POLITICS
02/08/2020 8:08 AM IST | Updated 03/08/2020 8:26 AM IST

How Bangladeshi Bloggers Paid The Price For Protesting Religious Fanaticism

Several young men and women have been living in exile after Islamic fundamentalists killed rationalists and atheists in Bangladesh.

Shammi Haque
Blogger Shammi Haque fled Bangladesh when she was just 21 following relentless death threats.

Camelia Kamal’s Facebook inbox is inundated with dozens of messages everyday — most of them are rape threats and fundamentalists claiming they’d murder her. She has shared her phone number with just a handful of people and doesn’t check the messages in the inboxes of her social media accounts, unless she spots a familiar name while scrolling.

Kamal, is known to her readers, followers and haters as Foring Camelia, an atheist blogger who writes extensively on atheism, secularism, feminism, LGBT rights and free speech. She has more than 73,000 followers on Facebook.
Kamal, who had been receiving online threats since 2013, fled Bangladesh in 2015, along with her husband Subrata Adhikary who is better known as Subrata Shuvo, also a blogger who writes on atheism, following a spate of killings of atheist writers and intellectuals by Islamic fundamentalists in the country. Shuvo was in jail for 42 days, before he was released on bail, for ‘hurting religious sentiments’.

Kamal and Shuvo are both members of PEN International, a writers collective and mostly write for a living. They also work in separate Swedish organisations, details of which they did not wish to reveal in fear of their security and privacy being breached — it has happened a few times now. Though they have lived in Sweden for the past five years, the distance from Bangladesh has not made them feel safe. Emails and phone calls that claimed familiarity with their whereabouts made the couple move homes several times. “We try not to live in the same place for more than 6-7 months,” Kamal told HuffPost India.

“NOT SAFE ANYWHERE”

“We are not safe anywhere,” she said, “But we accept this hardship because we have to carry on the battle that we started. We have to realise the dreams of the ones who lost their lives. From exile, we are preparing the ground for the next level of the battle in Bangladesh,” said Camelia, who now works with an online educational project headed by Bonya Ahmed, wife of slain rationalist blogger Avijit Roy.

Ahmed, 51, who lives in the US, narrowly survived the same attack which killed her husband in Dhaka in 2015. The couple had returned to Dhaka to visit the annual book fair, defying threats from Islamic fundamentalists, and were attacked with machetes by several assailants on the streets of Dhaka on February 26. Roy died within a few hours of being taken to the hospital. Ahmed recovered. Since then, she has been running the rationalist blog Mukto-Mona (freethinker), which was founded by her husband and was one of the triggers of the battle between the rationalist and fundamentalist forces during 2011-12.

The battle Kamal referred to is the one between the secular-atheist forces and Islamic fundamentalist groups in Bangladesh. It claimed the lives of 10 atheist bloggers, professors, and publishers between 2013 and 2016, and forced dozens of bloggers to leave the country. They have taken refuge in countries like Germany, India, Nepal, Norway, Sweden, France, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States, to name a few.

It claimed the lives of 10 atheist bloggers, professors, and publishers between 2013 and 2016, and forced dozens of bloggers to leave the country.

From exile, the bloggers who managed to flee keep critiquing the fundamentalist forces, though their medium of writing has changed from blogger platforms to Facebook. Kamal’s posts on Facebook invite a flood of comment of conservatives and fundamentalists, several of which threaten sexual violence, graphically describing her body. Kamal told HuffPost India that she is not scared of the threats. So, often, she hits back. “Sometimes I speak to them in their own abusive language, even using expletives. That’s what they deserve,” she said.

For example, in June this year, she put up a post describing how her husband has never interfered with her personal space. She was bombarded with comments, as usual. While a majority of those who commented hailed the couple, there was a sizable section of people — mostly men — abused her, called her a prostitute, and as usual, issued graphic rape threats. Kamal told HuffPost India that when she wades into anything a little more political than her relationship with her husband — which she often does — a majority of the comments on her posts are horrible abuses.

In one of her posts, Kamal announced that if people’s religious sentiments are ‘hurt’ by her posts supporting rationalism and freedom, then such people should be prepared to get ‘hurt’ more often.

“The problem is not with people’s rationalist and scientific thinking. The problem is with the sentiments that get hurt so easily. So, the sentiments must get used to getting hurt,” she said.

HuffPost India
Avijit Roy (right), who was hacked to death by assailants in Dhaka for his rationalist blog.

