WRITER Ananya Azad, a young man who fears the growing interweaving of religion and politics in Bangladesh, knows his turn could come next.
The murder of the second secularist blogger in less than a month – hacked to death in the streets of the capital earlier this week – made it clear he wasn’t safe.
“Any time, they can hit me or my like-minded friends,” said Azad, a 25-year-old blogger who has written pieces critical of Islamic fundamentalism and politics driven by religion.
He quit his job as a newspaper columnist and stopped writing blogs in recent months after receiving numerous threats, but still posts critical comments on Facebook.
Azad is thinking about fleeing the country and spends much of his time indoors these days.
“They don’t hesitate to kill in the name of their beliefs,” he said. “I’m an easy target for the fanatics.”
My friends don’t see a Bangladesh where free thought will be protected
Bangladesh, a majority Muslim nation long seen as insulated from the most fervent strains of militant Islam, has seen that reputation crack amid an increasingly bloody divide between secular bloggers and conservative Islamist groups.
In many ways, the divide is clear: the bloggers want authorities to ban religion-based politics while the Islamists are pressing for blasphemy laws so that nobody can undermine Islam’s holy book, the Prophet Muhammad or basic pillars of being a Muslim.
In a crowded nation of 160 million whose recent political history has been dominated by a bitter power struggle that regularly spills into street violence, many fear that religion could further destabilise the situation.
Islam is Bangladesh’s state religion but the country is governed by secular laws based on common law, a legacy of British rule. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has repeatedly said she will not give in to religious extremism, yet over the last decade or so, extreme interpretations of Islam have steadily gained ground here.
“These attacks are not stray incidents,” said Abdur Rashid, a retired army general and expert on national security. “They are well planned and strings are being pulled in some quarters eager to control the future of Bangladesh.”
He believes Islamist political parties are orchestrating the attacks to further polarise the country and expand their influence.
“Some political parties, which have a distant desire to come to power in Bangladesh, are either directly or indirectly connected with this radicalisation process,” he said.
The past weeks have seen a spike in radical attacks. Prominent Bangladeshi-American blogger and writer Avijit Roy was hacked to death by unidentified attackers in late February while out walking with his wife. He bled to death while his wife, also a blogger, was critically injured.
Roy was an atheist who promoted secularism through his blog, books and newspaper articles. A previously unknown Muslim militant group, Ansar Bangla 7, claimed responsibility for the attack.
And on Monday, Washiqur Rahman Babu, 27, was attacked in daylight as he left his house. Unlike Roy, who had been on the radar of radical Islamists and had regularly received death threats, Babu was a low-profile online activist.
Still, his Facebook page includes a cartoon depicting the Prophet from the French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo, and he had openly questioned writings in the Koran.
Two of the three men believed to have attacked Babu were caught by passers-by and handed over to the police. A third man fled the scene. The two captured men are students at local madrasas. They told police they neither knew Babu nor his writings.
Instead, they said a fourth man had showed them Babu’s photographs and writings, then asked them to kill him. They followed the instructions, they said, because they believed it was their duty as Muslims, according to police.
Islamist political parties have denied any involvement in the killings. Writing has never been a particularly safe profession in Bangladesh. Azad’s father was attacked a decade ago for his writings against Muslim extremism, and journalists are often targeted by political thugs.
Bangladesh ranks 146 out of 180 countries on the press freedom index of the group Reporters Without Borders.
The attacks come as Bangladesh grapples with an ongoing political standoff over last year’s contentious elections boycotted by the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its allies.
The opposition has staged violent protests and shut down roads with an often-bloody transportation strike.
For more than a decade, Bangladeshi politics have been dominated by battles for power between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, who heads the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Media reports say radical Muslim groups have compiled lists of bloggers and writers they view as anti-Islam. Azad, who regularly meets with others concerned about the rise of fundamentalism, says his name is on some of the lists.
“Fundamentalists glorify Allah but they think nothing about lying. When I try to stand for truth they want to kill me,” he said on a 12 March Facebook post.
Many of those under threat, including Azad, demand the banning of Jamaat-e-Islami, a key ally of the Nationalist Party. Azad has also called for a senior Jamaat-e-Islami leader to be executed for his role in war crimes during Bangladesh’s bloody war of independence in 1971.
“I can’t rely on the system for my protection,” he said. “We are frustrated, my friends don’t see a liberal Bangladesh where free thought will be encouraged and protected.”
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