The Nirmul Committee (Forum for Secular Bangladesh, UK) in association with the Swadhinata Trust was involved in the support of many bloggers and activists who had been attacked and threatened in the UK and elsewhere by religious fundamentalist groups. This has included legal and safety advice, casework, advocacy, and online advice and a directory of resources, available at: https://swadhinata.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/BangladeshiFreethinkersUnderThreat.pdf
This is a summary of an academic research article, ‘Words and violence: militant Islamist attacks on bloggers in Bangladesh and the UK’, recently published in Ethnic and Racial Studies, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01419870.2020.1828599
During the period 2013-2018, at least twelve secular bloggers and writers were brutally killed in Bangladesh, and several other murders were attempted. Those killed were targeted by groups linked with Al Qaeda or Islamic State, and they were targeted for attacks and harassment because of what they wrote in their blogs or social media posts. In Bangladesh and in Bangladeshi communities across Europe and north America, numerous other secular, humanist, gay and women’s rights activists were threatened. The killings and attacks were part of an international campaign of violent incitement by Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent and its Bangladeshi affiliate, the Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), both of which claimed responsibility for many of the killings. Other groups, including Islamic State and the Jamiatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), were involved in serious violence during the same period. Others, such as the Jamaat-e Islami Bangladesh and the Hefazat-e Islam, were involved in international campaigns of vilification and abuse against secular bloggers, writers and activists living in Bangladesh, UK, the US, Canada, Europe, India, Nepal and elsewhere.
Many Bangladeshi writers had previously faced threats from political Islamists, including Taslima Nasreen (who had to leave Bangladeshi in 1994) and the academic Humayun Azad, who was severely attacked in 2004 by the Jamiatul Mujahideen. The more recent murders of bloggers followed a different pattern and their context was the International Crimes Tribunal for Bangladesh (ICT-B) and its sentencing of individuals involved in the 1971 Bangladeshi genocide.
The ICT-B investigated crimes committed by political Islamist militia during the genocide, and it handed out life sentences to several key figures linked to the Jamaat-e-Islam political party or the opposition BNP-Jamaat-led alliance. These figures included Abdul Quader Mollah, a Jamaat-e- Islami politician and key leader in the Razakar militia during the genocide, who was charged with murder, rape and arson, and accused of killing over 340 civilians. Delwar Hossein Sayeedi, a Razakar organiser, was similarly charged with numerous crimes, including murder, rape and arson. Sayeedi had been a regular speaker at events in Britain at the invitation of the UK Jamaat-e-Islam. When Quader Mollah’s sentence of life imprisonment was announced in February 2013, he smiled and gave a victory sign outside the courthouse. His response was a key factor in the massive, spontaneous demonstration of half a million people in Dhaka’s Shahbag Square that demanded the death penalty for him.
The Shahbag demonstrations had developed independently of any political party but relied on young bloggers and activists on social media. The demonstrations represented a new secular-oriented and confident youth politics as part of a movement for people’s awakening and uprising (Gonojagoron Mancho). The movement emerged through independent blogging, creative use of social media, and independent youth activism. The new movement challenged directly the political uses of religion by political Islamists in Bangladesh.
The Jamaat-e-Islam and the massive Hefazat-e Islam targeted the Shahbag movement and portrayed it as ‘atheist’ and ‘blasphemous’. Demanding punishment of ‘atheist bloggers’, the Hefazat-e Islam claimed that ‘Islam was under threat’ with it being the ‘saviour’ or ‘protector’ of religion. The characterization of the Shahbag protestors, and therefore secular bloggers and activists, as ‘atheist’ became widespread, crossing from Jamaat-e-Islami and BNP supporters to the Hefazat-e Islam movement and to some Awami League supporters. The young, energetic mass movement that had emerged in Shahbag Square in 2013, and the related bloggers and activists were attacked from across the political spectrum and in numerous media reports as ‘atheists’ and ‘blasphemers’. They became isolated targets for the violence that was to come.
As the ICT-B changed several life sentences to death sentences, including that of Quader Mollah, the ferocity of the violence and the threats from political Islamists increased considerably. In March 2013, a list of 84 ‘atheist’ bloggers was being circulated. The origin of this list is not clear, but either the full list or parts of it were circulated widely on social media. Names of ‘atheist’ bloggers were also published in major Bangladeshi newspapers in letters or editorials. One newspaper named nine blogs that were ‘spreading propaganda’ against Islam. In 2015, the Ansarullah Bangla Team, issued a further ‘hitlist’ of bloggers and activists from across the world that it wanted killed. Alongside bloggers in Bangladesh, this list included nine bloggers and activists in the UK and others in north America. Another ‘hitlist’ of ten individuals was claimed to have come from Islamic State. Another ‘hitlist’ spread on Facebook and other social media had the names and photographs of the ‘Top Ten Nastik of UK’. Several other ‘hitlists’ related to Bangladesh or the diaspora were created and distributed in this period.
On 15 February 2013, the architect and secular blogger, Ahmed Rajib Haider was killed in a ferocious machete attack in Dhaka. The blogger Asif Mohiuddin was attacked in Dhaka a month before, but fortunately survived. In November 2014, the sociology professor and humanist from Rajshahi University, Shaiful Islam, was brutally killed. In February 2015, Avijit Roy and Bonya Ahmed, both US citizens and well-known writers and intellectuals of Bangladeshi origin, were leaving the Dhaka Book Fair and were viciously attacked by a group of men with machetes near the University of Dhaka buildings. Avijit Roy was killed and Bonya Ahmed was very seriously injured. In the same year, the writers and bloggers, Washiqur Rahman, Ananta Bijoy Das, Niloy Chatterjee and Faisal Arefin Dipan were killed in similar machete attacks. Several other humanist publishers and writers, including Ahmedur Rashid Chowdhury Tutul, were attacked that year but survived. In April 2016, the law student and blogger Nazimuddin Samad was killed in attack with machetes and guns. Within days of each other, the academic Rezaul Karim Siddique, and the gay rights activists, Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy were murdered. Another humanist blogger, Shahjahan Bachchu, was killed in June 2018.
