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Extremist killing of atheist bloggers stirs panic in Bangladesh | Nathan Vanderklippe

26 August 2015

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The Globe and Mail - August 23, 2015

[by] Nathan Vanderklippe
Dhaka, Bangladesh

The day he was hacked to death with a butcher’s blade, Niloy Chatterjee slept in. Muslims in Bangladesh were preparing for Friday morning prayers but Mr. Chatterjee, an outspoken atheist, had no such demands on his time. He rose at 11 a.m. and walked to a nearby vegetable market while his wife of two years, Asa Moni, scrubbed pots at home.

He returned with potatoes and salt, sweaty from the humidity that drenches Dhaka in the final weeks of the rainy season. He showered, then sat down on his bed with his laptop.

Moments later, he was dead.

A mild-mannered philosopher, his apartment was crowded with hundreds of books, including the Koran, the Bible and treatises on theology. Home was his library and his pulpit, where he could think, write and dissect what he saw as the frailties of religion. “He wanted people to break free of their religious rigidity,” Ms. Asa Moni, 27, told The Globe and Mail in her first interview after the killing, which she witnessed. “There is so much unrest and war in the name of religion, and that’s making the world not a peaceful place.”

But the critiques Mr. Chatterjee, 40, published online stirred fury among some Muslims, and his death in early August marked the fourth killing of an atheist blogger this year in a country facing a new threat from a wave of vicious extremism.

Local security forces have now arrested five people they say were behind the attacks.

Among them is a British citizen taken into custody last week who, according to authorities, was the lead planner of two deaths. Each of the dead bloggers was hacked to death in a similarly brutal manner.

In Bangladesh, however, the arrests did little to calm fears about the fragility of a national consensus that has, since independence in 1971, maintained a secular government over a population that is 90 per cent Muslim – more than Syria and on par with Egypt. Some see the country at a crossroads.

“There are only two ways to go here. We can find a way to live in a pluralist society,” said Parvez Alam, 30, a writer and blogger whose name is on a hit list disseminated by an Islamist extremist group.

The alternative is grim, a “situation that will be worse than what’s in Syria or Iraq. We are a highly populated country, and any form of internal violence will cost a lot of lives,” Mr. Alam said.

Mr. Chatterjee and Ms. Asa Moni met at a local science and logic club devoted to celebrating rationalist thought and they grew close over a common disenchantment with religion. As a teen, Ms. Asa Moni rebelled against a conservative Muslim upbringing, leaving behind a remote rural home that, because she was a girl, had kept her indoors “like in a cage” as her brothers played outside. In her village, girls married as young as 12.

But she left, moving to Dakha to join a rising class of areligious youth who dreamed of making Bangladesh more like themselves. They attended Darwin Days, opened libraries with books on Western thinking, studied their own pioneers of liberal thought – a homegrown Bengali tradition that dates back more than a century – and, in early 2013, gathered with tens of thousands of others on Dhaka streets in the Shahbag movement that agitated for change and the execution of war criminals, many of them conservative Muslims.

“It was a different kind of spirit for the country,” Ms. Asa Moni said.

Now, that spirit has been replaced by a panic that has young intellectuals abandoning public events, installing security gates on their homes and questioning their own futures, and that of their country.

Independence was hard-won in Bangladesh, which before 1971 was called East Pakistan and ruled by Karachi. Self-determination came only after fighting in which hundreds of thousands were killed – and the decades that followed have seen women stoned, schools burned down and dozens killed by gasoline bombs.

Radical clerics have called for the establishment of an Islamic state in Bangladesh with sharia law.

“It’s come in waves,” said Khushi Kabir, a prominent human-rights activist in Dhaka. “This time it’s the bloggers.”

Their killings nonetheless mark a particularly vicious turn, sparking worry that an international extremist movement – and training – is grabbing hold in Bangladesh.

“It’s basically the same agenda that is happening globally, a certain group of people are trying to push an agenda of what their version of Islam is,” Ms. Kabir said.

