No space to say 'no': Bangladesh's Islamic militants are murdering dissent, secularism and hope

The recent spate of killings in Bangladesh have intensified the sense of uneasiness amongst critical thinkers in the country.

Naimul Karim April 27, 2016 11:34:11 IST
No space to say 'no': Bangladesh's Islamic militants are murdering dissent, secularism and hope

When compared to some of the other social media platforms in the country, Twitter isn’t that popular in Bangladesh. In fact, the website doesn’t even have an option that allows you to select a city from Bangladesh as your prime location in the ‘Trends’ section. The closest option you will get is Kolkata. However, for the last two days, #Dhaka has been trending worldwide and unfortunately, the city has been the focus of the world for all the wrong reasons. The manner in which the killings have taken place and those who were killed in the last four days have been hard to digest.

58-year-old English professor AFM Rezaul Karim Siddiquee from Rajshahi University, was merely a fan of music. He had setup his own music school and reportedly even donated to the renovation the mosque in his area. The peaceful man was slain while he was waiting to go to work on Saturday morning.

No space to say no Bangladeshs Islamic militants are murdering dissent secularism and hope

Relatives and friends attend the funeral prayer of Bangladeshi activist Xulhaz Mannan in Dhaka. AFP

A day later, a jail-guard in Gazipur was shot down in broad daylight by bike-riding criminals. And that very evening, a gang of five to six militants made their way into a Dhaka flat and killed Xulhaz Mannan, a USAID staff who had earlier worked as a protocol officer of former US ambassador Dan Mozena and his friend Mahbub Tonoy. Mannan was also an editor of a magazine named Roopbaan, a magazine that wrote on the LGBT community in Bangladesh. He was a well-known figure in the country’s LGBT community and also had a good connection with the US Embassy. These are facts that have further intensified the impact of the killing. "If a person of his stature can be taken down, what about the rest of the community?" an LGBT activist, who preferred to be anonymous, moaned.

His death has made a number of members of the community nervous. Hours after he was killed, another member of the magazine sent out a desperate e-mail to his contacts abroad stating that his life too was in danger and asked for help. His name had apparently been mentioned in a supposed hit list created by the fundamentalists. In a bid to stay untraced, he deleted his Facebook account as well. He was later asked to contact one of the embassies in the country. According to an LGBT activist, this was something that they preferred to do instead of directly contacting the law enforcement agencies.

There are a couple of reasons for that. For one, a number of them had a bad experience during the Rainbow Rally, which was scheduled to take place on 14 April, the day of the Bengali New Year. The rally was cancelled and a few of them were arrested as well. The rally had been conducted twice before and this was the first time that it wasn’t allowed to take place. And secondly, homosexuality is technically illegal in Bangladesh.

The recent killing has also compelled a number of individuals to take down their write-ups based on homosexuality and gender-based projects from the websites, in case the authors of these projects are targeted next.

No support from the government

It’s not just the members of the LGBT who have become highly cautious. The killings in the last week have led to renewed fears amongst writers and publishers who were threatened in the past. One of the reasons why the militants have managed to constantly continue their attacks, according to a number of writers, is because of the encouragement they receive from ‘confused’ statements made by the government. Following the killing of student activist Nazimuddin Samad in April this year, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on 14 April made a statement that accredited the reason of the killings to the write-ups of the victims and indicated that the government would not bear the responsibility of such killings.

No space to say no Bangladeshs Islamic militants are murdering dissent secularism and hope

A man holds a portrait of Bangladeshi professor Rezaul Karim Siddique. AFP

This was a statement that was criticised by several writers.

Maruf Rosul, a writer and an activist, also an atheist was one of them. Maruf received his first threat back in 2013 for his blogposts. His name was in a list 84 individuals that was released back then by militants. Ever since then he has been cautious regarding his daily activities and the recent killings have only compelled him to take stronger measures. According to him, in times like these, the government needs to apply stronger measures. “The rate at which all the cases of the killings since 2013 is progressing is very slow. And that’s just encouraging these militants to continue with their work...there have been lots of talks about the killing of Xulhaz Mannan and how he is an LGBT activist. But if you look at the killing beyond all that, you realise that these people just entered his house and killed him. An incident like that can scare anyone,” said Rosul. With a tinge of regret Rosul narrates how he has orchestrated his movements in the last three years. “I get calls and threats even today. I don’t receive any calls after 12 anymore because most of the calls I get are from abroad and they just call and threaten me. In a way, I have become used to this. The issue however, is that whenever I move from one place to another I am really scared. Whenever I leave the house, I call three people to come along with me. This cannot be a way to lead a life. I can’t always just be scared. And these are things that have forced me to apply a bit of self censorship in my writings online as well,” he added. “I am used to all this right now. But what hurts the most is that even my family is not spared. There are times when I hear people talking to my father about me and telling him to be careful as well. I know writers who have been asked by their landlords to leave just because of this issue,” said Rosul.

