By Tahmima Anam
Over the last few weeks, the body count of intolerance has been unbearably high in Bangladesh.
It started when an Italian aid worker named Cesare Tavella was shot to death in the capital, Dhaka, at the end of September. Days later, a Japanese man by the name of Konio Hoshi was gunned down in the northern district of Rangpur. At a procession to mark Ashura, the Shiite festival commemorating the martyrdom of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Imam Hussein, a series of bomb blasts caused scores of injuries and the death of a 16-year-old boy named Sajjad Hossain Sanju.
And this past weekend, in two separate incidents, two publishers and two bloggers were viciously attacked. One has died of his wounds, and the other three men are in critical condition.
The most recent attacks echo the unsolved killings earlier this year of five secularist bloggers and activists: Rajib Haider, Avijit Roy, Oyasiqur Rahman, Ananta Bijoy Das and, in August, Niladri Chattopadhyay. Two of the weekend’s victims, Ahmedur Rashid Tutul and Faisal Arefin Dipan, are publishers of books by Mr. Roy. The latest attacks were as brazen as they were brutal: The assailants entered the offices of the victims, hacked at their heads with machetes and cleavers, and fled the scene, locking the doors behind them — helping to ensure that Mr. Dipan died of his injuries before he could receive medical attention.
Since Mr. Tavella’s death, there has been a growing dispute between a group of foreign intelligence agencies (including those of the United States, Canada, Britain and Australia) and the Bangladeshi government over who is responsible for the recent spate of attacks. The intelligence agencies have claimed that they passed on to the government credible evidence of the presence of Islamic State militants in Bangladesh.
For its part, the Bangladeshi government has repeatedly stressed its belief that the attacks come from within — from extremists possibly allied with the opposition parties — and not from an external terrorist network. It is true that homegrown extremist organizations have operated in Bangladesh in the past, and that there have been links between terrorist groups and some Islamist political parties.
As attacks continue, however, the government’s repeated refusal to consider alternative explanations is deeply frustrating, not least to the families of the victims. Since last weekend, another publisher has received a death threat yet the Home Affairs minister’s response has been to call these attacks “isolated incidents” that could have happened anywhere.
In the face of such apathy, it would be easy to throw up our hands and say we, citizens and friends of Bangladesh, are merely victims, caught between extremists and the state. But we can and should do much more.
First, Bangladeshis must question whether we are still committed to the country’s founding principles. Yes, Bengal has traditionally been the source of a syncretic, tolerant version of Islam; yes, Bangladesh gained its independence on a platform of religious and ethnic diversity; yes, our constitution is a secular one; and yes, we have, in every national election, voted in favor of secular democracy over religious law.
But we have failed these founding principles, and we can no longer say that we are a tolerant, secular republic. It is time to face the fact that there is a free speech crisis in Bangladesh, and everyone — the state, its citizens and whatever radical groups exist within and without its borders — is responsible.
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