On March 30 another "atheist blogger" was hacked to death in Bangladesh's capital city, Dhaka. This brings to two in five weeks the attacks on bloggers in the country, and marks the third brutal hacking murder in two years. Bangladesh was essentially founded in 1971 on the freedom of language and expression, so this alarming development flies in the face of its national origins. It suggests the prospect of a dangerous Islamist intolerance otherwise alien to Bangladesh, and opens a new front between the values of a syncretic, secular humanistic Bangladeshi culture against a rigid worldview incapable of allowing difference to coexist.
Language and freedom of expression has a long and central place in Bangladesh's history. It is a country that loves its language, its literature and its expressive traditions. Bangladesh fought bloodily to gain its freedom from Pakistan in 1971. While political underrepresentation, economic disparity and the problem of distance surely contributed to then-East Pakistan's alienation from the national capital 1000 miles away, more than four decades later the commemoration of that struggle centres symbolically on language. Bangladesh's first national martyrs, celebrated every February 21, died in 1952 protesting against the imposition of Urdu as the national language of Pakistan over their beloved Bengali.
As I argued in Speaking Like a State, the language activists in the wing of Pakistan that would become Bangladesh rejected the divisive idea forced upon them by West Pakistan: that Urdu was the only appropriate language for South Asian Muslims, and that Bengali was somehow un-Islamic. Thus the 1971 creation of Bangladesh freed the country's new citizens to use their own language however they wished. Notably, Bangladesh made an early commitment to secularism, though it has flip-flopped since between being officially Islamic and officially secular.
"[T]he goal is not to replace the government, or cause public mayhem, but instead to silence individuals for expressions of atheism. These are assassins targeting secular minds."
Yet in an awful irony, in this land that fought for the right to its own voice in its own language, a new form of intolerance appears to be emerging: fanaticism against secular expression. The murders of Ahmed Rajib Haider (2013), Avijit Roy (February 2015) and now Oyasikur (Washiqur) Rahman (March 2015) signal a closing of some Bangladeshi minds to the country's founding ideals. This phenomenon appears much different from the kinds of terrorism Bangladesh has dealt with earlier: the goal is not to replace the government, or cause public mayhem, but instead to silence individuals for expressions of atheism. These are assassins targeting secular minds.
Bangladesh, a country of approximately 160 million citizens and nearly 90% Muslim, has not suffered from the endemic terrorism afflicting Pakistan, and has done better on virtually every human development indicator than most of South Asia (save Sri Lanka). While it has experienced some problems with Islamic terrorism, particularly with the Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and Harkat ul-Jihad-e-Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B), Dhaka has by and large successfully managed to counter the growth of terrorist networks. Gone are the days of hundreds of synchronised bombs detonating across the country as with the JMB attack in August 2005. Counterterrorism has become an important element of cooperation between the United States and Bangladesh, and with India as well. And while no one would pretend Bangladesh is free of problems -- political violence has paralysed the streets for the last three months, a deadly stalemate between the country's two major parties is damaging the economy, and some fear that the JMB is reviving -- the country's larger arc has been one of development success and steady economic growth.
" [These murders] bring a severe, twisted violence to a place better known for its moderation and its secular humanism. Their sheer simplicity will make it harder for Bangladeshi law enforcement to identify and disrupt them before they happen."
But the emergence of ideological assassinations stands to mar that trajectory. Following the February 2013 protests in Dhaka's Shahbag square -- peaceful crowds calling for a death sentence in a high-profile war crimes trial of a Jamaat-e-Islami member -- the young blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider was hacked to death outside his Dhaka home. The police arrested five local students who said they had been directed by a leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami youth wing to target Haider for his writing and support for the Shahbag movement. Shortly after that, a different Islamist group from Chittagong, the Hefajat-e-Islam, issued a radical 13 point demand calling for the Shahbag protestors and "atheist... bloggers and anti-Islamists" to be punished. They began a long march to Dhaka culminating in a mass rally on April 6, when a sea of Islamists reached the capital to call for a blasphemy law and the execution of "atheist bloggers" for insulting the Prophet.
Now, nearly two years after the original atheist blogger assassination, new assaults on secular bloggers have shaken the country and captured international headlines. In 2013, the isolated murder of Haider caused alarm, but it did not appear to inspire imitation. And February's murder of Avijit Roy could have been attributed to a one-off radical lone wolf. But the third attack provides the outlines of a pattern. These are not large, organised operations bearing the JMB or other signature, but small cells of radicalised men only rudimentarily armed with machetes.
And that's why these murders are so chilling. They bring a severe, twisted violence to a place better known for its moderation and its secular humanism. Their sheer simplicity will make it harder for Bangladeshi law enforcement to identify and disrupt them before they happen. These attacks are everything that Bangladesh is not, and open a new chapter in the country's development. Two months ago, it was easy to be optimistic about Bangladesh winning the war against radical Islamist violence. Today it's much harder.