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Bangladesh’s Secular Bloggers: Addressing a Conundrum

In Bangladesh, a Muslim majority country of more than 160 million people, the very first attempt by a mainstream newspaper to shed light on online activities of Bangladesh’s secular bloggers resulted in far-reaching and painful consequences. The paper’s overtly biased, misleading and erroneous presentation set off a chain of events that led to a profound change in politics, a sharp division in society and culminated in the brutal killings of scores of secular bloggers in the hands of militants.

How secular bloggers claimed spotlight

Newspapers in Bangladesh do not command a proportionately large readership: The most exaggerated figure puts the number below four million. The nascent online community, centred around blogs such as somewhereinblog.org, is even smaller.

Secular Bloggers: Shahbag movement
Shahbag Movement at its peak: Wikimedia

Yet, all of a sudden, a tiny group of bloggers stirred a nationwide buzz in 2013 when they occupied a busy Dhaka crossing, called Shahbagh, to protest a court ruling, which had the sentence of a politician, Abdul Quader Molla, convicted of war crimes during Bangladesh’s War of Independence in 1971 reduced to a life sentence. The protest, which would later be called the Shahbagh Movement, demanded the particular ruling be reversed and convicted war criminals including Molla given the death penalty.

Like Molla, those arrested on charges of having collaborated with the Pakistani army in its bloody campaign against Bengali nationalists in 1971 mostly belonged to Jamaat-e-Islami party, which did oppose the independence campaign. Some of them conceded to have opposed the war but maintained that they had not been involved in war crimes or crimes against humanity.

On the other hand, bloggers mostly belonged to the progressive wing of the political spectrum in Bangladesh’s context. The fact that progressive activists clamoured for death—that too, disregarding the country’s judicial system—might sound odd, but many would agree that the 1971 war has been an emotive issue in the country.

Aided by a favourable media and a ruling party, which came to power having promised to hold war crimes trial, the protest quickly swelled and gained massive momentum. The government later amended the law in question to allow an appeals court to overturn the life sentence of Molla, allowing critics of the trial to cry foul. The court eventually did overturn the initial sentence, to the apparent satisfaction of the protesters, albeit drawing concerns from rights group.

The Amar Desh blunders

When at its peak, the leader of the Shahbag movement, Imran H Sarkar, called on the public to boycott Amar Desh newspaper, a right-leaning opposition mouthpiece, accusing it of supporting the imprisoned leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami party.

Perhaps incensed by the call of boycott, the paper, wildly popular among opposition supporters, ran a series of reports about atheist bloggers, who, like many other quarters, were involved in the protest. In a clear bid to thwart the popularity of the movement, which many opposition supporters initially endorsed, the reports published by Amar Desh contained transcripts of what the bloggers wrote in their blogs. The raw transcripts, which included gross insults of god and Islam’s prophet Muhammad, appalled many in the god-fearing country.

What was more dangerous was that the reports revealed the actual names and photographs of the secular bloggers, most of whom used to write under pseudonyms, immediately putting their lives in jeopardy. The reports also referred certain bloggers as atheists although they never had claimed to be so and their writings did not suggest atheistic leanings. In addition, some inflammatory writings were inaccurately attributed to the persons who did not write them. As a result, the individuals who days ago were among the most familiar faces on TV quickly found themselves in retreat.

The rise of Hefazat-e-Islami

All of a sudden, the very word, “blogger”, became a despised term itself, and even synonymous with atheism. As a clear result of these rabble-rousing reports, Hefazat-e-Islam, an obscure Islamist pressure group, popped up claiming supports from all around the country. They demanded anti-blasphemy laws and the death penalty for atheist bloggers.

Hefazat was headed by Qawmi Madrasah teachers who followed the Islamic Deobandi model. Although both are Islamists, Hefazat leaders traditionally and ideologically differed with Jamaat-e-Islami and its spiritual leader, Abul A’la Maududi. They had little inclination to oppose the war crimes trials, supported by the secular bloggers, but they were obviously angry at what they saw a rising influence of secular bloggers in society and their association with the Shahbagh Movement. They failed to recognize the difference between secular bloggers, who organized the Shahbag movement, and atheist bloggers, a tiny portion of the platform.

