Secularism is a battleground of contested visions of Bangladesh – the Islamic state, part of the Ummah, versus the modern nation-state – and it claimed another victim on 26 February. Avijit Roy, a Bangladeshi-born American bioengineer, secular activist and blogger, was hacked to death while walking with his wife after leaving the Ekushey book fair in Dhaka. He had long been receiving hate mail over his atheism, campaigning against fundamentalists through his website Mukto-Mona – what he called the first South Asian humanist and rationalist forum on the internet. Many supporters see his assassination as the fulfilment of years of Islamist threats. His wife was also attacked, losing a finger and sustaining head injuries.
Strange as it may seem now, secularism lies at the very heart of Bangladeshi politics. It was one of four guiding principles of the Bangladeshi constitution in 1972 (PDF), which stated: ‘The principle of secularism shall be realised by the elimination of Communalism in all forms; the granting by the state of political status in favour of any religion; the abuse of religion for political purposes; any discrimination against, or persecution of, persons practicing a particular religion.’ In 1977 Ziaur Rahman, the military ruler and president of Bangladesh, (and husband of current opposition leader Khaleda Zia) rewrote the constitution to enshrine the primacy of Islam. There followed a slow but steady process of Islamisation in the country with Bangladeshi nationalism redefined through the prism of Muslim identity, a process probably fuelled by the country’s stalled economic development. But in 2010 thesupreme court reinstated the principle of secularism to the constitution.
The ascendancy of militant Islamism has continued unabated, however, despite 2013’s protests by 500,000 progressive Bangladeshis in Dhaka’s Shahbag Square. As described in Commonwealth Update, the demonstrations were partly an enthusiastic response to the war crimes tribunal trying collaborators with Pakistan’s forces in the 1971 war of independence. Only one of the 11 on trial was not a member of Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh’s largest Islamist party. The writer Nick Cohen called Shahbag: ‘A grassroots uprising for the most essential and neglected values of our age: secularism, the protection of minorities from persecution and the removal of theocratic thugs from the private lives and public arguments of 21st-century citizens.’
The Islamists’ protests have partly come in the form of bombs and assassinations such as Roy’s. Bdnews24 noted that the attack ‘bore a striking similarity’ to one on the writer Humayun Azad in February 2004. Azad had also been leaving the Ekushey book fair when he was attacked with machetes by Islamist militants. He later died in Germany. Militants also hacked the blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider to death in a similar ambush near his home in Dhaka in February 2013.
Prof Ajay Roy, Avijit’s father, expressed his suspicions over some incidents in the lead-up to the brutal murder, especially over an informal meeting organised around his son at the book fair. He thinks his son might have been followed from the fair or others were tipped off about his route.
Raising suspicions that elements in the security forces were sympathetic to militant Islamism, his father accused the police of allowing the attackers to escape and said he was ‘not satisfied’ with the investigation, the Los Angeles Times reported. An adviser to the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, also weighed in, criticising the police response and called on the police chief to ‘identify the black sheep’ within the force whose loyalties were with the Islamists and bring them to justice. ‘It is unacceptable that the murder of Avijit took place right in front of the nose of police,’ said HT Imam.
The fact that Bangladesh has been under military rule for about 15 of the past 44 years since independence is significant. A paper written for the US Congress (PDF) in 2007 argued that the military’s desire for legitimacy had led them to ‘wrap themselves in the mantle of Islam’, creating new political space for Islamists. According to Sumit Ganguly, this ‘not only altered the terms of political discourse in Bangladesh but also helped fashion a new political culture that could accommodate a shift toward a more pristine, austere and parochial vision of Islam.’
That the Bangladeshi security forces to some extent accommodated militant Islamism is supported by the apparent impunity with which they carried out attacks on secular intellectuals.
The Daily Star reported in 2006 that a commander of the banned Islamist group Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh had reportedly confessed to attacking Azad outside the book fair in 2004 with a cleaver and killing another writer, Monir Hossain Sagar, in 2000, as well as attacks on four cinemas. Azad’s family called, to little avail, for an investigation into his death in 2009. The Daily Star wrote in 2004: ‘Although Azad came back apparently fully recovered and showing clear signs of rejuvenation, the last three months of his life was like living under the shadow of death. Anonymous callers kept threatening him and his family. Even an abduction attempt on his son was made.’
To list just some of the similar attacks, a Maasranga TV news editor, Sagar Sarwar, and his wife, ATN Bangla reporter Mehrun Nahar Runi, were found dead at their home in 2012. He had been stabbed 28 times. Asif Mohiuddin, another activist, was stabbed outside his house by a suspected Islamist militant in 2013. Shortly afterwardsAhmed Rajib Haider, a Dhaka-based blogger, was murdered in another similar attack. Most of these attacks remain unsolved.
The violence is very far from being one-sided and there have certainly been scores of other unexplained deaths. Thehuman rights organisation Odhikar has detailed the heightened levels of political violence, extrajudicial killings, lynchings and disappearances. Meanwhile, writing on Open Democracy, Mahin Khan criticised the western focus on Roy’s murder, characterising it as ‘championing illiberal liberals’. She said: ‘I am now forced to question whether the liberal western press is capable of equally championing human lives when they don’t fit a liberal, secular, western narrative. 143 souls have been brutally lost in Bangladesh’s unrest since January. How many had the dignity of international coverage?’
However, unlike the militant Islamists who openly called for his murder (such as Farabi Shafiur Rahman, who wrote on Facebook: ‘Avijit Roy lives in America and so it is not possible to kill him right now. He will be murdered when he comes back.’), it is unlikely that Roy would have his Islamist blogger counterparts slaughtered. Ahsan Akbar, a British-Bangladeshi writer, described Roy in the Guardian as a ‘gentle guy who wanted to promote science… Roy was sensitive to people’s beliefs and thought offending people was the wrong approach.’
Describing the founding mission of Mukto-Mona in a 2007 interview, Roy said: ‘Our aim is to build a society which will not be bound by the dictates of arbitrary authority, comfortable superstition, stifling tradition, or suffocating orthodoxy but would rather be based on reason, compassion, humanity, equality and science.’ It is a laudable principle – and one that he should not have had to die for.