Anxiety is particularly acute among the young intellectuals whose online writing has attracted the ire of religious extremists.

Some bloggers have been provocative, mocking Islam and challenging its adherents to question their faith. Mr. Chatterjee questioned why a powerful Allah could not build his own mosques, so Muslims could give their money to starving children. Avijit Roy, the first blogger slashed to death this year, called religion a virus whose biological origins he equated to rape and murder.

Such writings were controversial even among fellow atheists.

“They were a bit irresponsible,” Mr. Alam said. “You cannot change a society that doesn’t trust you, that hates you, that wants to kill you.”

Mr. Alam has sought to bridge religious differences to enable dialogue. He desires a country “where people are more tolerant about each other’s views.”

Still, the blogger deaths have scared him. He recently installed a welded metal gate at the foot of his stairs and two dogs now stand guard outside his room.

“After Niloy was killed in his home, I got a bit paranoid,” he says.

He and others are regularly threatened on Facebook and in text messages. But they have continued to write. Put down pens and “the whole country would fall into the hands of the fanatics and extremists,” said Shammi Haque, 19, another blogger in hiding for months.

The killings have underscored the price of speaking out even for those long accustomed to violence. Ajoy Roy, 79, is a secular activist who fought for independence during the country’s liberation war; more recently, he translated part of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion into Bengali. He is the recipient of Bangladesh’s highest civilian award and the founder of the Mukto-Mona blog, which his son, Avijit, edited, before he was killed in February.

The night of his son’s attack, Mr. Roy watched surgeons vainly struggle to repair the horrifying knife wounds. Months later, he is physically weakened by the loss. “His death has shattered me in many ways,” the elder Mr. Roy said. “He could have given the country much more.”

Mr. Roy knows the countercurrents buffeting his country. He sees the madrasas – religious schools – spreading conservative Islam in poor rural villages and the burkas that are becoming more visible on the streets. He has also seen the Bangladeshi supreme court recently deregister Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami – barring it from contesting future elections – while a younger generation discovers a political voice to agitate against extremism.

He believes the latter will prevail. The death of his son and others is “a setback,” he said. “But I still believe that killing a few bloggers in this way is not going to stop the progress of the country.”

Others worry worse days may yet lie ahead.

“There will be a dawn, that’s what I’d like to believe,” said Ms. Kabir, the human-rights activist. “But how long will the darkness last? And how dark will it become?”

For Ms. Asa Moni, hope is far from mind. For three nights after Mr. Chatterjee died, she screamed into the darkness, plagued by images of the attack.

The knock on the door came as her husband tapped at his computer. She opened the door to a strange man who said the landlord had sent him to look at the apartment.

The man was perhaps 20 years old, thin and dressed in a black T-shirt and blue jeans. He walked around twice, then stood in front of the kitchen and began mashing buttons on his mobile phone.

Moments later, three people barged into the apartment, brandishing a gleaming chapati, a rectangular cleaver made to splinter bone. They said nothing, instead moving straight toward Mr. Chatterjee, who had come to the bedroom door.

With their first swing, they severed parts of one hand. Chunks of his fingers fell to the floor.

“Who are you guys?” was all Mr. Chatterjee could manage before an attacker brandishing a pistol pushed Ms. Asa Moni onto the apartment’s veranda. “Save us! Save us!” she screamed.

But the attack was viciously efficient. The men left within minutes, Mr. Chatterjee’s head almost completely severed from his body.

In the days since, Ms. Asa Moni has only found sleep after a psychiatrist prescribed a heavy dose of pills. Rest has not brought peace. Local Muslim media have circulated a video of her drinking alcohol and attacked her as an apostate. Her own family has “started to hate me for all of this.” She fears for her own life.

“My best friend, my husband is gone. How can I survive in a conservative society like this where I am not safe because I am a woman?” she says. “I want to leave. I don’t want to die here.”

P.S.

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