Last week a secular activist and blogger, Nazimuddin Samad, was hacked to death in Bangladesh. His death follows a trend begun last year when several atheist bloggers were murdered as a result of their writing. The incident is troubling and in the one act ties together several complex issues of religion, terrorism and free speech.
Modern Bangladesh first appeared during the partition of India after independence from Britain in 1947. Originally East Pakistan, the region fought for and won independence in 1971. Despite being a country with a large Muslim majority, Bangladesh has always been more cosmopolitan than other countries in the region. Due in part to shared cultural links with neighbouring Indian states like West Bengal and its proximity to South-East Asia, there are significant communities of Hindus, Buddhists and Christians in Bangladesh and the country is officially secular. Into this melting pot, two newer groups have been poured over the last twenty years. On one side there is the blogger, able to reach out to a wide audience with intellectual think-pieces on the nature of secularism; on the other the slow trickle of extremist al-Qaeda sympathisers who are willing to take drastic action of any perceived slight to their ideology.
Nazimuddin Samad was hacked at in the street by at least four assailants, one of whom then shot him. This incident is reminiscent of a spate of seemingly targeted killings last year. Between February and August 2015 four bloggers – Avijit Roy, Washiqur Rahman Babu, Ananta Bijoy Das and Niloy Neel – were murdered in similar circumstances. The case of Neel is particularly indicative of the way these attacks play out. He reported to police that he had been followed home in the days leading up to his death, but these reports were never followed up. Whilst these bloggers are often described at secular or atheist and those descriptions are probably completely accurate, many of the comments of Neel and others feel fairly measured. This wasn’t the smug self-surety of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, nor are we talking about cartoons of the Prophet here. The main thrust of their writing was simply a denouncement of extremism, a repudiation of radical beliefs. The same sentiments which we might expect any politician or newspaper to offer were enough to get these men killed.
In Neel’s case Ansar al-Islam, a local offshoot of al-Qaeda, claimed responsibility for the attack. The police have suggested that that the other attacks, as well as the murders of a Christian pastor and two Sufi instructors or pirs, bear similar hallmarks and may have been carried out by the same group. The possibility remains that these are instead copycat attacks and indeed the police have been quick to implicate other Islamist groups such as Jamaat-ul Mujahideen and Ansarullah Bangla Team in the assaults. Whoever is behind the attacks, one thing for sure is that they bear the hallmarks of terrorism. What we think of as terrorism are the large-scale attacks with high body counts. 9/11, Bali, Mumbai in 2008 all stick in our minds but the terror caused, while widespread, is arguably short-lived. People were flying on 9/12 and Bali and Mumbai remain vibrant international hubs. These lone killings, however, are just as much an act of terror as any. Their extremely targeted nature make them much more terrifying for the small group of people being persecuted. That kind of fear would follow you every time you left the house. When you factor in the fact that radicals asked the interior ministry to punish a list of 84 writers in 2013 and that several people on that list are now dead, the situation must be incomprehensibly bad.
Despite all the finger-pointing, no-one has yet been prosecuted for any of these killings. This week, after the murder of Nazimuddin Samad brought these ugly scenes back to the streets of Dhaka, Bangladeshi students protested at what they saw as the inaction of the authorities to prevent this kind of attack. They blamed the police, not only for failing to protect bloggers such at Niloy Chatterjee whose reports of being followed went unheeded, but also for giving succour to whoever wishes to continue these attacks by not bringing anyone to justice over them, thus suggesting these people can murder with impunity. The students were also angry at their government for not doing more to prevent the attacks. Indeed, the Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina was rather unhelpful when she used her remarks on the killings last year to blame her opposition Bangladesh National Party for the attacks. Hasina, it is worth noting, is only Prime Minister because all the opposition parties boycotted the 2014 general election and over half the seats in parliament were uncontested.It seems somehow trite to attempt to empathise with people who literally risk their lives to speak out against injustices they see. We didn’t set out writing this blog to make friends and maybe we thought we had some wrongs to right in the world. We’ve said worse things about less deserving people. We can pretend to operate with the same sense of purpose, the same daring nature as the bloggers in Bangladesh. But we don’t have to fear the potential for reprisals, short of a sarcastic retweet. We can’t really compare ourselves to people who lay everything on the line to make their voices heard.
There’s always a line to tread between free speech and hate speech. In America, the same constitutional protections that allow Donald Trump to call Mexicans drug dealing rapists and allow state to roll back anti-discrimination laws under the guise of religious expression also allow people to burn the American flag and complain about the content of the Bible. Elsewhere in the world, the laws covering hate speech are often rolled into ones dealing with blasphemy. Whilst it may come as no surprise that countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia take a dim view of blasphemy, it might be more surprising to find out that under these conditions countries like Germany and New Zealand have prison sentences ready for potential blasphemers.
Many will continue to argue what limitations should be put on free speech and whilst I believe we should always err on the side of free speech, what we all should agree on it that no-one should ever die for saying what they think.