The voices of extremism and violence infiltrating Bangladesh’s society have delivered a clear and frightening message: independent expressions on religious issues will not be tolerated.
A pattern of appalling attacks that began in 2013 and took the lives of four secular bloggers in 2015 shocked the nation and caught the attention of international media. The stream of violence reflects a forceful assault on freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression, theoretically enshrined in Bangladesh’s secular constitution and ratified international conventions.
The need for a clear counter-narrative to fundamentalism
If the values of a secular democracy are to be protected, fundamentalism must be met with a positive counter narrative from governing authorities. Unfortunately, in Bangladesh, neither political leaders nor members of the police force have succeeded in articulating a message of tolerance safeguarding the human rights and freedoms of its citizens.
On 8 August 2015, Niloy Chatterjee was the fourth blogger to be brutally murdered that year following the killings of Avijit Roy on 27 February 2015, Washiqur Rahman Babu on 30 March 2015 and Ananta Bijoy Das on 12 May 2015.
Commenting on Chatterjee’s case, Bangladesh’s police Inspector General, AKM Shahidul Hoque failed minority groups by refusing to condemn the actions of extremists:
“Those who are free thinkers and writers, I request them, please make sure that they don’t cross the line. Anything that might hurt anyone’s religious sentiments and beliefs should not be written.”
Challenged by many, defended by few
The wave of threats and sporadic attacks has led to the exile of many bloggers and social activists who are forced to seek asylum in fear of their lives. Pluralism and secularism are under threat in Bangladesh as the space for diversity and multitude of opinions is challenged by many and defended by few. On 15 February 2016 publisher, Shamsuzzoha Manik was arrested after he produced a book deemed offensive to Islam, another case that reveals the government’s accommodation of hard line Islamist groups (in this case Khelafat Andolon, who demanded the detention of the publisher).
In the face of extremism that threatens social order and the personal security of so many – who are often singled out in public threats – the government must respond with clarity and consistency. However, the ruling Awami League Party has remained worryingly ambiguous, a response neither protects nor reassures minorities living under fear of attack throughout the country.
Promise of protection remains unfulfilled
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was elected into office in 2014 on a manifesto pledging that ‘religious rights of every people would be ensured and the state would treat equally with every citizen irrespective of their religion, culture, gender and social status [sic].’ With these words, she assured minority communities that her term would secure them full protection and rights.
However, in recent months, the initially promising pledge has been coupled with contradictory warnings from the government that action would be taken against all who ‘hurt religious sentiment,’ as per the provisions provided in Section 295A of the Criminal Code and the oft misused Article 57 of the Information, Technology and Communication Act (2013).
Reservations in supporting free speech rights of minority groups
The Prime Minister’s son and advisor, Sajeeb Wazed, revealed to some extent the contradictory stance held by the Awami League when he admitted “we are walking a fine line here…we don’t want to be seen as atheists, it doesn’t change our core beliefs. We believe in secularism.” Fearful of perceptions from the broader audience in Bangladesh and the wider Islamic world, the government is allowing pressure from certain groups to take precedence over the security of individual lives and freedoms.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina must continue to encourage and protect the precious freedoms promised to her citizens in the Constitution of Bangladesh with constructive efforts to nurture an atmosphere of tolerance and healthy debate inclusive of a plurality of voices, views and visions.
By CSW’s Bangladesh Desk Officer