Secularism in Bangladesh under attack


Being an atheist in Bangladesh can be perilous living as has been attested by the killings of atheist bloggers in recent years by religious extremists. A new study has now revealed that doubt and suspicion about atheists may be much more deep seeded and ingrained in the life of the average Bangladeshi as well.

Timeline of attacks on bloggers in Bangladesh

January 14, 2013 – Atheist blogger Asif Mohiuddin, is attacked by a group of unidentified young men with machetes in the capital Dhaka.

Mohiuddin is arrested in April 2013 along with three other secular bloggers for “hurting religious sentiments”. He moves to Germany.

February 15, 2013 – Secular blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider, who campaigned against Islamist leaders accused of war crimes, is hacked to death by machete-wielding attackers near his home in Dhaka’s Pallabi neighbourhood.

A court sentences two students to death for his murder in December 2015.

February 26, 2015 – American-Bangladeshi writer Avijit Roy and his wife Rafida Ahmed are attacked in Dhaka. Roy dies and his wife is severely wounded.

March 30, 2015 – Secular blogger Washiqur Rahman is hacked to death near his home in Dhaka. Two of the attackers, both students at an Islamic seminary, are arrested.

May 12, 2015 – Secular blogger Ananta Bijoy Das, founder of the Science and Rationalist Council, is hacked to death near his home in Sylhet.

August 7, 2015 – Secular blogger Niloy Chakrabarti, who wrote online under the pen name Niloy Neel, is hacked to death in his home in Dhaka.

October 31, 2015 – Publisher Faisal Arefin Dipan, 43, who published a bestselling book by murdered writer Avijit Roy, is killed at his office in a market in central Dhaka.

Being Atheist

A survey entitled Formulation of Research-based Recommendations for Public and Private Sector Stakeholders to Counter Religious Extremism in Bangladesh, conducted by Dhaka-based The Growth Institute for the British High Commission sought to understand the manner in which people view the importance of free speech vis-à-vis their religious beliefs.

The study threw up some interesting findings, most notably the fact that atheists may well be the most reviled demographic in Bangladesh.

“Almost half the respondents had favourable views towards Hindus, Christians and Buddhists, while 34% towards Jewish people,” the survey said but noted that “only 14% respondents had a favourable view towards atheists”.

The bigamy against those with differing beliefs is not limited towards atheists alone. Although Bangladesh is a majority Muslim country, only 21% of non-Muslims had very favourable views towards Muslims.

While the popular perception may be that younger people will be more receptive to views of atheists and their beliefs, the survey belies that perception.

The survey revealed that younger population, students and rural respondents and Muslims have lower favourability towards to atheists. In fact, only 14% of the respondents had a favourable (very favourable and somewhat favourable) view towards atheists with 53% holding very unfavourable or somewhat unfavourable views.

“Despite the relatively more liberal views espoused by students and younger populations with regard to atheists”, the study noted “they seem to have relatively more conservative and less liberal views”.

On the sensitive issue of bloggers being attacked in Bangladesh over the last few years, 26% of the respondents felt bloggers were murdered because they spoke against Islam. Over half the respondents (53%) said they were murdered because they were atheists or because they were promoting an atheistic or a secularist world view.

With regard to their opinions on perpetrators, 35% think that they were local religious extremists, 26% that they were members of local political parties, and 21%, foreign religious extremists.

Respondents in Dhaka and those with post-graduate degrees were more likely than others to think that attackers were members of local political parties.

Understanding deaths

Promoting or declaring atheistic belief and secular thought can lead to one’s murder in Bangladesh; or at least that’s what the dominant perception appears to be amongst those surveyed.

While 26% of those surveyed said bloggers were murdered because they spoke out against Islam, a staggering 53% said that they were murdered “because they were atheists or because they were promoting an atheistic or a secularist world view”.

Although the majority of people surveyed think bloggers were murdered for their atheistic/secular beliefs, 39% of those had never actually read any blogs of any nature. In fact, 62% of respondents had either never read blogs that speak negatively about Islam or were unsure if they had. A vast majority of them also felt that attacking members of other religions for practicing their religion and attacking atheists for speaking freely was not allowed by religion.

