Salafist islamic extremist Momen Faiz/ZumaPress

Bangladesh’s Fundamentalist Challenge

The recent murders of atheist writers in Bangladesh highlight the growing influence of Salafist fundamentalist groups. The country's leaders must vigorously defend the liberal, secular principles that underpinned the drive to secede from Pakistan more than four decades ago.

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.

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).

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