(Edited by Ramon Loyola and Michele Seminara)
Certain concepts of religion are for human welfare, but religious extremism is always devastating for humanity. Therefore, in the interests of humanity, we Bangladeshi secular writers criticise religious extremism and the blind following of any cult, through our poetry, our short stories, essays and blogs. This is why Al-Qaeda, ISIS and their collaborators in Bangladesh always attack secular bloggers, writers, poets and intellectuals first. Many freethinkers like us were put to death, when all we wanted to do was to enlighten the hearts of the youth of our country.
In attempting to do so we have noticed that it is not only the prejudiced and preoccupied religious political parties, but also the so-called secular government, who are afraid of us. When citizens become liberal, they no longer fear protesting against government autocracy and corruption. As a result, the Bangladeshi government has become more lenient towards extremism and has started shutting down all secular activist platforms to appease the extremists.
When there was still freedom of expression in Bangladesh, the younger generation used social media and blogs to express their opinions. The eternal battle between the rational and the radical played itself out on many blogging websites and in social media. This lead to an increased following of rational writers on social media platforms. Bloggers established the ‘Public Awakening Platform’ (‘Gonojagoron Moncho’), and the people of Bangladesh held protests against religious radicalisation in huge rallies in Shahbag.
Sensing imminent danger, Muslim religious extremists led a global campaign, claiming that Islam was now an endangered faith in Bangladesh. They alleged that freethinkers, bloggers and writers, and the views they expressed against radicalism, would lead the Muslim population to become atheists. They called for immediate action to help silence writers and bloggers. Soon after, huge amounts of money came pouring in from the Middle East and other parts of the world. Terrorist organizations such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda came forward with full force to help fundamentalists within Bangladesh.
Simultaneously, Bangladeshi political parties became concerned that votes from radical fundamentalists would be lost (even though these radicals made up only four percent of the dedicated votes cast in national elections conducted over the last twenty years). Government ministers and officials were quoted as saying, ‘Ninety percent of Bangladeshis are Muslim. Bloggers must stop hurting religious sentiments’. The government appeared to be becoming more lenient towards extremists, which had the effect of further curtailing the freedom of speech in our country. Secular writers, bloggers, intellectuals and religious minorities suffered brutal oppression, with killings and assaults of these people occurring on a regular basis.
Meanwhile, on numerous blogs and online sites, hatred towards Muslims went into overdrive. This had the unfortunate effect of helping to fuel extremism among ordinary people, the very same people who had originally supported anti-extremist blogs. Ordinary citizens became afraid of religious fanatics, a circumstance that was not assisted by the government’s stance of doing nothing to protect innocent lives and of repeatedly denying the presence of terrorist networks in Bangladesh.
Since then, we no longer feel safe in our homes or our workplaces. Death chases us at every moment. In the last three years, Bangladeshi secular writers and bloggers have spent gruesome days and nights under the cloak of fear and apprehension, with many now operating their businesses and performing their work in secret while continuing the struggle against extremism, sometimes even without the knowledge of their own families.
Violent extremists such as ISIS have taken this opportunity to brainwash young people with the ideology of hatred, often exalting the possibility of a caliphate: ‘Bangladesh will be the new global frontier for jihadists. Enemies of Islam like America and Europe will be devastated from here’.
The extremists’ hate for secular writers and foreigners was reiterated by the devastating murder of seventeen foreigners and three Bangladeshis in July 2016. They attacked a café in Gulshan area in Dhaka City, where jihadists shot all the hostages before slaughtering them using sharp knives and machetes. Some of the dead bodies were found to have been stabbed many times over. Of the five young jihadist culprits, four came from rich families and studied in foreign universities. Only the leader, Khairul Islam, was from a poor family and had studied in an Islamic School.
Nowadays, fanatics are targeting non-Muslims and non-practising young Muslims, with the view to converting and brainwashing them into joining the radical movement, promising eternal paradise after their suicidal death. This situation can only be tackled through knowledge and awareness; through our poems, our stories and our blogs.
With the rise of violent extremism, we, the innocent writers, have become so preoccupied with the task of preserving our lives that we are now failing to deliver our most important duty: to enlighten the youth of Bangladesh with knowledge, science and ideas in order to attain peace and prosperity for our nation.
Each year, world ‘superpower’ countries spend billions of dollars on the ‘war on terror’. But how will war solve this hatred? When will they understand that this so-called ‘war on terror’ is actually creating more terrorists? The international community needs to maintain a strong global platform to support writers at risk if they wish to counter terrorism. They need to help strengthen the capacity of free speech organizations and provide financial support so that threatened writers can be swiftly assisted.
Martin Luther King Jr. once said: ‘The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.’ Half a century later, this remains true.
Kallol Majumdar is a Bangladeshi author.