In February, Bengali-American blogger, Avijit Roy, was hacked to death and his wife was injured during a visit to a literary fair in Bangladesh. Roy had raised the ire of Islamists for his Bill Maher-esque anti-religious writings on his website, Mukto Mona, which means free mind.
Extremists in Bangladesh, according to CNN, resented Roy’s criticism of religion and threatened to kill him if he came home from the United States to visit. Despite the arrest of Farabi Shafiur Rahman, who has previously been jailed for his ties to the international Islamist group Hizbut Tahrir, the group Ansar Bangla-7, took credit for Roy’s murder soon after the incident by allegedly tweeting, “Target down in Bangladesh.”
Apparently, free speech is a threat to Islamists in Bangladesh. In the absence of blasphemy laws, Islamists have no avenue to censor criticism of their platform legally. Resorting to direct violence will result in political parties being shut down. As a result, it is alleged that Islamist parties are greenlighting attacks against critics by militant groups in the country, of which Ansar Bangla-7 is simply one. Besides Roy, this has resulted in the murder of Ahmed Rajib Haider in 2013, and more recently, Washiqur Rahman as well.
The recent spate of violence against bloggers is not new. Humayun Azad, survived an attack more than 10 years ago - on February 27, 2004 – only to succumb to his injuries a few months later in Germany.
Governmental flip-flopping has contributed to the rising confidence of pro-Islamist militants in Bangladesh. In 2013, four secular bloggers were arrested for “hurting the religious sentiments” of the country’s Muslims on the heels of blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider’s murder. The arrests were followed days later by an Islamist rally demanding blasphemy laws in the country.
Yet, months later, seven leaders of one of the country’s largest Islamist parties, the Jamaat-i-Islami, were tried for war crimes committed during the country’s fight for independence from Pakistan in 1971. The trials concluded with multiple convictions, including that of Jamaat party leader Abdul Quader Mollah. Mollah was given a life sentence until the public demanded not only death, but a complete ban of the Jamaat-i-Islami party during a peaceful month-long rally now referred to as the Shahbag Awakening.
Despite criticism that the war crime trials were an opportunistic pre-election ploy by the secular Sheikh Hasina government to remain in power, it is possible that the government was afraid to make a direct statement supporting the free speech rights of secular bloggers over the Islamist push for a blasphemy law. As a result, the war crimes trials may have been an attempt to de-legitimize the Islamist party indirectly.
This raises the fundamental issue of free speech against a backdrop of rising Islamism globally; and more specifically, the debate over how to defend free speech not only in Muslim-majority countries like Bangladesh, but wherever Islamists have attacked critics of political Islam, like France and the U.K.
Bangladesh, for one, must set a standard for acceptable behavior by its citizens by enforcing free speech rights directly. More importantly, the government has a duty to foster a society where one does not feel his or her faith is threatened simply if another does not agree with a particular aspect of it. Otherwise, Islamists will continue to control the narrative.
Islamists are globally politicizing Muslim identity under one narrow and fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. They have global support through a variety of networks that provide the means to indoctrinate others, money, and arms. Apolitical Muslims, progressive Muslims, minorities and human rights activists of all shades, on the other hand, remain disconnected, and by believing in democracy, cannot resort to vigilantism – they must rely on the rule of law for protection and support.
Countering extremism requires strict law enforcement as a first step. More importantly, truly countering extremism requires inculcating values such as tolerance in societies where accusations of “hurt feelings” abound, and governments that do not appease the “victim” because it fears the possibility of violence.