Killing free thought


Pakistan, Bangladesh and extremism

In the last couple of weeks, 4 secularist bloggers in Bangladesh have been killed by the Islamists. The method of execution was same for all – hacking them to death. Machete-yielding extremists either broke into their house, or intercepted them while they were at some place isolated.

A post-graduate student, Nazimuddin Samad was the first victim in this year’s attacks. Being a vocal critic of dogmatic teachings, he called for a secular and liberal country. “Three or four men attacked Samad with machetes and then shot him after he fell to the ground,” Reuters reported. “People heard the attackers shouting “Allahu Akbar” (God is Greatest) as they fled.”

The next victim of these remorseless killings was Professor Rezaul Karim Siddique. He taught English at University of Rajshahi, and according to the reports, he was well-liked among his students. Police reported that his neck was targeted several times and was almost totally severed. ISIS claimed responsibility for attack on him.

However, Siddique, unlike other victims, was neither an outspoken secularist, nor an atheist. His brother, who was shocked at his death, recalled how quite and simple a man Siddique was. “So far as we know, he did not have any known enemies and we never found him worried, “he added.

Only a couple of days after his death, ISIS killed two more people – Xulhaz Mannan, an editor of Bangladesh’s first LGBT magazine, Roopban and his friend, Tanay Majumder. Mannan was an employ at USAID and organized gay pride rallies every new Bengali year. Condemning his death, US Ambassador to Bangladesh, Marcia Bernicat said, “I am devastated by the brutal murder of Xulhaz Mannan and another young Bangladeshi.”  The attack was, once again, claimed by ISIS.

Last year, 5 vocal atheists were hacked to death in Bangladesh. Avijit Roy, a famous blogger among Bangladesh’s liberal community was the first one to be killed by the Islamists. It was followed by the murder of Oyasiqur Rhaman – another secularist. Ananta Bijoy Das, Niloy Neel and Faisal Arefin Dipan were also killed the same year.

Condemning the attacks, The Guardian, in an editorial last year, wrote, “Like Raif Badawi, imprisoned and flogged in Saudi Arabia, the brave men who have been murdered are guilty of nothing more than honesty and integrity. Those are virtues that fundamentalists and fanatics cannot stand.”

As the whole world calls for action against those responsible for the attacks, the country’s Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina has denied ISIS having any links with the attacks. She has put herself in utter denialist mode by blaming her opposition parties to be attacking these bloggers. “Opposition parties are involved with these secret killings as they want to destabilize the government and the country,” she said on April, 25.

Resorting to victim-blaming of the worst form, she had earlier criticized these bloggers, instead of showing solidarity. “”I don’t consider such writings as freethinking but filthy words. Why would anyone write such words? It’s not at all acceptable if anyone writes against our Prophet or other religions,” she had said.

While one can place a check on what is being written, blaming the dead bloggers for ‘thinking freely’, and that too when several of them are under attack, obstruct s freedom of speech and is highly insensitive of Prime Minister of a country. To blame them is like to blame a rape victim for the clothes she wore.

Her allegations against opposition parties are nothing more than manipulation of the facts and political point scoring. A group named ‘Defenders of Islam’ had produced a list of 84 bloggers, mostly secularists, to be killed. In the latest issue of Dabiq, ISIS interviewed Abu Ibrahim Al-Hanif – an emir of ISIS Bangladesh. Its presence in Bangladesh has been well-established but the government refuses to acknowledge.

Like Bangladesh, Pakistan too failed to acknowledge that the extremism problem existed in society until the terrorists struck at APS, Peshawar. It was that moment when those sitting in the power corridors realized the extent to which religious extremism had penetrated the society. Only then did they formulate a ‘National Action Plan’ to tackle the menace.

Before that attack, extremist ideology had taken innumerable lives but no one casted an eye. Even after a horrific attack like that of December, 2014, Pakistani government is still reluctant to go across the board and act sweepingly against these elements. Groups like JuD, which has been long considered ‘strategic assets’ of the country have still to face the brunt. JuD chief, Hafiz Saeed was even invited to a government-run engineering university, UET Lahore to speak at an event.

The situation in Bangladesh resembles Pakistan in more than one ways. ISIS or other Islamist groups haven’t targeted a high-ranking target yet. They have been serially killing atheists and secularists, who are already persecuted in countries like Bangladesh – hence, denial.

Bangladesh is s secular country, unlike Pakistan, which is ‘Islamic Republic’, but has failed to challenged extremist elements head on – or even providing a counter-narrative. The situation in Bangladesh poses a serious question for Pakistan as well – is secularizing the constitution enough? Before amending the constitution, it is imperative the change the mindsets, which over the years, have become intolerant and being radicalized even more.

It is the responsibility of Sheikh Hasina to protect the minorities of her country, irrespective of their views on religion, for that is the essence of secularism – of which her party is the biggest proponent.