In the past year, four secular bloggers have been hacked to death in broad daylight in Bangladesh, while many other writers including poets and journalists have received death threats. These violent killings highlight the serious threat to freedom of expression that persist within Bangladesh and needs to be addressed.
Bangladesh was established as a secular state in 1971, however 89.7% of the population are Muslim. There is ongoing tension between Bangladesh’s secularists who want to maintain the country’s tradition of separating religion and state, and the Islamists who want to establish an Islamic state. While Bangladesh’s authorities have arrested several suspects thought to be responsible for these attacks, none have been punished as of yet. The Bangladesh government doesn’t seem to be doing much to protect secular bloggers. Indeed, the Bangladesh government has even arrested and jailed a number of secular bloggers for “defaming Islam.”
Niloy Neel, formally known as Niloy Chatterjee, is the fourth and most recent blogger murdered. On August 6th, a group of men armed with machetes broke into his flat in the capital, Dhaka and hacked him to death. Neel was a critic of religious fundamentalism and extremism which put him on the target list of Islamist militants. Prior to his death, Neel had received many death threats from Islamist radicals. When he took the case to local authorities however, his complaint was never taken seriously. Ansarullah Bangla Team, an al-Qaeda inspired Islamic extremist group in Bangladesh later claimed responsibility for the killing and warned of more to come.
Two years ago, Islamist hardliners tried to get the government to adopt a blasphemy law that would jail those whom criticized Islam or God. The four men that were killed this year were part of a list of 84 “atheist bloggers,” drawn up by Islamic groups and widely circulated around the country. At first the aim of the list was to get the government to arrest the 84 bloggers and charge them with blasphemy. Ever since, death threats to secular bloggers have been on the rise and protection from government authorities remains non-existent.
Unlike other countries in the region such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, Bangladesh has never been a centre for terrorism. However Islamic militancy is on the rise in Bangladesh with both home-grown militant groups and international ones, including al-Qaeda. In the past Bangladeshi authorities had made it difficult for Islamist groups to establish themselves within the country. The rise in the number of attacks on secular public figures is proving that the government needs to implement more stringent counter terrorism strategies.
Three of four of these four murdered bloggers notified authorities that they were being followed or had been receiving threats and feared for their lives, however no action was ever taken to protect them. Hundreds of secular activists have protested and made calls for justice, and it is clear that the government needs to do more. The authorities have certainly made arrests, but there is a clear danger to secularists in Bangladesh, who are being identified, tracked and targeted. These murders attack free speech and ferment fear, and the Bangladesh government needs to make it clear that attacks on freedom of religion and expression will not be tolerated. The government must counter violent extremism to ensure that these attacks do not become the norm in the country.