In a ‘Message to the people of Bangladesh’ in early April 2013 by Al Qaeda’s official media wing, Al Qaeda attacked the bloggers and urged its followers to kill them. Al Qaeda issued a further video statement in early 2014 from Ayman al-Zawahiri in which he attacks ‘transgressing secularists who are heaping insults and vulgar abuses on Islam’. In 2015, Al Qaeda issued another video The Dust Will Never Settle Down: From France to Bangladesh, which celebrated the killing of six Bangladeshi bloggers. During 2015, Ansarullah Bangla Team released a series of statements that claimed responsibility for the murders of several bloggers, publishers and activists. While attacks against Hindu and other minorities have become common in Bangladesh, from 2015, Islamic State also started claiming responsibility for the killings of Buddhist, Hindu or Sufi individuals. This horrific period of violence culminated in an attack in July 2016 on customers of the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka by a group of five men armed with bombs, guns and machetes. Twenty-four people were killed in the attack and Islamic State claimed responsibility, but seven men from the violent Jamiat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh were later convicted and sentenced to death.
The murders in Bangladesh had a deeply emotional impact on secular bloggers and activists. Most of those interviewed knew several of the bloggers who had been tragically killed and they described the devastating impact of the deaths. The killings also had a strong impact on the rich, open intellectual online culture that had developed from the early 2000s in Bangladesh and its diaspora. The rationalist website Mukto-mona, initiated by Avijit Roy from 2001, was important in opening up spaces for debate and promoting rationalist, humanist and scientific ideas. Several other important Bengali and English blogging platforms were developed by teams based in Bangladesh and internationally. These sites created a dynamic intellectual environment for the open discussion of science and evolution, cosmology, astronomy, physics, biology, sexual minorities, and atheism.
The sites often resulted in debates between humanist bloggers and political Islamists, and they often led to threats. Bloggers described an environment from around 2006 – 2013 where they got ‘used’ to regularly receiving online threats from political Islamists. The investigations of the ICT-B from 2009 also drew many young people into blogging or commenting on Facebook about the Shahbag events and the ICT-B sentences. Many of these young people had no previous experience of political activism. Some of them found they were suddenly thrown into the often dangerous world of international religious politics.
While many individuals had received sustained online threats well before the Shahbag protests, the very violent context from spring 2013 resulted in increasingly more alarming death threats. After the ICT-B changed Quader Mollah’s sentence to death, the threats from political Islamists escalated in the UK, as they had internationally. One individual described receiving regular threats on Facebook. But in 2013, leaflets about him were found posted on walls or handed out to tube passengers in east London. The police initially did nothing, but later visited him at home and told him he was on a ‘hitlist’. Several other UK residents reported similar situations – they discovered they were on Al Qaeda or Islamic State ‘hitlists’ after receiving visits from the police.
Typically, secular bloggers were described as ‘nastik’ or ‘kafir’, and Hindu bloggers were called ‘malaun’. Women bloggers were targeted with sexual abuse, threats of sexual violence, and attempts to shame them in the community as ‘prostitutes’. In several cases, the police services did not take the threats seriously, though in some cases, individuals and their families were given alarm systems, security advice, or advised to move home. Police officers, whether in Bangladesh or the UK, often told bloggers to stop writing, a ‘blame the victim’ approach that would lead to what the political Islamists wanted – to silence dissent and criticism, and to avoid discussion of the genocide and the bringing of perpetrators to trial.
For several individuals living in the UK, their families and friends living in Bangladeshi were targeted for harassment and intimidation. One UK individual’s family were forced to disown him after several thousand people gathered outside his family’s home, burnt effigies of him, and seriously threatened the family’s safety. In another case, an individual settled in the UK had campaigns organised against him by political Islamists in his home town in an attempt to intimidate him in the UK. Another person’s father and sister were threatened in phone calls and in person. Threats to relatives and friends in Bangladesh were described by virtually all those interviewed, and the aim of the threats was to intimidate and silence an individual living in the West.
The motive for Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent was not simply to punish those opposing Al Qaeda’s ideology, but to intimidate and terrify all secular bloggers to stop them writing. The killings and attacks were undertaken by a small group, usually armed with machetes, and the killings intended to be public, brutal and cruel. Therefore, personal safety, especially for bloggers in Bangladesh, became extremely important, especially after the murders of Ahmed Rajib Haider in 2013 and Avijit Roy in 2015, both of whom were internationally known figures. Some bloggers went underground, or left Bangladesh and sought refuge in other countries. Many bloggers did stop writing and some blogs shut down for reasons of safety. In 2015 and 2017, several members of the ABT were arrested and received the death penalty for several of the murders of bloggers. Yet, even after the end of the ABT killings, other groups continued their attacks – the secular writer and publisher of poetry, Shahzahan Bachchu was brutally killed in Dhaka in 2018 and many other bloggers, writers, academics, intellectuals and activists continue to live under threat. Many bloggers and activists were also defiant in the face of threats to silence them. But the problem they faced was not simply the violence of groups like Al Qaeda, the Jamiatul Mujahideen and Islamic State, nor the well-organised ideological attacks by supporters of the Jamaat-e-Islam and Hefazat-e Islam within and outside Bangladesh. It was the consistent failure of official authorities in both Bangladesh and the UK that left the bloggers isolated and vulnerable.