On May 5, 2013, Hefazat-e-Islami organized arguably the largest possession of recent history in Dhaka, bringing supporters from across the country. At the end of the day, the protesters refused to leave their possessions until their demands were met, contrary to the conditions upon which they had been allowed to organize the possession. By dawn, the police resorted to violent tactics, forcibly expelling them amid bloodshed.

These events deeply polarized the otherwise peaceful nation, and have had serious ramifications. Radical militants, clearly inspired by these incidents, stabbed at least six bloggers and one publisher to death, and wounded several others.

Amar Desh was later shut down, and its controversial editor, Mahmudur Rahman, arrested.

The government’s changing tone

A Dhaka court has recently sentenced two students to death for being involved in the slaying Ahmed Rajib Haider, the first victim of the attacks.

When Haider was killed, his dead body received an outpouring of sympathies. In the parliament, he was declared “the first martyr of the second War of Liberation” by a veteran ruling party MP. His coffin was wrapped in a Bangladesh flag as in representing the country’s secular ideals. A large number of people including high government officials attended the burial ceremony. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina went to Mr Haider’s house to console family members. All of these were in line with the government’s policy of supporting the Shahbag movement.

And, all of these changed when detractors unearthed Haider’s blog address and revealed that he was the individual behind a notorious pseudonym, Thaba Baba, who wrote incendiary materials about Islam. Sympathies immediately turned into disgust.

A CNN article on Washiqur Rahman, one of the slain bloggers, focused on what the public think of the killing. After he was killed, a person left a comment on Washiqur Rahman’s Facebook page: “I felt sorry when I first learned of your death. But then I saw what you wrote and (now) I am not.”

The change in the public mood did not escape the attention of the government. When Abhijeet Roy, a prominent Bangladeshi-American writer, was brutally hacked to death, the prime minister did not venture to visit his family members, although Roy’s father, Ajoy Roy, was a long-time prominent supporter of the ruling party. Ajoy Roy, a retired physics professor at Dhaka University, later revealed that he received a mere phone call from the prime minister.

The government sharply withdrew its support for the imperilled bloggers, going so far as to warn them not to “cross the limit.” It even arrested some bloggers on the charge of hurting the public sentiment. Some bloggers, including Niloy Neel who would be killed as well, had been denied protection by the police when they tried to file complaints. Plenty of bloggers, writers, and publishers fled the country, having received death threats.

Crossing ‘the limit’

On social media and public blogs, the issue of atheism and religion has always been heated and controversial but was limited to online forums. After these incidents, however, the door of the debate seemed to have closed permanently. While there were indeed few celebrations over the attack on secular bloggers, the majority believed they had crossed an acceptable limit.

Atheist bloggers generally argue that their writings were protected by free speech—a fair criticism of religion. “I don’t think asking [questions] or organizing a Facebook event to discuss [issues related to Islam] defames Islam,” Shammi Haque, a blogger, told Deutsche Welle. Their critics, however, dispute the assertion, saying their activities often went beyond acceptable boundaries of criticism.

When asked what the actual legal limit of free speech in Bangladesh, Dhaka Tribune’s editor Zafar Sobhan said that there were limits to free speech in Bangladesh like every other country. “But they do not legally extend to being critical of religion,” he added. “You may not insult or abuse religion, but criticism is fine.”

Bangladeshi media largely focused on the aspect that slain bloggers wrote against fundamentalists and their activities. Mustafa Feroz, a senior editor at slightly right-leaning Bangla Vision, also agreed with the interpretation.

However, many in Bangladesh including the prime minister claimed to have been “hurt” by the posts written by atheist bloggers.

Golam Rahman, a journalism professor at Dhaka University, told a Time reporter that Bangladeshi people generally condemned these attacks (on bloggers). Unconvinced, Time also quoted a university student who said as many as eighty percent Bangladeshis were probably against Rahman’s writing.

Blogger Asif Mohiuddin, a prominent atheist blogger who was also subject to a brutal attack, also admitted that while a very little fraction of the population supported extremist ideologies, an overwhelming majority do not support the atheists either.

