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Bangladesh’s Fundamentalist Challenge

NEW DELHI – In February, while returning from a book fair at Dhaka University, Avijit Roy, a Bangladeshi-American blogger known for his atheism, and his wife were dragged from their rickshaw and hacked with machetes. The book fair, held annually to commemorate the 1952 protests that culminated in the Pakistani military opening fire on students at the university, is a typically Bengali response to violence. To turn the Nazi leader Hermann Göring’s notorious barb on its head, when Bengalis hear the word “gun,” they reach for their culture.

But Roy’s brutal murder (his wife was maimed, but survived) – together with the fatal stabbing of another atheist blogger, Washiqur Rahman, barely a month later – exposes another force at work in Bangladesh, one that is subverting the country’s tradition of secularism and intellectual discourse. That force is Salafist Islamic fundamentalism.

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The change in Bangladesh is stark. The irreverent secularism and thoughtful inquiry reflected in the works of Roy and Washiqur have long been a hallmark of Bengali writing. A generation ago, their views would have been considered perfectly acceptable, if not mainstream, in the vibrant intellectual culture of Bengal (the Western portion of which is the Indian state of West Bengal).

That is no longer true. Backed by lavish financing from abroad, Salafist fundamentalism – an intolerant version of Islam at odds with the more moderate Sufi-influenced variant that prevailed in India for centuries – has been spreading across Bangladesh in recent years. While Bengal’s long secular tradition, which drove its efforts to break away from Pakistan, is still alive and well, the corrosive impact of the radical Islamists – who use force to silence those with whom they disagree – is undeniable.

Roy and Washiqur are far from the first Bengali intellectuals to face the Islamists’ particular brand of censorship. The writer Humayun Azad was severely injured in an attack at the annual book fair in 2004. (He survived, but died later that year in Germany.) Last year, the atheist blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider was, like Roy, hacked to death in Dhaka. Why engage in theoretical debates with your ideological opponents, the Islamists are saying, when one can simply shut them up for good?

Many Bangladeshi intellectuals have seen the writing on the wall and fled the country, sacrificing daily contact with their rich cultural heritage for the sake of self-preservation. The novelist Taslima Nasrin went into exile in 1994 to escape death threats from Islamist radicals; she now lives in Delhi. Daud Haider, a journalist and poet, languishes in Berlin.

Public intellectuals are not the only people in danger. Ordinary secular Muslims who turn to atheism are more vulnerable to charges of apostasy and, worse, blasphemy. In the old days, such charges might have attracted a fatwa or two and, at worst, social ostracism. Today, the threats – say, being murdered in cold blood on a crowded street – are more viscerally compelling.

For Muslim-majority Bangladesh, this struggle within Islam amounts to a battle for the soul of the country. But it is not an entirely new battle. Bangladesh has long faced the claim that, in accordance with the logic of the 1947 Partition of India, which produced what was then East Pakistan, it should be more Islamic. Others, opposing this claim, insist that the country must live up to the legacy of its 1971 secession from Pakistan, in a revolution that proclaimed Islam insufficient grounds for nationhood and asserted the primacy of Bangladesh’s secular culture and Bengali language over its allegiance to Islamabad.

This conflict is also reflected in the country’s often bitterly divisive politics. Each camp has taken its turn controlling the government, under two formidable female leaders: the Awami League’s Sheikh Hasina Wazed, the current prime minister, and her two-term predecessor, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s Begum Khaleda Zia.

Though the secularists are currently in power, Zia retains wide support, including among the Islamists. Her party boycotted the last election, and has provoked political violence that has claimed more than 100 lives this year and left hundreds more injured.

The recent killings have inflamed public opinion, sparking mass demonstrations to demand justice for the victims and more effective government protection of secularist writers. HT Imam, a senior adviser to Hasina, squarely challenged the police for their inaction on Roy’s murder, telling top police officers to “identify the black sheep among the force and bring them under law and justice to uphold your image.”

Bangladesh is a democracy that upholds freedom of expression, but within limits. Though the government is seen as sympathetic to liberal intellectuals, it is also anxious to maintain law and order and avoid provoking the extremists. As a result, the government has not hesitated to try to curry favor with the Islamists by using legislation that prohibits “hurting religious sentiments” to harass and arrest atheists and liberals. The Islamists, however, want the government to pass a blasphemy law like that in Pakistan, which decrees death for religious dissent. Though the government has so far stoutly resisted this, its weak-kneed defense of secularism has raised fears that its resistance to theocratic pressure could collapse under sustained pressure.

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It must continue to do so. Hasina – the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the “father” of independent Bangladesh who was assassinated in 1975 – knows that compromising with the Islamists will get her nowhere; she will never be acceptable to them. Her government must not succumb to the temptation to accommodate the extremists in the name of good governance (or in the cause of political survival).

The principles for which Bangladesh bled when it won its independence from Pakistan must not be compromised. If Hasina gives in to the machete-wielding Islamists, she will sacrifice the Bangladesh that her father fought to free.