Authorities in Bangladesh announced yesterday that three men suspected of the brutal machete murders of bloggers Avijit Roy and Ananta Bijoy Das have been arrested. But the violence against secular and minority-rights activists continues. Hindu writer Niloy Neelwas murdered just ten days ago.
As Meenakshi Ganguly of Human Rights Watch wrote yesterday, “Free speech in Bangladesh is under attack as never before, held hostage between angry, machete-wielding radicals on one hand and a government, quick to take offence, on the other.”
To understand what’s happening in Bangladesh now—both the violence and the anemic response from the west—we need to look at some history.
In 1971, as West Pakistan violently cracked down on Bengali nationalists in East Pakistan clamoring for independence, Washington, D.C. remained silent. U.S. Consul General in Dhaka Archer Blood repeatedly urged President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to intervene.
Nixon and Kissinger, as Gary Bass would later recount in The Blood Telegram, were so anti-India that they ignored what would become one of the 20th century’s forgotten genocides: the killing of over three million Bengalis (including many Hindus) and the displacement of more than 10 million.
Among those who left what would become Bangladesh was Rukhsana Hasib, a young secular Muslim whose father—an East Pakistan military officer—was killed by West Pakistani forces.
Hasib has recounted with chilling detail the days and weeks in which Bengalis were rounded up by West Pakistani forces and tortured, raped, killed, or disappeared. The Pakistani authorities also worked closely with a radical Islamist group known as Jamaat-e-Islami to exact vigilante punishment—in the form of rapes and mass violence—on anyone seen as disloyal to West Pakistan. Hasib writes, “My family bears personal scars–my father, a Major was ambushed in his home and taken prisoner. His remains were discovered a year later in one of seven mass graves where five hundred bodies were buried. My mother and little sisters were thrown in prison camp where they suffered many indignities.”
Now, in the wake of four recent murders of secular activists and a dramatic uptick in violence against religious minorities, Hasib and others are worried that Bangladesh—founded largely upon the idea of Bengali nationalism and its religious and philosophical diversity—is slipping into a time warp and a time when vigilante violence was the means of suppressing free speech.
To better understand these fears, it’s important to understand how Bangladesh has come to this point—and why many U.S. lawmakers continue to overlook its growing political and social turmoil.
While Bangladesh eventually became its own country following a brief war between India and Pakistan, the remnants of those loyal to West Pakistan and opposed to a secular democratic state never left the country. Ziaur Rahman, implicated as a co-conspirator in the assassination of Bengali independence leader and Bangladesh’s first prime minister Sheik Mujibar Rahman (no relation), would later become the president of the country until his assassination in 1981. His widow, Khaleda Zia, is a former prime minister who still heads the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which has tried to Islamicize a country in which 10 percent of the population is non-Muslim.
For years, beneath the loud and proud rhetoric of Bengali unity, Bangladesh has been increasingly radicalized, particularly in rural areas and villages just outside of major cities such as Dhaka and Chittagong. Even under the nominally secular Awami League, land-grabs against groups such as Hindus and indigenous tribes have gone up, and authorities have done little to deter violence led by Islamist groups and their allies. Now, religious minorities, atheists, and secular Muslims are now firmly in the crosshairs of an emboldened collection of radical groups.
“The puritan version of an intolerant Islam is spreading in Bangladesh as extremist groups infiltrate society, changing the way many dress, think, practice their faith and interact with non-Muslim and secular Bangladeshis,” Hasib said. She’s not alone in that assessment. The House Committee on Foreign Affairs hosted a hearing on religious violence in Bangladesh in the spring, highlighting recent cases of attacks by extremists.
One of the most graphic examples of this intolerance has been the high-profile murders of several atheist and secular bloggers in Bangladesh. On August 6, Niloy Chatterjee was hacked to death in his home by armed assailants, a murder in which Ansar al-Islam, a group tied to Al Qaeda, claimed responsibility. This follows the public murders earlier this year of Avijit Roy, Washiqur Rahman, and Ananta Bijoy Das, all of whom had publicly criticized Bangladesh’s growing intolerance towards non-Muslims, secular Muslims, and atheists.
Each of them were attacked and killed in public places. Roy’s murder was reportedly witnessed by police. His wife, who was also injured in the attack, has rarely made public appearances since due to threats made against her.
In addition to the attacks on secular activists, religious minorities—including Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians—have been targeted en masse. The Hindu population, which was about 20 percent at the time of Bangladesh’s liberation, is estimated at about 9 percent, and decreasing almost daily due to migration to India and abroad.
The lack of U.S. involvement in Bangladesh is multi-fold. Though the country is a trade partner with the United States, it lacks the strategic significance of its South Asian neighbors India and Pakistan. Additionally, the attacks against the bloggers are often presented in U.S. media without context. Perhaps more problematically, many Bangladeshis, particularly those living in more upscale parts of Dhaka, the capital city, have largely been shielded from the creeping extremism taking place throughout the country.
Moreover, despite being banned from participating in elections in Bangladesh (its other activities are not prohibited), Jamaat-e-Islami retains a great deal of economic and social clout within Bangladesh, making it more difficult to minimize their influence. Their alliance with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party also worries activists that if the party ever won national elections again, Jamaat could return to prominence.
Groups such as the Center for Inquiry, which Roy was affiliated with, and the Hindu American Foundation, which undertook a fact-finding mission earlier this year in Bangladesh, are urging U.S. officials to do more to press the Bangladeshi government to act against the creeping tide of extremism. Earlier this month, U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) led a bipartisan group of lawmakers to introduce House Resolution 396, which would:
• recognize the atrocities committed against Hindus and others during the 1971 war of liberation, as well
• protect Bangladesh’s Hindus and other minorities from ongoing violence
• mandate religious freedom and human rights be at the forefront of the U.S. relationship with Bangladesh
While the resolution is unlikely to come to the House floor for a vote (due to House Speaker John Boehner’s general refusal to vote on resolutions), it’s an important symbolic step towards recognizing that Bangladesh continues to fight the battles of yesterday with disastrous consequences for its moderate and secular population today.
For Hasib, who saw the genocide of 1971 firsthand, it’s vital for the United States to become more engaged with the affairs of Bangladesh before it’s too late. She and others hope U.S. officials don’t have the same indifference Nixon and Kissinger displayed towards a genocide more than four decades earlier. That includes making sure calling Jamaat for what it is.
“Bangladesh is on its way to becoming another hotbed of extremism,” she said. “For Jamaat and other extremists, anyone who opposes their philosophy of a distorted view of Islam is the enemy. These extremists are strongly principled and are willing to kill and die for their cause. That makes them powerful and dangerous. Jamaat-e-Islami, the most known group in Bangladesh is a terrorist organization and must be branded as such.”
Editor’s note: The following is reprinted with permission from Religion Dispatches. Read more at www.religiondispatches.org. The author’s views are solely his own.