Islamist threat

Print edition : June 10, 2016

A student with a photograph of Prof. A.F.M. Rezaul Karim Siddique, at a rally in Dhaka on April 29. Siddique was hacked to death on his way to work on April 23. Photo: AP

BANGLADESH has seen a surge in violent attacks on liberal activists over the past few years. The rise in extremist attacks on secular writers, bloggers, publishers and professors was first noticed in 2013 when a war crimes tribunal convicted a Jamaat-e-Islami leader, and a secular youth uprising was in sight in Dhaka demanding harsh penalties for the convicted, with some calling for a ban on the Jamaat, which had violently opposed the nation’s independence.

A number of militant groups, including the Islamic State (I.S.), Al Qaeda and the Ansarullah Bangla Team, have claimed responsibility for the attacks, calling the victims “atheists” and “enemies of Islam”. Four bloggers were killed last year. University teachers, foreigners, religious leaders, and members of minority groups such as Shias, Hindus, Christians and Buddhists were also brutally killed.

Months ago, a group calling itself “Defenders of Islam” published a “hit list” of 84 Bangladeshis, mostly secularists; nine people on the list have been reportedly killed and others have been attacked.

The police have arrested a number of suspects in the killings. (A Reuters report said that a member of a banned militant group, the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen, has been arrested for the murder of Rezaul Karim Siddique, a professor of English in the University of Rajshahi. Siddique was hacked to death by unidentified assailants on April 23 this year, and the I.S. claimed responsibility. According to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jehadist websites, the I.S. killed him for promoting atheism. But investigations revealed Prof. Siddique was neither an atheist nor an activist, but a simple man who loved teaching and cultural activities.) A number of secularist bloggers have also been arrested for “defaming Islam” and several websites have been shut down. Many civil society leaders have criticised the government for failing to protect its citizens and condemn the attacks unequivocally. Many fear that the repeated attacks on freethinkers will lend credence to the view that the values of diversity, tolerance and freedom of conscience, which Bangladesh has cherished since independence, are now under challenge. Undoubtedly, the unabated murders not only silence the victims but also send a chilling message to all who espouse independent views on social and religious issues. On April 25, two days after the murder of Siddique, Xulhaz Mannan and his friend were stabbed to death in Dhaka. Mannan was a gay rights activist, editor of Bangladesh’s first LGBT magazine, and an employee of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The I.S. claimed responsibility for this attack also.

A 75-year-old Buddhist monk, Mongsowe U Chak, was hacked to death in a temple in Chittagong Hill Tracts in early May. In the last week of April, a Hindu tailor, Nikhil Joardar, was hacked to death in Tangail, allegedly by Islamist radicals. Inspector General of Police A.K.M. Shahidu Haq said terror groups had carried out nearly 37 attacks across the country in the last three years. He, however, claimed success in containing such attacks. More than 20 people—secular writers and bloggers, professors, members of religious minorities and two foreigners—have been killed in attacks blamed on Islamist militants since 2013. The murders of an Italian and a Japanese national last October added a new dimension to the problem and raised more security-related questions. In many of the attacks, the victims were hacked with machetes, and in some cases they were beheaded.

Though secular and atheist bloggers and writers were targeted initially, now militants seem to be widening their list of targets. This reflects increasing radicalisation in the Bangladesh polity, though there is no visible sympathy for the killers or their ideals among the majority of the population.

The government has been disputing the claims made by so-called Islamic State or Al Qaeda-linked groups for the attacks. They blame local Islamists, backed by opposition parties for the murders that are presumably intended to destabilise the country. While the government says there is no organisational presence of the I.S. in Bangladesh, many security experts say that there are many local extremist groups that share the same ideology.

In October last year, attackers attempted to slit the throat of a Christian pastor in Bangladesh’s northern region. The police arrested five members of the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen for the attempted murder. A Sufi religious leader was slaughtered at his home in Dhaka.

Police investigations into these murders have made little headway. In only one case—the murder of blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider in 2013—has anyone been convicted. In fact, in many cases the police have been unable to identify the culprits. For instance, it has been more than a year since the writer Avijit Roy was hacked to death in Dhaka, but no one has been convicted. Many analysts believe the police are not taking the investigation seriously. In early April, the law student Nazimuddin Samad was attacked with a machete and then shot in the head. He was known for criticising Islamic fundamentalism in social media. Experts suggested that the government should formulate a proper strategy to deal with the rising threat posed by Islamist radicals.

Haroon Habib