Twenty-six-year-old Shammi Haque graduated in journalism from Berlin this year. Like Kamal, she too fled Bangladesh in 2015, when she was just 21. After years of fielding horrific rape and murder threats, the dozens of threats that land in her inbox almost as a routine now doesn’t shake her too much. Often, when she opens her Facebook account on her phone in the morning, there are a few rape and murder threats.

She started receiving those since 2013 but did not care much. However, things became scary when she found out, in August 2015, that she was being followed on the streets. Other bloggers like her, who spoke about atheism and criticised Islamic fundamentalism and were later murdered, had all complained to the police about being followed days before their death. This was the threat that forced Haque, then just 20 years old, to plan to flee her country.

Now, she looks over the threats that land in her social media inboxes, almost ‘listlessly’, and carries on with her daily chores.

“I have learned how to live with such threats. They don’t bother me anymore,” said Haque. Over the past five years, she has kept herself completely aloof from the Bengali community living in Germany, except for a few atheist bloggers who too are living in exile. Haque categorically refuses to talk about her family with HuffPost India, fearing she might endanger them.

Camelia Kamal
Camelia and Shuvo.

“Religious fundamentalism has no borders. Their ideological brethren could be living next to me. I try to closely guard information related to my movements and whereabouts. I am not completely safe anywhere,” said Haque, who has been working with a German-language newspaper for the past two years.
Five years on, these bloggers see hardly any possibility of going back ever again.

“I will either be jailed by the government or killed by Islamic fundamentalists,” said Haque. “Democracy, secularism, and freethinking have died in Bangladesh. The government has struck a deal with fundamentalist forces.”

THE DEATH OF DEMOCRACY?

Kamal points at two recent incidents to argue that the situation in Bangladesh is not conducive for bloggers to return.

On July 15, the police in Chittagong district registered a case against exiled blogger Asad Noor under the controversial Digital Security Act after he alleged a conspiracy against Buddhists by Islamic fundamentalist forces with political backing in a blog post.

Three days later, the police picked up six of his family members - his old parents, maternal uncle, two minor sisters and a cousin - from Chittagong in connection with a 2017 case against Noor.

Noor, who has been living in hiding outside Bangladesh since 2019 due to life threats and possible police persecution, got no news of his family’s whereabouts for two days, till he received a call from a friend informing him that his family members are being held at the local police station.

At the same time, several far-right Islamic organisations staged protests seeking Noor be hanged to death immediately. Noor’s persecution caught the eye of international humanitarian organisations and July 21, Amnesty International issued a statement, condemning the “harassment and intimidation of the parents of blogger Asad Noor.”

But that did not deter the extremists. Bangladesh’s largest religious organization Hefazat-e-Islam’s Narayanganj district unit president Abdul Awal said on July 24 at a gathering to offer namaaz, “We would have torn the atheists into pieces and soothed the pained hearts of the Muslims, only if we could reach them. Unfortunately, we are not being able to reach them at present.”

HOME AWAY FROM HOME

Germany at present is home to some of the leading atheist bloggers of Bangladesh who could have got killed any day – Asif Mohiuddin, Mahmudul Haque Munshi ‘Bandhon’ and Ananya Azad. The bloggers’ own politics on capital punishment are at odds with liberal arguments that criticise death penalty as inhuman and unnecessary.

They played leading roles in the Shahbag movement (February-May 2013) that sought capital punishment for ‘war criminals’ – Islamists who sided with the Pakistan army during the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1970-71.

“When we demanded capital punishment for the war criminals, the fundamentalists sought our capital punishment for blasphemy. But they did not stop at seeking punishment for us, they started killing us. And the government sided with them, echoing their allegations that the atheists were offending religious sentiments. This is not the Bangladesh that the freedom fighters wanted to see,” said Munshi.

Critics point out that Munsi, despite his ‘atheist’ politics, did not think twice before calling for the now famous gathering at Shahbag, Dhaka on February 5, 2013 where they demanded capital punishment for Jamaat-e-Islami leader Abdul Quader Molla. Mollah was finally sentenced to death by the Supreme Court of Bangladesh in September 2013 and hanged on December 12, 2013. Munshi, however, earned many more enemies on October 24, 2014, when he threw a shoe at the hearse of Ghulam Azam, a former head of Jamaat-e-Islami leader who had been convicted of war crime and died in prison, during Azam’s funeral procession.

