Bangladesh’s Embattled Bloggers:

By | February 17, 2021 at 1:29 pm | No comments | Blog, Profiles | Tags: , ,

As the trial for the killing of Avijit Roy reaches a verdict, a friend recalls the atmosphere at the Ekushey Book Fair a year after the iconic secularist was murdered.

I was exhausted before my journey began. I should have been excited about the trans-Pacific flight ahead of me, back home to Bangladesh. I’d moved to Canada six years earlier, for university, and hadn’t been back since. I boarded after several security checks, drained, tense and fidgety. Unable to stop thinking about the date — February 26th, 2016 — the first anniversary of the murder of my friend, Avijit Roy, one of our best-known bloggers. He had been hacked to death because of his secular activism.

My friendship with Avijit had been virtual. I first read his posts on Sachalayatan while I was a student at the Dhaka University. The site was a platform for Bengali bloggers to creatively express themselves and write whatever they wanted to: memoir, poetry, short fiction, and most importantly, popular science — from string theory to emerging computer technologies to genome sequencing. I was ecstatic to find such a variety of expressions and spent much of my late teens clicking, commenting, scrolling and navigating through the posts.

I could never have imagined that one day this online community would be labelled “enemies of Islam”, nor that its members would be targeted and killed.

I was particularly drawn to the writing on scientific reasoning. Avijit was as much a scientist as a blogger. He had just finished a PhD in bio-medical engineering from the National University of Singapore, a top-tier science and technology institution. His father, Ajoy Roy, was a national award-winning physicist. The convergence of Avijit’s academic and family backgrounds made him a natural spokesman for rationality and humanism, and his blog posts initiated thought-provoking discussions on evolutionary biology, quantum physics and the scientific rationale behind homosexuality. Later, he founded Mukto-Mona, the first online platform in Bangla for freethinkers, sceptics, atheists and humanists. It inspired innumerable readers to pursue critical scientific thinking and to question the role of religion in modern Bangladeshi society — a society that perhaps wasn’t ready for such challenges to its more archaic norms and beliefs.

I could never have imagined that one day this online community would be labelled “enemies of Islam”, nor that its members would be targeted and killed.

***

Though it was the beginning of a new campaign of violence, it was not the first time a free-thinking secularist had been murdered in Bangladesh. Violence and chaos caused by extreme Islamists were often in the headlines even though I had never experienced them personally. The news reached me in Canada, where I was chasing a deadline at work on a busy morning. My friend, a fellow Bangladeshi blogger, called me at the office during a coffee break. His voice was unsettling. He was repeating himself, almost babbling, as he recounted the horrifying details. I rushed to check Facebook and found my homepage covered with fragmentary updates.

The killings became routine. Every other month machetes silenced someone new, someone who had questioned our society’s religious norms.

Avijit and his wife, Rafida Ahmed Bonya, had been attacked as they left the Ekushey book fair at the Dhaka University campus. He was hacked to death in front of hundreds of bystanders. She had been hospitalized with a deep gash on her head and a severed finger.

The murder prompted a mass protest against religious fanaticism, but many Bangladeshis also believed that Avijit’s atheism had provoked the violence. His death intensified debates on religion and faith and launched a discussion about the safety      of bloggers and activists. The uproar from civil society, pushed the government to investigate the attack and to bring the killers to justice. Students and activists marched in the streets, organized candlelight vigils, and painted their shirtless bodies with calls to action.

Barely a month later, Washiqur Rahman, another blogger, was killed in front of his house by men with machetes. Ananta Bijoy Das, an online activist, was next, hacked to death by a similar group of men carrying what was clearly now their signature weapon. The killings became routine. Every other month machetes silenced someone new, someone who had questioned our society’s religious norms.

