It’s no exaggeration to say that secular bloggers are under siege in Bangladesh. On Monday, Oyasiqur Rhaman, a young blogger, was hacked to death in full public view for his liberal views on religion.
“We have to keep on fighting,” Animesh Rahman, president of the Dhaka-based Blogger and Online Activist Network, asserts. “I know my life is at risk at every moment. For people like me there is no other option but to stay back and fight. We are putting our life at risk to keep the soul of Bangladesh alive.”
Rhaman’s death follows the killing of blogger Avijit Roy, murdered outside Dhaka University five weeks ago. Roy, a U.S. citizen, had just participated in the Ekushey Book Fair, Bangladesh’s largest literary event. He was an online presence that challenged fundamentalism and extremism in Islam. That stance made him the target of fundamentalists, and Roy paid the ultimate price.
Rhaman, an ardent follower of Roy, was so shaken by the death of his idol that he created a Facebook page in his memory, called “I Am Avijit.” According to The New York Times, he also mourned the 2013 killing of blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider, known online as Thaba Baba, and vowed to keep fighting for his belief. His open defiance of Islamic extremism cost him his life.
So why are bloggers being targeted in Bangladesh?
In January 2014, I met with a group of bloggers in Dhaka, living in hiding. We met just a few months after the Shahbag movement, popularly known as Gonojagaran Mancha or National Awakening Stage, upheaval which was driven by online agitation demanding the death penalty for Islamist leaders involved in atrocities during the war of liberation in 1971.
At the same time, Islamists led by Jamaat-e-Islami were counter-mobilizing. They asked for the release of the arrested Islamists, the majority of whom were from the organization’s rank-and-file.
That bitter ideological divide, between the secular nationalists and fundamentalists, claimed the life of Ahmed Rajib Haider in February 2013, a pro-Shahbag blogger. Haider was brutally killed outside his home by machete-wielding youth, much in the same manner as Avijit Roy and Oyasiqur Rahman.
Arif Jebtik and Maruf, bloggers who I met in central Dhaka, had gone underground due to threats from Islamists. Anti-liberation forces, who opposed Bangladesh’s independence movement in 1971, are proactive and known to target anyone who is opposed to the country being declared an Islamic state.
“The war of liberation in Bangladesh is not over,” Animesh Rahman says. He was friendly with Oyasiqur Rhaman, who he knew from the Shahbag movement. “The fight between secular forces and Islamic fundamentalists is still going on. Bangladesh is free from Pakistan, but not from the extremism that Islamabad sowed here.”
Still, Rahman is defiant. “The whole community of bloggers is living in fear,” he says. “We may die, but we will not stop writing. Islamic extremism may be spreading its wings all over the world, but we will continue to fight them. The war of liberation still motivates us.” Rahman’s website, muktochintablog.com (meaning free-thinking), focuses on progressive politics and rationalism.
Some youth leaders blame the Awami League government, led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, for tolerating Islamic fundamentalism.
“We fought for a secular state in 1971 but our government still patronizes madrassas,” Bappaditya Basu says. He’s the former president of Bangladesh’s Chatra Moitri, a student organization. “Sheikh Hasina plans to open 500 mosques all over the country. If you ally with the fundamentalists, how will you fight them?”
Basu was one of the main organizers of the Shahbag movement, and has found himself in the crosshairs of radicals on many occasions. “Fundamentalist forces have threatened me more than a thousand times,” he says. “In December, they threw bomb toward me but I escaped unhurt. I don’t fear for my life. We are a fighting nation. We have to save the country from turning into a place where Islamic radicalism rules.”
Basu is bitter that Hasina’s government, which represents secular forces in the country, patronizes Hefazat-e-Islam, a conglomerate of Islamist fundamentalist groups. That group was the main force organizing against the Shahbag movement. The killing of Ahmed Rajib Haider, a leading voice in that movement, is blamed on Hefazat.
These killings mirror Bangladesh’s history of violence. When East Pakistan was fighting for liberation from Islamabad, Jamaat-e-Islami, opposed to the move, indulged in target killing. The group killed thousands of civilians: artists, intellectuals, and anyone who advocated for secularism.
Bengali nationalism was the impetus for carving a separate nation from Pakistan. Muslims in Bangladesh consider themselves Bengali first and foremost. Islamic extremists hope to alter the fundamental character of the country.
Young men like Animesh Rahman and Bappaditya Basu are putting their lives on the line to save the soul and spirit of Bangladesh. They’re among the country’s last defenders of secularism.