By Tahmima Anam
Nov. 4, 2015
Over the last few weeks, the body count of intolerance has been unbearably high in Bangladesh.
It started when an Italian aid worker named Cesare Tavella was shot to death in the capital, Dhaka, at the end of September. Days later, a Japanese man by the name of Konio Hoshi was gunned down in the northern district of Rangpur. At a procession to mark Ashura, the Shiite festival commemorating the martyrdom of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Imam Hussein, a series of bomb blasts caused scores of injuries and the death of a 16-year-old boy named Sajjad Hossain Sanju.
And this past weekend, in two separate incidents, two publishers and two bloggers were viciously attacked. One has died of his wounds, and the other three men are in critical condition.
The most recent attacks echo the unsolved killings earlier this year of five secularist bloggers and activists: Rajib Haider, Avijit Roy, Oyasiqur Rahman, Ananta Bijoy Das and, in August, Niladri Chattopadhyay. Two of the weekend’s victims, Ahmedur Rashid Tutul and Faisal Arefin Dipan, are publishers of books by Mr. Roy. The latest attacks were as brazen as they were brutal: The assailants entered the offices of the victims, hacked at their heads with machetes and cleavers, and fled the scene, locking the doors behind them — helping to ensure that Mr. Dipan died of his injuries before he could receive medical attention.
Since Mr. Tavella’s death, there has been a growing dispute between a group of foreign intelligence agencies (including those of the United States, Canada, Britain and Australia) and the Bangladeshi government over who is responsible for the recent spate of attacks. The intelligence agencies have claimed that they passed on to the government credible evidence of the presence of Islamic State militants in Bangladesh.
For its part, the Bangladeshi government has repeatedly stressed its belief that the attacks come from within — from extremists possibly allied with the opposition parties — and not from an external terrorist network. It is true that homegrown extremist organizations have operated in Bangladesh in the past, and that there have been links between terrorist groups and some Islamist political parties.
As attacks continue, however, the government’s repeated refusal to consider alternative explanations is deeply frustrating, not least to the families of the victims. Since last weekend, another publisher has received a death threat yet the Home Affairs minister’s response has been to callthese attacks “isolated incidents” that could have happened anywhere.
In the face of such apathy, it would be easy to throw up our hands and say we, citizens and friends of Bangladesh, are merely victims, caught between extremists and the state. But we can and should do much more.
First, Bangladeshis must question whether we are still committed to the country’s founding principles. Yes, Bengal has traditionally been the source of a syncretic, tolerant version of Islam; yes, Bangladesh gained its independence on a platform of religious and ethnic diversity; yes, our constitution is a secular one; and yes, we have, in every national election, voted in favor of secular democracy over religious law.
But we have failed these founding principles, and we can no longer say that we are a tolerant, secular republic. It is time to face the fact that there is a free speech crisis in Bangladesh, and everyone — the state, its citizens and whatever radical groups exist within and without its borders — is responsible.
Let us look at several facts: Since independence in 1971, the Hindu population has dwindled to 8 percent from about 14 percent of Bangladesh’s total, because of institutional discrimination, sustained anti-Hindu sentiment and political apathy. While we like to think we all live in a democratic state, the indigenous people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts have been systematically dispossessed of their ancestral lands by Bengali settlers, all under the eyes of the Army. In 2004, the government, under pressure from a far-right Islamist group, banned the publication of all books on Islam published by the Ahmadiyya community, a Muslim minority sect. Although there are sporadic social movements that protest against such discrimination, in general the public has been silent on the issue of minority rights.
And yet, signs of our multicultural roots remain. This year’s Durga Puja, Bangladesh’s biggest Hindu festival, was widely celebrated across the country. Despite newspaper reports of isolated attacks on Hindu temples, thousands of worshipers flocked to the banks of the Buriganga River in the capital and Potenga beach in the south to immerse their statues of the goddess Durga. It was a poignant reminder of the inherent diversity of our culture.
Days later, the attack on the Shiite procession punctured whatever sense we may have had that all was well in Bangladesh. Even if the intelligence shared by America and Australia is right about Bangladesh, that is only part of the battle the country now faces, because the threat to pluralism doesn’t come exclusively from outside our borders.
It comes every time someone questions a fellow citizen and asks whether his version of Islam is the real one. It comes when people first appear to condemn the death of the bloggers but then qualify their condemnation by saying that the bloggers may have, after all, offended the faith. It occurs when we accept the casual racism directed at minorities, whether they are Hindu or Shiite or from one of the indigenous communities.
Those who threaten us from beyond our borders are only capitalizing on a trend that is already tolerated, and sometimes endorsed, by the wider population. The attacks on foreigners and on citizens who represent a secular Bengali tradition reflect the rise of a sharply conservative Islamist nationalism in Bangladesh. As we adjust to this new era, we would do well to remember that intolerance begins at home.
Tahmima Anam, a writer and anthropologist, is the author of the novel “A Golden Age” and a contributing opinion writer.