October 31 was the bloodiest day that year. Three bloggers were shot and stabbed at a publishing house (they survived), and Faisal Arefin Deepan, another publisher of secularist books, including those of Avijit Roy, was killed at his office — Jagriti Prokashoni. The death report confirmed that he was slaughtered with a machete. Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF), a wing of the terrorist organization Al-Qaeda, claimed responsibility for both attacks.

Further attacks followed in 2016. On April 25, Xulhaz Mannan, editor of Bangladesh’s first LGBT magazine, was hacked to death. As a tribute to Mannan, Avijit’s wife Bonya released an online version of his book on homosexuality to the public at no cost.

***

In Bangladesh, it remains taboo to question religious scripture or rituals. But our conservatism is at odds with the information age that has been ushered in by cheap smartphones and affordable Internet connections. Connectivity has made thought-provoking content readily available and social media’s immediacy has made it even easier than ever to debate religious issues. Real-time interaction and access to online publications has disrupted the society’s received opinions. As technology connects us more closely, online activism by bloggers has reached further and further into the society. Many online discussions are about building a community to make social changes.

One group of activists formed a Facebook group to address the chronic shortage of braille textbooks in primary and secondary schools. Even in the face of public outcry, the education ministry didn’t take extra steps to build inclusive classrooms for visually impaired children; so the group found volunteers who turned the textbooks into audio files. The Bangla Braille Project won several awards and recognitions, including one from the Best of Online Activism, also known as The Bobs, in 2014.

Similar altruism is commonplace. Often there is a range of fundraising events from supporting homeless people to educating street children to blood donation drives. In a developing country like Bangladesh, where many social services rely on non-profit organizations and volunteer groups, bloggers have proactively taken up the collective responsibility for helping the less-privileged citizens. They are nothing like the abrasive atheists and hectoring dilettantes that their opponents like to portray.

Our conservatism is at odds with the information age that has been ushered in by cheap smartphones and affordable Internet connections.

Even so, the caricature persists. As in other developing countries, extremists pander to the less educated part of the population. Words like “blogging” and “atheism” are used pejoratively; bloggers are often stereotyped as atheists. The equation is simple: to target secular, cultural-minded online activism and to encourage attacks on both, online and in real life.

This strategy became clear in 2014, when the blogging community pressured the government to prosecute people who participated in killing and torture of civilians during the 1971 Liberation War. Eventually the politicians agreed to hold trials for war crimes. Prior to 1971, Bangladesh was a part of Pakistan and was formerly known as East Pakistan. Bangladeshi citizens were oppressed and discriminated in various ways. To gain more control and demolish the demand for independence, the Pakistani army attacked Bangladeshi civilians on March, 25, 1971. The Pakistanis, aided by local collaborators, killed, raped, looted and destroyed the livelihoods of people in one of the worst modern genocides. The perpetrators justified their crimes as acts of religious solidarity. The local collaborators belonged to Islamic groups; after the war, some even established themselves as religious leaders. No wonder when the trials for war crimes began, they were denounced by the Islamic groups. The bloggers and online activists who had demanded tthe trials were targeted and threatened.

It took a violent turn when one extremist group, Ansarullah Bangla, published a hit list of bloggers and activists they viewed as opponents of Islam. Eighty prominent online activists appeared on the list, including, of course, Avijit Roy. The government of Bangladesh has downplayed the reality of targeted killing and done next to nothing to protect the bloggers. Some officials have even suggested censoring content and advised bloggers to avoid sensitive subjects, asking them, in effect, to self-censor. The government has continued to diminish what freedom of speech remained by passing a new “Blasphemy Law” (ICT 57) under which the police can arrest anyone suspected of posting “offensive” material on  social media or for spreading rumours online.

Government and law enforcement seem unsympathetic to blogging community, dismissive of their collective power. Militant Islamic groups, by contrast, correctly perceive it as a threat to their propaganda. But instead of taking actions against the extremists, the government has arrested and harassed several bloggers, confirming the fact that the blogging community is still misunderstood by the mainstream media, the government, and a significant portion of common people.