'Leaving the country is not an option'

“When killings like these take place, you do feel nervous. Mr Mannan was killed in his own house and that incident can make people question every aspect of security. It makes you realise that the current situation is not good,” he said. The publisher, who was first threatened back in November, has been moving with a gunman provided by the police since then. “I complained to the police immediately after I was threatened and they assessed my situation. Two weeks later I was assigned someone by them. He goes with me, no matter where I go,” he said. While the publisher admits that at times the current scenario can be quite intimidating, he however tries his best not to be negative.

No space to say no Bangladeshs Islamic militants are murdering dissent secularism and hope

Thousands of Bangladeshi hardline Islamists have rallied across the country against an "infidels'-initiated" move to scrap Islam as the state-religion in the Muslim-majority nation and booed the the government for not taking "sufficient actions" to stop "mockery" against Islam, religion of nearly 90 percent of the population of the country. AFP

“I believe that the key is not to be nervous. I am a publisher and I have to go about following my routine normally. If I do get nervous, then there’s no point of having a security,” he said. He has also never thought about leaving the country. “That is not an option,” he exclaimed. “The people who love me and those who I love, live here and leaving the country is not a solution. These are tough times and I have to deal with them over here,” he added. Rosul provided a similar reply when asked if he had any alternate plans. “The only alternative plan for us and my comrades is to leave the country because of these problems. Some of them have left, some of them are trying to go. I can go to Germany or England and stay there but ultimately that has no point. This is my country, and I won’t leave just because of a few militants. That’s my stand.

“I think what we need to do is become more unified. It has become clear now that it’s not just the bloggers who are being threatened. There are professors, writers, and even journalists who are being threatened. We have to be united and take a stand,” he said. While there are writers like Rosul and Imran H Sarker, who represents the bloggers, who have preferred to stay in Bangladesh, there are a number of others who have preferred to leave the country. Many of them though still hope to return to the country one day. Arannya Azad is one of them. Son of an extremely popular Bangladeshi writer, Humayun Azad, threats are nothing new to Arannya. His father used to write against fundamentalists and in 2004 assailants in Dhaka University attacked him. In August that year, he went to Germany for research and was found dead in his apartment.

His son, also a writer, received similar threats and left for Germany in June 2015.

No space to say no Bangladeshs Islamic militants are murdering dissent secularism and hope

26-year-old law student was murdered for criticising Islamists on social media, as hundreds of secular activists held a protest to demand action. AFP

“I never thought of leaving Bangladesh and coming to Germany. I always wanted to follow my father’s path and focus on my writing in Bangladesh. But honestly speaking I didn’t expect my life in Bangladesh to get so dangerous so quickly. “After the death of Ananta Bijoy (a blogger who was killed in May 2015) a fundamentalist group named Ansarullah Bangla Team declared on their website that I was going to be the next target. “I received many threats on Facebook. And then on June 3, they uploaded my picture and marked a cross sign on my photo. They even threatened to hang me at Dhaka University. I got really scared after that. “Ever since then I used to wear a helmet whenever I went outside and this was despite the fact that I didn’t ride a bike. I could be attacked at any time,” he recalls. “On June 5, while I was talking to some of my friends I noticed that four people were staring at me and on June 6, two people followed be all the way from university to my home. I purposely took a wrong path and they still followed me. “It’s difficult to explain how scared I was. I even stopped writing for a bit. But now I have started writing again,” he added.

Despite all this, Arannya wants to comeback to Bangladesh one day and follow in the footsteps of his father. “There is a place in Dhaka where the LGBT community tends to meet and I went there once. I met Mannan there and he was an extremely vivid character,” he recalls when asked about his interaction with Mannan. “Because he was the editor of a magazine, I used to talk to him regarding ideas.”

He was at a loss of words while speaking on Mannan’s death. “I don’t think anyone is completely safe. When they can enter your house and kill you, then there’s really no point talking about safety. Some are scared and they are leaving the country, others have stopped writing. “Everyone has to rise up and stand up against this militancy and if the government doesn’t take an initiative then none of this can be stopped,” he said. Writers and activists are worried that the militants are expanding their targets and that the recent killings are proof of that. “I think this was also inevitable. It’s not about the 'atheist bloggers' anymore. We have also seen murders of Sufi Muslims, Hindu priests, Christians and foreigners recently. With a self aware homosexual community in Bangladesh who have been very active with their social works during the past few years, it was just a matter of time they get targeted too,” explains Parvez Alam, a Bangladeshi writer and an activist.

“Any person who can be termed as a deviant in any way is at risk of such attacks right now in Bangladesh. Recent arrests of homosexual activists from the Pohela Boishakh rally also might have helped marking them as potential target for the terrorists,” he added. At the moment, the scenario remains a bit tricky. As Parvez puts it, “We are at a crossroads here. There’s no easy way out of this.” The problem in itself has many factors to it and it’s so deep that it could take ages to go to the root of it.
For now those representing the safety of the writers are urging the victims to unite and stay strong. A number of them are thinking of leaving the country.

Regardless of whatever the solution may be the one thing that’s certain is that the recent spate of killings have intensified the sense of uneasiness amongst them.

The author is a staff-reporter for The Daily Star, a national English daily based in Dhaka, Bangladesh 

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