With political protests raging in the capital city of Dhaka, government authorities in Bangladesh are tracking activist bloggers and Facebook users accused of making derogatory remarks about Islam and the Prophet Mohammed. This week, four bloggers have been detained, and officials say that seven more are to be arrested in the coming days.
Since early February, hundreds of thousands of people have been congregating in Dhaka’s Shahbag Square to demand justice for war crimes committed during Bangladesh's liberation from Pakistan in 1971. The Bloggers and Online Activists Network, a local group, initiated the call to occupy Shahbag Square and demand capital punishment for Jamaat-e-Islami Abdul Quader Mollah, secretary general of the Islamist party. The country’s International Crimes Tribunal (not to be confused with the International Criminal Court) recently found Mollah guilty of 344 counts of murder, rape, and torture committed during civil conflict in 1971. Since then, such demands have extended to all war criminals facing trial, many of whom have been living with impunity in Bangladesh for more than 40 years. While mostly peaceful, public protests have spread like wildfire across the country.
Tensions between political bloggers and Islamist party leaders escalated further after Ahmed Rajib Haider, a blogger at the forefront of the Shahbag movement who wrote frequently about religious fundamentalism in Bangladesh, was hacked to death outside his home in Dhaka on Feb. 15. This development came after Islamist leaders claimed that bloggers who support the ongoing Shahbag movement are atheist and anti-Islamic, and foster “anti-social” elements. Some Islamist activists even declared that bloggers involved in the protests would be slaughtered in public.
Among those now in detention is award-winning blogger Asif Mohiuddin, a self-proclaimed atheist who has been vocal for the Shahbag movement and has been an outspoken critic of religious politics in Bangladesh. A winner of the best social activism blog award from the 2012 Deutsche Welle Best of Blogs Awards, Mohiuddin has suffered backlash from his writing in the past. He was arrested in 2011 during an offline protest, and police suggested that he should stop writing. In a recent Facebook posting, he commented on threats he’d received: “Each day, many posts are published on religion. But when I wrote only that ‘I do not believe in traditional religions,’ I was attacked by many.” [Translated from Bangla]
Days before he was arrested, Mohiuddin’s blog, along with three others, was taken down by the operators of Somewhereinblog.net, a local hosting platform. Operators of the platform confirmed that they had received takedown requests from Bangladesh’s Telecommunications Regulatory Commission. Mohiuddin called the Commission's efforts to shut down blogs a dangerous precedent. He wrote:
“If the writings of any blogger defy any of the rules of the blog or are deemed illegal, then the blog owners can decide on that. Which posts should be published or not should be at the discretion of the blog platform, not the regulatory authorities. Just imagine: if the authorities can manage to shut down a voice by forcing the platforms to do so they’ll start believing that they can control the bloggers. They will always find another reason to block another blogger … and imagine what will happen if a radical Islamist government comes to power?” [Translated from Bangla]
As the government continues to target bloggers, human rights advocates in and outside the country have been swift to point out that Bangladesh protects the right to free expression in its constitution and that as a nonreligious parliamentary democracy, it has no sharia or blasphemy law. If a person claims to be an atheist, he or she has the same rights as other citizens. Yet Section 295A of Bangladesh's Penal Code (1860) presents what some might interpret as an exception to this right, stipulating that any person who has a “deliberate” or “malicious” intention of “hurting religious sentiments” can be subject to imprisonment. Whether Mohiuddin’s blogging has anything to do with inciting religious violence and hatred is yet to be proven.
Internet users and bloggers who have been involved in protests or participating in online discussions of the issues at stake have had strong reactions to these developments.
On Mukta Mona (Free Thinkers), a blog on freedom of expression, blogger Farhana Ahmed offered her theory on why atheists and secular online activists are being targeted:
I think there are two reasons behind this. The first one is theoretical, both the Islamist hardliner and practicing Muslims are skeptical about atheists. Religion is very powerful, sometimes more than the state such as when the state has to accept the help of religion. If any of those establishments are in trouble, they take refuge in religion. …
Religion accomplishes this job by deploying instruments like blind faith, taking things for granted, and keeping people in fear. When patriarchal oppression is protested by women, religion keeps them in check. Workers cannot revolt against autocratic employers as religion reminds them that for those who have less in this world, there is an afterlife waiting for them. To remain in power, the simplest of weapons is religion. …
The second reason is the reaction to the Shahbag mass uprising. Being labeled as an atheist is a distraction even among fellow protesters, so the atheists are becoming an easy target for the [religious political establishments] Jamaat-Shibir-Hijbut Tahrir. [Translated from Bangla]
On Facebook, blogger and activist Rayhan Rashid posited that the government might be utilizing rising religious tensions in order to broaden its power:
“There is a striking similarity between the commission's recent “anti-religion” ban order and the Jamaat-Shibir branding of the Shahbag protests as an “atheist movement”. Jamaat-Shibir wanted to taint the Shahbag movement, and they did so by inciting religious tensions and enacting a division/hatred strategy. The commission or the government might have also exploited this opportunity to assert some kind of control on these free speech platforms. “Atheism”, “hurting religious feelings” keywords are being used as opportunistic tools.” [Translated from Bangla]
Activists and online thought leaders in the country fear that threats against bloggers and other critics of Islamist political activities in Bangladesh may increase as protests continue.