***

In 2016 these misunderstandings were evident at the Ekushey Book Fair, the country’s largest literary festival. Everyone in the long queue had to pass through metal detectors and security checks. There were armoured cars and vans outside the entrance and police monitored the area from watch towers strewn across the campus, including one close to the spot where Avijit had been killed. On the surface, the crowd looked like any other congregation of book lovers, but I sensed an underlying fear.

As a student at Dhaka University, I used to visit the fair every day with friends and classmates. We would gather around our favourite stalls to discuss books and politics or exchange literary gossips. Now, six years later, these smaller gatherings were rare. The police eyed any gathering warily. You could feel their gaze, and that of the hundreds of close-circuit cameras installed around the venue. I strolled around randomly, browsing the display sections of colorfully decorated bookstalls. The exhibitors seemed skeptical, murmuring that the security measures were haphazard.

Neither the government nor the Bangla Academy, which had organized the fair, had addressed the core problem. In a press release, the Academy’s Director advised the authors and publishers not to publish sensitive material — for their own protection. The organizers even closed a stall that was allegedly selling a biography of the Prophet Muhammad, lest that cause offence.  The publisher’s website was hacked by the Islamic fanatics, who threatened to harm anyone who translated or distributed the 1985 book by Iranian Ali Dashti. Eventually the police arrested the publisher during the third week of the fair.

Despite the threats, I noticed that the publishing houses Shuddhshar  and Jagriti were still selling Avijit Roy’s books. From a distance, I spotted stacks of The Virus of Faith, The Philosophy of Disbelief and other bestsellers. The public’s curiosity was evident as readers crowded around the stalls to browse freshly-printed editions of works by Avijit and his companions as they discussed the growing influence of New Atheists – Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Denett. These writers had been translated and published in Bengali blogs, mostly in Sachalayatan and Mukto-mona. Listening to the murmurs, I learned that some of Avijit’s works had been compiled and widely circulated as e-books.

A growing appetite for secular and rational thought was apparent but few visitors seemed worried about digital surveillance or the crackdowns on bloggers. They were more concerned about the police’s half-hearted efforts to capture Avijit’s murderers, and their apparent indifference to the public call to curb violent fanaticism. By blocking social media and messaging apps, the government was sending the wrong signal: individuals have a right to free speech but they shouldn’t criticize or question any aspects of religion.

After the fair, I roamed around the university campus. The streets and historical buildings are emblematic of the protests against fundamentalism – both religious and political — that had been fuelled by a culture of freethinking secularism. Old memories surfaced as I wandered the roads where the “Shahbag Movement” against war criminals was initiated. The city square, streets and public sculptures were marked with the signs of our liberation war, our defiance of the military dictatorship and our ongoing quest for a secular and inclusive society. As I crossed the poster-plastered and graffiti-stained building of the Social Science faculty, a scribble on the wall caught my attention.

It was a stencilled portrait of my old virtual friend and beneath it, in black block letters, were these words: “I am Avijit, Kill me.”

***

Fahim Hassan is a Bangladeshi blogger currently pursuing his PhD. in Canada. He is also an active member of the civic technology community and has contributed to several volunteer initiatives on using open source technology and connecting citizen scientists to solve social problems.

Writer’s note:

Thanks to Omar Mouallem for his mentorship on writing this personal essay and the Writers Guild of Alberta for supporting me to raise awareness on this issue. I originally wrote this article in 2016, almost a year later Avijit was killed. Since then I have shared my experiences in pieces with different audiences, but this essay has never been published. I wasn’t emotionally ready to revisit my memories. Even in the face of public demand and media spotlight, Avijit’s trial showed no sign of progress. After six agonizing years of waiting, the court has finally reached a verdict. As this ruling brings back the public focus on the attack on Bangladeshi secularists, I am sharing this article in its initial form and hoping that my past experiences will help the readers to connect the dots between and across the time and space.

 

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