By Joyeeta Bhattacharjee
24 June 2015
Islamists are targeting secular bloggers, in the real and virtual worlds; because they are alarmed by the latter’s growing popularity. Bloggers led the Shahbagh movement and have secured their position in the national mindscape
Killings of and threats to secular bloggers, by religious extremists in Bangladesh, have once again proved the links between the virtual world and real-time terror. In Bangladesh, three bloggers — Abhijit Roy, Washiqur Rahman and Ananta Bijoy Das, all critical of the rising tide of religious fundamentalism in the country, have been hacked to death this year.
All three attacks have been carried out by the Ansarullah Bangla Team, a religious extremist organisation. The killings happened in February, March and early May respectively. In late May, Ananya Azad, the son of prominent Bangladeshi blogger father Humayun Azad, was threatened.
These cases have precipitated the need for close monitoring of the role of the World Wide Web and radicalisation in South Asia, mainly in the smaller countries of the region and the latter’s preparedness in dealing with such challenges. The common factor among all the Bangladeshi blogger victims was that they chose the World Wide Web to express their views. They also wrote in Bengali, the language of the masses. This indicates that the Internet is no longer restricted to the elite but has penetrated deep into society.
Today, its power to influence society is significant. In Bangladesh, Internet penetration has grown from one per cent in 2000 to five per cent in 2012. Considering that the Bangladeshi population is 160-million strong, the number of Internet users is substantial. Bangladesh had a real time experience of the power of the Internet during the Shahbagh Square movement — a mass campaign against the war criminals of the 1971 War, initiated by a group of bloggers, in February 2013.
This movement was an eye-opener for South Asia. First, the movement was the first of its kind that had its root in social media. Second, it highlighted the popularity of the bloggers who contradicted the views of the religious radicals. Unfortunately, since then bloggers in Bangladesh have been targets of the religious radicals.
The first victim was a blogger named Rajib Hyder, who was killed by radicals in 2013. The religious radicals are not only monitoring the debates and discussions against them in the virtual world but also trying to silence those voices by inflicting terror in the actual world. Preliminary investigation after the murder of the three bloggers this year suggests that the Ansarullah Bangla Team has prepared a long list of bloggers whom it will be targeting.
The anger of the radicals against secular bloggers arises from two factors. The first is that the worldwide reach of the Internet is transcending geographical boundaries. The second is that the power of the Internet to influence people through the social media is increasing. The radicals feel threatened by the flow of voices that are critical of them in the virtual world.
Bangladesh’s radical groups are themselves very active in the cyber world. They use the Internet not only for propaganda and to garner support but also as a medium of communication so as to share news about their activities. For example, Ansarullah Bangla Team used the popular micro-blogging site, Twitter, to take responsibility for the death of the bloggers. Also, various blogs are used by these groups that carry radical content, like videos in Bengali, glorifying jihad.
Although opinion is divided on whether the Internet accelerates radicalisation but there is no doubt that it certainly encourages radicalisation. In case of Bangladesh, it is too early to ascertain the extent of influence that the Internet has had on the rise of radicalisation in the country. But experiences from round the globe show that, in Bangladesh, the Internet is providing a platform for like-minded people to meet, exchange ideas and establish offline contacts. There have cases when radicals have used social media to instigate real-time violence. For example, one attack on the minority community in 2012 was planned on Facebook.
Though the Government is pursuing an active counter-terrorism programme and has attained success in controlling the activities of various radical organisations in the real world, it has failed to curb the activities of the radicals in the virtual world. To understand the gravity of the problem, one need only notice the change in the nature of recruits. These days, many of the young radicals come from affluent backgrounds and have had a liberal education. This is in sharp contrast to the madrasa-educated recruits of the past.
For the prosperity and stability of Bangladesh, and indeed of the region, it is necessary to control the rising tide of radicalism in that country. Controlling radical propaganda on the Internet is one of the important steps in this regard. The international community should step forward in helping Bangladesh tackle this existential threat.
Joyeeta Bhattacharjee is a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation