The rising number of killings of atheist bloggers in Bangladesh has drawn worldwide attention. Four atheist bloggers have been assassinated by extreme Islamist groups, mainly local unit of al-Qaeda, this year. One of the revolutionary gifts of the Internet is a forum for everyone to communicate their views freely to the world. Earlier, you could express your views freely in a printed newspaper or a book or you could go about doing so in public speeches. Today you can start a blog to spread your word! Or you can express your views on the social media. However, while the Internet has democratized the control over publishing, this has also amplified the threat to freedom of expression. Views published on the World Wide Web are transmitted instantly and attract global attention. So, the forces and elements that do not like your views are more rattled than they would be if you just brought out a leaflet or wrote an article in a newspaper. They are frightened by the large size of audience your publication on the web attracts.
Bangladesh’s Constitution declares it as a secular country, even though Muslims make up 90 per cent of its population. The enshrining of secularism is credited to the legacy of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, leader of Bangladesh freedom struggle, whose party Awami League took over the country’s government after its liberation from Pakistan. There were attempts by extreme Islamist groups and the political parties relying on their support to make Bangladesh an Islamic republic, but they could not succeed. At least they have not succeeded so far. But the extreme Islamist parties, such as Jamaat-e-Islami and groups such as al-Qaeda are continuing to make relentless attempts to get the country proclaimed an Islamic republic. Some of these groups have not restricted themselves to holding rallies or making speeches or submitting memoranda for the fulfilment of this demand. They have taken it upon themselves to “make” Bangladesh an Islamic republic by disallowing space for the existence or blossoming of any other religious faith. In actual life experience of the followers of faiths other than Islam it has come to mean denial of land for building places of worship, restrictions for celebration of festivals, threats of various kind leading to eviction from land and house and ultimately from the country and violence to cause death or injury.
The campaign to assassinate atheists is a part of the same campaign of the extreme Islamist groups. Atheists are not in a very large number in Bangladesh, but they are a determined and vocal lot. They are all young and Internet savvy. Atheists existed in Bangladesh before the spread of the Internet. Some of them used to bring out regular or irregular periodicals for spreading their Godless faith. With the coming of the World Wide Web they were among the first to realize its potential for spreading their views. They questioned theories and practices of every religion, but usually of Islam, because it happened to be the dominant religion and because 9 out of 10 Bangladeshis lived by its value system. They were champions of science and logic and wanted people to break free of religious rigidity in order to be able to think about things and happenings in their life and world, raise doubts and ask questions, and judge things on the basis of reason and material evidence.
Islamic extremists began to see atheistic propaganda as dangerous to their scheme of things as atheism was often indistinguishable from secularism and democratic value system. Atheists, secularists and democrats – they were the demons extreme Islamists aimed to exorcise Bangladesh of. And most atheists were not afraid of identifying themselves as “enemies” of extremism. They would say, “There is so much unrest and war in the name of religion and that’s not making the world a peaceful place.” They criticized the madrassas for instilling orthodox thought and values among children from the poorer Muslim families, especially in villages. No wonder, Hefazat-e-Islam, an extreme Islamist group led by madrassa teachers, sought public execution of atheists and staged a massive protest in May 2013 that unleashed violence taking 50 lives. Five atheist bloggers have been killed since then, and at least 80 more are on the hit list.
The Bangladesh government has not done much beyond taking routine action, such as arresting suspects in the atheist assassinations, and paying lip-service to maintaining the “secular fabric” of the country. The police have virtually given up. Instead of playing an effective role to stamp out intolerance, Inspector General of Police Shahidul Haque has begun to advise the atheists “not to hurt religious sentiments in their writings”. “According to laws if any one hurts religious feelings, he will be punished by the law,” Haque tells them. This is a hopeless situation for free thinkers of Bangladesh. They are being told to shut their mouths and tape their fingers if they want not to die at the hands of extremists.