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Subrata Shuvo: Bangladeshi freethinkers are never safe

Subrata Shuvo

Subrata Shuvo was given $5,000 as part of FFRF’s secular program to aid exiled freethinkers.

By Subrata Shuvo

I am Subrata Shuvo and was one of three bloggers who were arrested on April 1, 2013. Police took me away from my Dhaka University residential hall, which they said was for my security, but actually it was a trap to grab me for interrogation and eventually to put me in

jail. After my release from jail, I maintained a low profile to keep myself safe. But in 2015, extremists again began “blogger hunting” and I left the country for good. I flew to another country to save my life.

The history of religious killing in Bangladesh is long. Islamic fanatics believe that freethinking writers call for freedom from religion and thus they consider their beliefs under threat.

That’s why many writers, bloggers and publishers have been attacked or killed in the country for their writings and views — sometimes only for their Facebook posts. Those who live in the Western world can never imagine such a thing.

The chief of the fundamentalist Hefazot-e-Islam declared in a huge gathering that those who become infidels are subject to be killed. “We are assigned to assassinate you; it’s our holy duty. If you want to live in the country of Allah, you have to believe in Allah without any question.”

The following are among the deported or slain freethinkers from Bangladesh.

Daud Haider

Daud Haider was the first writer and poet from Bangladesh who was forced into exile shortly after independence for his freethoughts and writings. His poem “Kalo Surjer Kalo Joshnay Kalo Bonnay,” published in 1974, depicted eminent characters of different religions. When it was released, a Dhaka College professor filed a case, accusing him of anti-religious poetry. Shortly after, religious fundamentalist groups in Bangladesh began to complain against him. He was arrested for offending the core values of religious groups. He subsequently escaped to India and then to Germany with the help of the Bangladesh government. He could never again enter Bangladesh.

Taslima Nasreen

The distribution of copies of the book Lajja, written by the Bangladeshi feminist author Taslima Nasreen, was restricted by the Bangladesh government in 1993. Politicized Muslims campaigned for her punishment. However, she did not stop, and the government called for her arrest under pressure from Islamist fundamentalist groups. (Later, her novel was translated into more than 30 languages and spread like fire around the world.) In May 1994, she also angered conservatives when she was quoted in the Statesman newspaper as saying that the Quran should “be thoroughly checked.” This brought more ardent protests and demands to put her to death. The government called for her detention, relying on a blasphemy law of the 19th century. She appeared before the court and was released on bail, but had to leave Bangladesh permanently.

Shamsur Rahman

Shamsur Rahman was one of the leading poets of Bangladesh. On Jan. 17, 1999, members of the Harkatul Jihad al-Islami group, who had begun to visit his house under the guise of collecting his poems, attacked and wounded Rahman and his wife. Nine detainees arrested in this connection stated that they planned an Islamist revolution by killing so-called anti-Islamic poets and intellectuals.

Monir Hossain

The radical organization JMB killed author Monir Hossain Sagar in 2000 for writing the book Girl, When Were You Human?

Asif Mohiuddin

Asif Mohiuddin is a well-known Bangladeshi atheist blogger. For several years, he has been writing about issues such as atheism, religious beliefs, women’s rights and freedom of speech. He was attacked on Jan. 15, 2013, outside of his house, but has survived. He now lives in Germany.

Humayun Azad

In 2003, Humayun Azad’s novel Pak Sar Zamin Saad Bad was published in Ittefaq magazine. As soon as the book was released, radical groups in the country started protesting against Azad. In the book, Azad refers to the Jamaat-e-Islami — a fundamentalist political party opposed to Bangladesh’s independence in 1971 — as a fascist organization. The writer was attacked by assassins on his way home from a book fair at Dhaka University on Feb. 26, 2004. After intensive care for years, he improved physically but died, likely due to complications from the attack, in Germany. Shaikh Abdur Rahman, the leader of the JMB militant group, admitted that he had ordered the assassination of Azad.

Arifur Rahman

Cartoonist Arifur Rahman worked for the Alpine — a satirical journal. In 2007, he was arrested for one of his cartoons that allegedly hurt the religious feelings of the masses. Islamist extremists targeted him for assassination. He is now living in another country.

Ahmed Rajib Haider

Ahmed Rajib Haider was a blogger and architect. On Feb. 15, 2013, he was attacked and hacked to death by machete-wielding activists. He was the first blogger in Bangladesh to be murdered by Islamic militants.

Saniur Rahman

On March 6, 2013, engineer Saniur Rahman survived a stabbing attack by extremists for anti-religious blogging. The attack on Rahman came within 20 days of the murder of Ahmed Rajib Haider.