Under threat from Jamaat supporters, Munshi fled the country in 2015, alongwith his wife. Leaving the country led him to embrace new struggles – learning German and preparing himself for getting a job to sustain his life there.
According to Munshi’s estimate, 276 secular and atheist bloggers and activists are living in exile in countries across the globe.

The battle between secularism and fundamentalism in Bangladesh has its roots in the political history of the land. People inhabiting the eastern part of undivided Bengal in undivided India were fraught between the ideas of Bengali nationalism and Islamic separatism since the 1920s. In 1947, choosing religion over language, they separated from the Bengali-speaking Hindu-majority western Bengal (in India) and became East Pakistan.

But in 1970-71, a majority of them chose linguistic identity over the religious one – they fought for Bengali nationalism and coined the slogan Joy Bangla (Victory to Bengal) – and separated from Urdu-speaking Islamic nation of Pakistan through a bloody war.

However, in 1974, barely two years after Bangladesh adopted a secular constitution, poet Daud Haider had to leave the country after fundamentalist forces took to the streets accusing him of insulting Islam. Haider has been living in Germany since 1976. By 1979, ‘secularism’ was removed from Bangladesh’ original Constitution and ‘Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Rahim’ (In the name of Allah, the beneficent and merciful) was incorporated in it. In 1988, Islam was declared the state religion.

Asad Noor
Fundamentalist organisations demanding atheists be hanged in Bangladesh.

The 1994 furor against poet-writer Taslima Nasreen that forced her to leave Bangladesh for good was more militant in nature than the protests of 1974. And in February 2004, eminent writer and Dhaka University professor Humayun Azad was attacked with daggers for a novel the excerpts of which had been published in a daily newspaper. He was found dead in his Munich apartment on August 12, 2004, just four days after landing in Germany with a scholarship under the PEN ‘writers in exile’ programme. The family refused to buy the official version that he died of a heart attack in his sleep. In Bangladesh, trial in the case of attack on him is yet to be concluded.

Humayun Azad’s son, Ananya, has been living in Germany since 2015. Azad describes himself as ‘anti-national,’ ‘anti-religion’, ‘anti-racist’ and ‘crusader for free speech, human rights, and equal right’. In Germany, he has been busy studying and writing. In July this year, he received a full scholarship for doing a one-year masters’ degree in human rights from the Central European University.
“My returning to my country will have only one consequence – death,” said Azad.

ROLE OF SHEIKH HASINA GOVERNMENT

The latest round of battle between secular and fundamentalist forces was triggered after Sheikh Hasina came to power for her second term in 2009 and, in the next year, constituted the International Crime Tribunal as per her pre-election promise of trying ‘war criminals’. In a separate development in 2010, the Supreme Court restored the word secular is the constitution. The secular camp saw in these developments a great opportunity to corner the Islamists and demanded that the government also remove Islam as the state religion to restore the nation to its original secular status.

A blogger who goes by the name Himu Brown and has been living in Nepal since 2015 along with his family recalled how the tension between atheist bloggers and fundamentalists started growing since 2009-2010. “During 2010-11, we received frequent threats but never took those seriously. We mostly made fun of those among ourselves. We never imagined someone could be killed for writing,” he said.

In Nepal, he had to undergo a great deal of struggle to make ends meet because the UNHCR gave him refugee status but not the Nepal government. Therefore, he is not eligible to join any job there. Himu lives frugally, as he is solely dependent on donations from friends and international human rights organisations who sympathise with his plight. But that has not softened his political stance.

Attacks on atheist bloggers started when a group of men descended upon popular atheist blogger Asif Mohiuddin, then 29 years old, with sharp weapons on January 14, 2013. After the gathering at Shahbag kept getting bigger, Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh’s largest Islamic political party, and Hefazat-e-Islam, the country’s largest socio-religious organization, strongly reacted to this protest, threatening the government and protesters of dire consequences. On February 15, blogger and Shahbag movement activist Ahmed Rajib Haidar was attached with machetes and killed.

HuffPost India
Ananya Azad, whose father was attacked for rationalist writing and later died in Germany, also fled the country for his blogging.

Gradually, atheists became targets of some militant groups inspired by Al Qaeda and the Islamic State (Isis).

Bloggers were additionally targeted by the government, even though they were mostly supporters of the ruling party, Awami League, which they hoped to be the only secular political option for Bangladesh.

Mohiuddin, who narrowly survived the attempt on his life - he was attacked with machetes on the streets - and spent about a month in hospital, ended up in jail. He was arrested on April 3, 2013, on charge of offending religious sentiments. His arrest came two days after the arrest of three atheist bloggers – Subrata Shuvo, Russel Pervez and Moshiur Rahman Biplob.

