By Tim Marshall.
When the men with machetes come for the Bangladeshi bloggers they may be doing so in the belief that they are protecting Islam. Those that send them to murder may be doing so in order to protect themselves.
The fourth blogger to die this year was Niloy Chatterjee who wrote under the name Niloy Neel. He was hacked to death last week leading to demonstrations over the weekend in the capital Dhaka calling on the government to do more to protect writers, and freedom of speech.
His death followed those this year of Avijit Roy, Washiqur Rahman, and Anata Bijoy Das. Three of the four were Hindus, living in a country of 160 million people which is 90% Muslim, and in which Islamist extremism is on the rise. That link may or may not be coincidental, what is almost certainly not coincidental is that all four were on a list drawn up two years ago of 84 ‘atheist’ writers effectively marked for death.
The list, created by extremist religious figures was sent to the Bangladeshi government in March 2013 with the demand that, unless the writers repented their alleged blasphemy against the Prophet Mohamed, legal action must be taken against them. The initial response of the Prime Minister’s office was to agree that they should repent. The Interior Ministry followed up by issuing legal proceedings against the writers promising to prosecute them under legislation which could carry 14-year jail terms. It also blocked some of the websites on which they wrote.
The government has subsequently partially backtracked after international condemnation.
At least 11 of those on the list have now been murdered and the real reason they have been killed may not be for their alleged blasphemy. They had also called for the death penalty for senior Islamist politicians who have been implicated in numerous atrocities which took place during Bangladesh’s war for independence in 1971.
They were part of the Shahbag movement, named after the district in Dhaka where (mainly) secular Bangladeshis demonstrated calling for greater freedoms, and for the death penalty in relation to the 1971 events. In particular they called for the hanging of a convicted war criminal from the Jamaat-e-Islami party who was indeed later hanged by the state after refusing to seek a presidential pardon. In 2013 the party was banned from contesting elections.
The Islamists reacted to the challenge of 2013’s protests with fury, turning out massive counter demonstrations dwarfing those of the tiny secular community whom they accused of being apostates and against Islam.
It is clear that the real motive behind whoever sends out the death squads may not be simply revenge for ‘insults’, it could easily be to silence those calling for legal action against those involved in the 1971 atrocities. Either way, the results have been chilling.
It was a brave secular man or women who first dared to speak out. There are now far fewer who will. Some have been murdered, some have fled the country, some are in hiding, many have been cowed,
The local Al Qaeda affiliate, Ansar al-Islam, has claimed responsibility for the latest atrocity. However, little is known for sure about the group, and it may simply be a cover name for an existing long established violent Islamist gang.
The Dhaka Tribune printed an emai,l purportedly from Ansar al-Islam, which said ‘We, al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent, claim responsibility for this operation as vengeance for the honour of the messenger of Allah. …. we are coming for you … If your ‘Freedom of Speech’ maintains no limits, then widen your chests for ‘Freedom of our Machetes’.”
The W@Y has written before about the brave, endangered, and often-lonely voices in the Islamic communities around the world who stand up for freedom of speech and religious freedom (many of whom also oppose the death penalty). During the Cold War many on the European left stood in support for groups such as Charter 77 and individuals such as Vaclav Havel. Sadly much of the current generation is silent, just when Charter 77’s modern counterparts, people like Niloy Chaterjee, need them most.
Among the tributes on his Facebook page is one from a businessman in Chittagong which says ‘ I feel small because we couldn’t keep a bright star like you burning.”