Arrest of three bloggers

On April 1, 2013, the government of Bangladesh arrested Russell Parvez, Moshiur Rahman Biplab and me, avid freethinkers and bloggers, to meet the demand of extremists. On April 3, police additionally arrested Asif Mohiuddin. After 32 days of jail, Parvez and I were released on bail, while other bloggers were released conditionally. All of us fled the country for the sake of our security.    

Avijit Roy

Avijit Roy was often called the “Richard Dawkins of Bengal.” He founded the blog Muktomona, which is still the leading platform of freethinkers. Many extremists intimidated Roy in broad daylight for his writings, even announcing they would kill him. On Feb. 26, a sleeper cell was waiting with machetes near Dhaka University for Avijit and his wife Rafida Bonya Ahmed. The extremists hacked at both of them, and the two were rushed to the hospital. Roy did not make it. Ahmed healed after months-long medication and treatment.

Washiqur Babu

Extremists killed Washiqur Babu on March 30, 2015, in broad daylight, accusing him of hurting religious sentiments through his blogging and writings on Facebook.

Ananta Bijoy Das

Four extremists killed Ananta Bijoy with sharp machetes in May 2015. He was a vigorous writer on the Muktomona blog and was an activist against fundamentalism.

Niloy Neel

On August 7, 2015, extremists assassinated Niloy Neel at his home in Dhaka. Ansar al-Islam claimed the responsibility for the killing. One person entered the house in disguise, claiming to ask for rent. Then a bunch of killers joined in. They locked Neel’s family in a room and hacked him to death.

Attack on publishers

Extremists of Ansar al-Islam killed the publisher Foysal Arefin Dipon, who was accused of publishing Avijit Roy’s book. They hacked him at his office and then locked the gate to let him die.

Radicals also attacked writer and blogger Ranodipam Basu and poet Tarek Rahim, along with publisher Ahmed Rashid Tutul, who left Bangladesh forever and now lives in Norway. The publisher and owner of Rodela got death threats from Islamist groups, and in 2018 they killed Shajahan Bachu, who was the writer and publisher of Bishakha Publications.

Muhammed Zafar Iqbal

Professor Muhammed Zafar Iqbal is one of the prominent, popular and progressive writers of Bangladesh. He is always with freethinkers and critical of fundamentalists, which is why several times he has received death threats. On March 3, 2018, Foyzur Rahman, a self-motivated assailant, attacked Iqbal. He survived. Police arrested the attacker.   

Nazimuddin Samad

Extremists killed Nazimuddin Samad on April 6, 2016. He mainly wrote on Facebook and was killed only for his Facebook posts and comments. Samad was a law student at Jagannath University and on his way home a band of terrorists stopped him on the street and launched an attack with sharp machetes. The terrorists then shot him to ensure his death. Ansar al-Islam claimed responsibility.     

Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Tanoy

The magazine Roopban was dedicated to the news and well-being of LGBTQ community of Bangladesh. In 2016, extremists killed Xulhaz Mannan, who was the editor of Roopban. On the same day, Mahbub Tanoy was also killed by Ansar al-Islam. Tanoy was a cultural activist, theatre worker and an activist for LGBTQ rights.

Government actions

Various Islamist organizations demanded arrest of bloggers. To meet their demand, the government ordered security groups to make a list of bloggers who defame religion, especially Islam. On March 31, 2013, Directorate General of Forces Intelligence and leaders of the religious organization Bangladesh Awami Olama League together made a list of bloggers who were allegedly critical of religions. Most of the bloggers either killed or arrested were from that list.

The government did nothing to stop this open declaration and motivation for assassination. Rather, government and various executive bodies started victim-blaming. After the assassination of every blogger, the government became far more concerned with what the bloggers wrote rather than arresting those who were involved in the butchery. Here are some of the actions against freethinking bloggers:

• The prime minister of Bangladesh told the media on Nov. 8, 2015, that bloggers should not criticize religion.

• The law and order-related cabinet committee on Aug. 10, 2015, decided to arrest anyone who writes anything against religion.

• Just after the assassination of Nazimuddin Samad, the interior minister briefed the media on April 7, 2016, that the government would investigate his writings. 

• Parliamentarian Selim Osman advocated on Nov. 12, 2016, that people should report atheists.

• The government ordered the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission to open an email account and asked for the public to send detailed information of those who defame Islam.

So, it’s very clear that Bangladesh became an extermination ground for nonbelievers and alternative thinkers. Citizens usually ask their government to save them from the aggression of extremists, but that’s not what we see in Bangladesh! To save our lives, we have had to leave our beloved country forever to a completely unknown situation and culture. I am one of those exiled.