Opinions about the perpetrators of such crimes appear to be divided amongst the people as well.

Most (35%) blamed local religious extremists for orchestrating these attacks while 26% said the attacks were being carried out by members of political parties in Bangladesh. A good proportion of people (21%), also blamed foreign religious extremists of carrying out the attacks on bloggers.

Finding solutions

One of the primary motives of the survey was to not only understand the problem but also identify solutions. Countering violent extremism (CVE) is high on the government’s agenda but efforts may be threatened in the absence of co-operation from stakeholders.

The survey informed that respondents most doubtful of religious preachers in their efforts to counter violent extremism. 33 % of them said that religious preachers have played neither a significant nor an insignificant role in countering terrorism and violent extremism, while about a third of non-Muslims and 45% of respondents with post-graduate degrees think that religious preachers have played a very insignificant or fairly insignificant role.

The government and civil society aside, most respondents (68%) felt that the media has played an important role in countering extremism in the country. While about 54% felt that the government has played a very significant or fairly significant role in countering terrorism and violent extremism, non-Muslims (36.8%) are more likely than Muslims (17%) to think that it has played an insignificant role.

Over the years there have been efforts by the government to initiate measures of CVE in Bangladesh.

Law enforcement and intelligence agencies have launched vigorous drives against suspected extremists, leading to arrests and disruption of possible violent extremist plots. In fact, the government has banned four extremist outfits- Jama‘atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB), Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami, Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HT) and Shahadat-e-Al Hikma- contrary to what popular history where successive Bangladeshi governments have been known to harbour such groups.

But government actions and policies can only go so far, and real change must come from society. The survey said that 22% of those polled felt that educational and cultural exchange projects to promote dialogue with other cultures and people of other faiths was necessary to counter extremism. 20% of respondents also said that greater monitoring of religious educational institutes at the local level was required to buck the current trend.

Road ahead

Calling for greater research to identify measures to check extremism, the survey said that several current and former government officials strongly recommended the need to build bridges between communities and law enforcement agencies.

“Despite the growing importance of the internet, radicalization to violence continues to take place primarily at the local level, often through face-to-face engagement. Therefore, locally-relevant CVE initiatives are central to the success of any strategy,” it added.

The two key tools that emphasize local strategies are community engagement and community-oriented policing.

The study recommended that counter-terrorism agencies must focus their attention on working with local communities to highlight specific locally persuasive counter-narratives that refute or negate narratives advocating violence as the answer to perceptions of injustice.

In an overwhelmingly Muslim-majority country like Bangladesh, it is only natural that mosque leaders and preachers are viewed as important messengers of peace. In fact, some NGOs like the Dhaka Ahsania Mission and Gandhi Ashram are working with religious organizations to mitigate violent extremism.

The survey data suggests that a large part of the population, specially students and younger people, think that imams and other religious preachers are not doing enough, indicating a disconnect.

How important the role of religious preachers in Bangladesh is highlighted by the fact that a finding in the survey shows that Muslims, less education persons, and retired persons are more likely to derive information on Bangladesh‘s foreign affairs from them.

The government has in fact, in partnership with the Islamic Foundation, trained imams directing them to deliver model speeches with verses from Quran and Hadith, condemning violent extremisms in over 50,000 mosques. While the study noted that imams do not represent a comprehensive solution to the challenges of integration and radicalization, it said that there is “a clear link between the two”.

Increasing co-operation between South-Asian countries has also been identified as an important tool to help address the issue. One of the biggest hurdles is the negative perception of India that many in Bangladesh seem to hold.

About 43% think that India does not have positive intentions towards Muslims although many said that relations between the two nations have improved over the last five years.

The study suggested that deeper South-South cooperation is necessary for developing countries that share common historical and cultural ties, or development challenges.

“International actors can support these efforts by facilitating platforms where experts and officials can gather to exchange experiences and lessons learned, and by supporting the development of knowledge products that can be circulated among partners,” it said.