Assault on reason

Print edition : March 30, 2018

Muhammad Zafar Iqbal, a science fiction writer and educationist, at Sylhet MAG Osmani Medical College after being stabbed on the university campus on March 3. Photo: AFP

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. She has condemned the attack. Photo: REUTERS

A protest against the attack on Zafar Iqbal, in Dhaka on March 3. Photo: MOHAMMAD PONIR HOSSAIN/REUTERS

The attack in Sylhet on Muhammad Zafar Iqbal, revered for his role in popularising science education, is of a piece with the violent targeting of progressive intellectuals in the country in recent years.

MUHAMMAD ZAFAR IQBAL, one of Bangladesh’s best-known science fiction writers and an outspoken educationist, was stabbed multiple times by a young man on March 3 when he was attending a function on the Shahjalal University of Science and Technology campus in north-eastern Sylhet, where he teaches.

The assailant, aged about 25 and identified as Foyzur Rahman, attacked the professor from behind with a sharp weapon, causing multiple injuries on his head and other parts of the body. A writer revered by students across the country, Prof. Iqbal was flown to Dhaka, the capital, by an air ambulance and admitted to Combined Military Hospital (CMH) on the directives of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. He was out of danger, said Major General Munshi Md Mojibur Rahman, chief cardiac surgeon and consultant surgeon general of Bangladesh Armed Forces, on March 4.

The lone attacker, who was caught red-handed by students and teachers attending the function, later told the Rapid Action Battalion on interrogation that he considered Zafar Iqbal “an enemy of Islam”. The suspect claimed he acted alone. Law enforcers, however, do not buy his claim and believe that he must be involved with a radical group. An investigation has been launched. A number of freethinkers, professors, bloggers and publishers have been attacked and killed in recent years for speaking up against fanaticism and fundamentalism.

Zafar Iqbal was a critic of the Jamat-e-Islami, which had opposed Bangladesh’s breaking away from Pakistan. The party was linked to mass killings and rapes during the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. Zafar Iqbal, who frequently received death threats over his outspoken views against militancy, extremism and communalism, was under police protection from 2015.

Militant link

Foyzur Rahman, was a madrasa student who did not continue his studies after passing the Dakhil exam. His father, Atiqur Rahman, a madrasa teacher, and mother, Minara Begum, surrendered to the police, who later detained his uncle for interrogation.

According to counterterrorism officers, Foyzur appears to be a trained operative, most possibly linked to the banned militant outfit Ansar al Islam. The attack matched the pattern seen earlier in the group’s missions, they said. The weapon used for the attack was a commando knife. Similar knives were seized earlier from the outfit’s dens, said an officer who is part of the investigations.

Previously known as Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), Ansar al Islam began gaining strength in 2013-14 and started selecting targets by monitoring social media and hacking its chosen targets to death. The government banned the outfit in 2015, but the radical group claimed responsibility for 13 attacks in which 11 individuals, including writers and bloggers, a publisher and two LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) activists, were killed. Iqbal was among the 15 eminent persons mentioned in Ansar al Islam’s hit list recovered by law enforcers in 2017. Another hit list recovered by the police in 2016 from a JMB den in Bogra also contained his name.

Ansar al Islam was active mostly in cyberspace, attracting potential radicals, the police said.

Crime unpunished

Militancy in the name of religion is not new in Bangladesh. From the stabbing and eventual death of the writer and teacher Humayun Azad to a slew of killings of bloggers, journalists, professors, authors and activists, there have been many attacks on free speech, and the space for freethinking has been shrinking at a terrifying rate. Ever since a hit list of secularists was published in 2013, fringe Islamist groups have made it known that bloggers and secular activists who speak out in favour of atheism will be under threat. Avijit Roy, a Bangladeshi-American blogger, was killed in Dhaka in 2015 by a group of assailants wielding cleavers. His wife was also grievously injured in the attack. Washiqur Rahman, a 27-year-old blogger, was murdered outside his Dhaka home weeks after Roy’s death. Ananta Bijoy Das, another popular blogger, was murdered in Sylhet. Niloy Neel, also a blogger, was murdered in his apartment. Nazimuddin Samad, a freethinking university student, was killed by suspected Islamist militants. Five secular bloggers were killed in separate attacks in 2015.

The seed of militancy was planted by the Pakistani authorities in 1971. While fighting a losing war, the Pakistani military command formed a number of armed gangs called Razakar, Al Badr and Al Shams, which recruited young men to fight the freedom fighters. After the emergence of Bangladesh in December 1971, as many as 93,000 Pakistani soldiers surrendered in Dhaka, but the gangs they had formed did not. In the changed political environment following the 1975 assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the country’s founding father, these auxiliary forces of the Pakistan Army got a new lease of life.

Bangladesh saw a planned rehabilitation of anti-liberation forces in the post-1975 era. The period also saw the rise of total antipathy towards secular Bengali nationhood, which was the basis on which the liberation war of 1971 was fought. Even people responsible for the worst war crimes in 1971 were rehabilitated in politics by military rulers such as General Ziaur Rahman and General H.M. Ershad, and Begum Khaleda Zia. These “deafened forces of 1971”, according to many social thinkers, worked out a strategy to fight a longer war against the Bangladesh state by creating Islamist militant groups who were blessed by their external mentors. They began acting with a vengeance against secular intellectuals and freethinkers whom they considered to be “enemies of Islam”. It may be noted that scores of prominent secular intellectuals—philosophers, educationists, journalists and doctors—were slaughtered by the Pakistani military in collusion with their local fundamentalist operatives at the fag end of the nine-month-long war. Bangladesh’s most renowned poet, Shansur Rehman, whose poems are fondly recited at every Bengali function, was attacked by fanatics in his Dhaka home in 1999. The case remained unsolved because of the absence of witnesses.

Humayun Azad was critically injured in an attack on the Dhaka University campus in 2004. Faisal Arefin Dipon, a progressive publisher, was among the many victims in recent years. In all these cases, there has been no substantial progress in bringing the attackers to book.

Bangladesh has also seen a series of attacks on Westerners and minority religious leaders in recent years in the northern and western regions of the country. The gravest one was the Holi Artisan bakery siege in Dhaka in July 2016, when militants killed more than 22 people including Italians, a Japanese and an Indian. The incident proved that even youngsters from wealthy families with a Western education, and not just madrasa students, were susceptible to jehadi propaganda.

The Sheikh Hasina government is firm about stopping militancy and terrorism. Militant hideouts are raided regularly and militant operatives have died in encounters. But as the attack on Iqbal shows, militancy exists.

As after every previous attack, civil society protested after the attack on Iqbal. The love and respect he commands was evident in the condemnation of the attack by intellectuals, writers, professors, students and readers. They expressed the view that Iqbal was attacked by fundamentalist forces because his writings and thoughts harmed their interests. The urged the government to bring the attackers to book. Editorials in leading newspapers called Iqbal a “voice of reason”. However, hatred for the professor and the views he stands for was also evident on social media.

It is crucial to understand that the attack on Iqbal and others are not only attacks against the freedom of expression and thought but also part of a coordinated attempt to cripple Bangladesh’s secular intelligentsia, which plays a crucial role in preserving and strengthening the secular polity of the nation. The war on militancy in Bangladesh cannot be won easily: its roots are both local and external.

Strict vigilance by both law enforcers and civil society as well as effective preventive measures are needed to combat such terror. Bangladeshi society needs effective steps of deradicalisation, promotion of tolerance and acceptance of multiplicity of opinions.

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