Bangladesh was fortunate to have quickly adopted the culture of blogging at a time when internet usage was not widespread. In the following years, Bangladesh’s bloggers and blogging in the country have witnessed the worst of times. Islamic chauvinist vigilantes painstakingly browsed blogs and earmarked names of bloggers whom they identified as ‘blasphemous’ and ‘anti-Islam’. Indeed, the wrath of deshi jehadis surfaced as soon as the blog revolution was sparked off in December 2005.
This year three bloggers were hacked to death with machetes by fanatics. Bloggers were intimidated, some were jailed, while several bloggers and cartoonists fled the country.
They fell victim to Islamists conducting a mockery of jehad against free-thinkers, more specifically atheists who are vocal on social media and write eloquently about religion, orthodoxy, Islamic theology and Prophet Mohammed. The nation has witnessed massive protests demanding that bloggers be hanged and silenced. We have also seen the draconian Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Ordinance passed in parliament, under which offending bloggers can be jailed for up to 14 years.
A culture of freedom of expression and tolerance of dissent would be difficult to ensure in Bangladesh.
For non-Muslims, Bangladesh is not an ideal place for practising the fundamental right of religious freedom. There are frequent news of suffering among Hindus, Buddhists, and indigenous peoples. Religious intolerance has sent deep roots into our society, and now we are experiencing its bitter, extreme fruits. We live in a country where, ironically, the constitution champions secularism, but society as a whole rejects it. Our democracy faces a grave challenge. Freedom of expression and tolerance of dissent is eroding and would be difficult to ensure in a highly polarised country like Bangladesh. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, despite wearing a secular hat, has used religion to annihilate and purge her opponents as well as critics within the ruling party. Hasina dismissed telecom minister Abdul Latif Siddique for being critical of her son Sajeeb Wazed Joy, who is ICT advisor to the PM. Later, Siddique was accused of blasphemy but the high court granted him bail.
Blogger Syeda Gulshan Ferdous Jana, co-founder of somewhereinblog.net, the first social media outfit in Bangladesh which boasts of a net community of over 1,60,000 bloggers, says that the Bangla blogger is not a person but the collective voice of thousands of Bangladeshis of all hues.
In 2013, during the Shahbag Square agitations for secularism, two bloggers were brutally attacked. Asif Mohiuddin was attacked by four radical youths. Luckily, he survived. But another blogger, Ahmed Rajib Haider, was not so fortunate. He was hacked to death in February 2013. All three of them were listed as ‘atheists’ and ‘anti-Muslim’ in the public domain. Blogger Washiqur Rahman Babu, who was murdered by extremists in March 2015, wrote: “Mullahs have freedom, extremists have freedom, apologists have freedom, but free-thinkers do not have freedom.”
Washiqur’s death came a month after Avijit Roy, an atheist and co-founder of the blog Mukto Mona (free-thinkers), known for its anti-establishment views, was hacked to death. As if this was not enough, Ananta Bijoy Das, a Mukto Mona blogger, was killed similarly in May. The Daily Observer in an editorial condemned this, and likened the murdered bloggers to the ‘Young Bengal’ group in 19th-century Calcutta, which stood against religious orthodoxy and narrow prejudice. To protect its spokespersons of secularism from the raised machetes of unreason, Bangladesh needs to do more.
Saleem Samad is a journalist, media practitioner and micro-blogger; E-mail your columnist: saleemsamad [AT] gmail [DOT] com