Looking back at the past decade, Ananya Azad said that he sees public participation in the rationalist movement increasing, while oppression by the state and threats by the fundamentalists have also amplified.

“Bangladesh’s freethinking and rationalist movement is wounded. Under an undemocratic societal system, religious influence has hugely increased. There has been Islamization of school textbooks. The rationalist movement has slowed down, hit hurdles, but is far from being finished. At present, it is largely being led by people living abroad,” Azad said.

One of those leading persons is Asif Mohiuddin. In June he wrote on Facebook that the Bangladesh government blocked their website four times and each time they came up with a new address. He also alleged that the government continued to slap cases against the websites and those behind them.

“Helpless Bangladesh government keeps banning our website. First, nastikya (atheism) dot com, then shongshoy (doubt) dot com, songshoy dot org and finally shogshoy dot info… one humble website is making Bangladesh tremble, leaving the bigot fundamentalists naked, so that there is no way but to ban it. This joy is not expressible in words… we will make a world record of getting banned and we will come back every time,” Mohiuddin wrote.

He has been advising the people of Bangladesh to use VPN and the Tor browser to access their sites and recently claimed that their sites were getting significant hits from Bangladesh despite the ban.

These exiled bloggers do not regret taking on religion. According to Munshi, “We may have had to pay quite a heavy price but the gains are also visible. New generation of rationalists are coming up in spite of what happened to us and they too are embracing our fate. But they are not giving up.”

Himu lives frugally, as he is solely dependent on donations from friends and international human rights organisations who sympathise with his plight.

One of these new generation atheist bloggers is Asad Noor, who started blogging in 2016, when bloggers had already started leaving the country in their dozens. Noor spent 15 months in jail in two terms during 2017-18, first on charge of hurting religious sentiment and then, intriguingly, for smuggling. After the government confiscated his passport, and fundamentalist organisations kept issuing threats to his life, Noor fled Bangladesh fearing his life and entered West Bengal without a passport and was jailed for nine months. He is currently out on bail and in hiding.

In Kolkata’s Presidency Jail, Noor met a person who was accused in the Khagragarh blast case, an accidental explosion in 2014 in Burdwan district of West Bengal at a hideout of Bangladesh-based banned terror group Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen (Bangladesh), or JMB.

HuffPost India
Fundamentalist organisations holding a protest demanding death penalty for an atheist writer.

“The terror accused told me that he got involved for the sake of Allah and sought my sympathy. I told him on his face that he was a fool. He later said he would have killed me had he not met me inside the jail,” said Noor, who has been living in hiding since getting released on bail from the Indian jail.
Following the recent harassment of his family members, Noor said, “The police also dialed my number, and threatened me against continuing my activities online.”

Another young atheist blogger is Md. Sazzadul Haque, who had to leave Bangladesh for India after a Facebook post criticising Islam went viral. Haque, who is studying in India, calls himself an atheist and humanist. According to him, it is better to take up other struggles “than to surrender freethinking before bigotry.”

“I reluctantly left my country after realizing that no corner of Bangladesh was safe for me,” he said.

According to journalist Omar Faroque, a special correspondent of the Dhaka-based Somoy TV, atheist bloggers would not be safe in Bangladesh even now. “There would not be much societal pressure on them, just like there was no major case of social harassment of atheist bloggers even at that time. They faced threats from religious organisations and militant groups. And that threat prevails,” he said.

Faroque remembers that there was a concerted vilification campaign against atheists – by sharing on social media select parts of the bloggers’ so-called ‘offensive’ writings – before and after every killing to create public opinion in favour of those terrorist acts.

“With this vilification campaign, terrorists and fundamentalist forces managed to dissuade a section of the mass from protesting the killings. The episode also revealed that in Bangladesh one could be cornered by branding her or him as an atheist,” said Farooq.

Of course, there are rationalists inside Bangladesh, including young ones. Marufur Rahman Khan is a 21-year-old and one of the editors of Shongshoy who lives in Bangladesh. Khan said that some of the bloggers living in the country use pen names, while others who reveal their real identity write on science and women’s issues but avoid direct criticism of religious beliefs.

“Islamists can freely publish books and air their opinion against atheism, secularism, feminism, and homosexuality. But members from these communities are not allowed to express their beliefs or the lack of it. Too few in the country can write anything under their own name directly criticizing religion,” said Khan.

He still hopes to continue his battle without having to leave his country.