim democracies.