Some fellow secular bloggers, who do not claim to be atheists, say while anyone reserves rights to criticize whatever they want, the aggressive posture adopted by certain bloggers severely damaged the wider cause when they formed Shabagh Movement, and played right into the hands of the fundamentalists.

‘More of abuse than criticism’

A fair content analysis of some of the bloggers’ writings also reveals some problematic issues. For instance, Asif Mohiuddin, arguably the face of imperilled Bangladeshi secular bloggers, having been profiled by many international outlets including New York Times Magazine, repeatedly spewed views which may be termed obsessively hateful, prejudiced and even conspiracy theories.

“As a religious ideology, Islam and Judaism are the most despicable and the most dangerous,” he once noted. Hamas, according to him, was “created at the laboratory of Mossad,” Israel’s external spy agency. ISIS, then a newly emerged outfit, was a Frankenstein created in the US laboratory, and so was Al Qaeda, he said.

He suggested that Prophet Muhammad, Islam’s most admired man, was a “paedophile, polygamous, war-monger, lubricious, murders of infidels, the destructor of religious status, looter of the business caravan, rapist of wives of his adopted son and followers, and finally, a mass murderer.” Only recently has the European Court of Human Rights ruled that speeches such as calling Prophet Muhammad as paedophile do not fall within freedom of speech.

Mohiuddin and some of his comrades, who chose to reside in Western European countries such as Germany, Norway, and Sweden, severely criticized Europe’s handling of the refugee crisis and its intake of Syrian refugees. Their criticism of Europe’s refugee policy mostly resembled that of the continent’s far-right ideologues and bolstered the notion that their ‘criticism’ of Islam was tantamount to Islamophobia.

Dhormockery (which means both “religious person” and “religion+mockery”) has been a leading platform for Bangladeshi atheist bloggers. The website maintains that all religions are subject to jokes and mockery, but a rough analysis of its homepage reveals an overwhelmingly disproportionate focus on Islam. By its own account, the website publicly seeks to “criticize, question, humiliate and mock” religions and describes itself as a platform for militant atheists to “ridicule and belittle irrational beliefs.”

Neloy Neel, the slain blogger, wrote a series of posts on “Masculinism in Buddhist Scriptures,” in which he claimed the Buddhist scriptures described women as malodorous like filth. He claimed Saraswati, a Hindu goddess of knowledge, was born out of Lord Brahma’s semen. He went on to claim that Lord Brahma and Saraswati later had intercourse. Neel also supported Angola’s decision (later debunked by BBC as fake news) to abolish all mosques and wished to see the same in Bangladesh. He also said the Hindu culture of wearing Sindooram had been introduced as “an inviolable custom for Sanatan women, who are to constantly pray for the well being for their horny gods.”

Ahmed Rajib Haider’s satirical series, Nurani Chapa Shareef, contained extremely obscene terms and reference. The articles published as part of the series were full of explicitly vulgar slangs to describe the deeds of Prophet Muhammad and Allah.

Similar trends were noticed among other atheist bloggers.

How to deal with the conundrum

I asked many people, who neither supported the attacks on the bloggers nor their writings, how they preferred to deal with this conundrum. “I say the government should make the free speech laws clearer so that there are no ambiguities in understanding what the limitations [to free speech] are,” said Jahidur Rahman, a subeditor with a daily newspaper.

Fazla Alahi, a blogger, said, “While violent attacks can have no place in civilized society, there has to be a legal way to censure such vulgar writings that may create unrest in the country.”

After the Shabagh and Hefazat episode, the government sought to improve relations with the Islamist force, clearly abandoning its secular outlook. It even implicitly complied with many of the demands—including a massive change in the textbook—made by Hefazot in its 13-point charter.

The government also introduced a draconian ICT law, which ambiguously criminalized writing anything that may “disturb the law and order” or hurt the religious feeling, just slightly falling short of enacting a blasphemy law.

“We should not only welcome speeches that are deemed okay but also allow those that may offend or shock a nation,” Toriqur Shajib, a commentator, says. “But at the same time, we must keep in mind how receptible the greater citizenry is. There has to be a fine line—a balance between the sense of obligation to enlighten people and the sense of responsibility to not create riots.”

(Note: The article was written in 2016. It was slightly edited to include some updates.)