“By the permission of Allah this operation took place today [August 7, 2015] … We, al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent [AQIS], claim responsibility for this operation as vengeance for the honor of the messenger of Allah … And, we declare war against these worst enemies of Allah and His Messenger. We will all our effort to destroy them along with their [sic] allies insha’Allah.” (Tribune Online Report)
This statement was released by an Islamist group that Americans are all too familiar with. AQIS claimed responsibility for the murder of Niloy Chatterjee, also known as Niloy Neel in the United Kingdom and the West. (Fidalgo) Chaterjee was a 40 year-old secularist blogger and co-founder of the Bangladesh Rationalist Society. (Paul)
Chatterjee’s death marks the fourth such death at the hands of Islamist terrorists in Bangladesh in 2015 alone. (Fidalgo). According to the Dhaka Tribune, Chaterjee posted on Facebook that he had been mentioned as anti-Islam in a radical Islamist blog written a pan-Islamic political leader by the name of Shafiur Rahman Farabi (Tribune Online Report). According to Bangladeshi officials, Farabi is in prison for instigating these attacks on secular activists. (Tribune Online Report) According to the Center for Inquiry’s timeline of murders in and around the Dhaka area, a pattern emerges of locals using machetes to hack their victims into pieces. Assaults and murders date back to 1999 (de Dora).
Bangladesh has been largely behind the times when it comes to the information revolution. Today, 1 in 4 Bangladeshis have access to the internet in some form, mostly through their mobile phones. (Inu, Qiltik and al-Hussein) Innocuous trends similar to those in the West, like selfies, are now popular amongst most Bangladeshis. However, social media would play a role in the largely political uprising seen throughout the Muslim world known to many of us as the Arab Spring. Bangladesh would owe a shift in the political landscape to the Arab Spring in the Middle East.
Bangladesh has a long history of ethnic and religious violence. In 1971, Bangladesh declared its independence from Pakistan and fought a war with Pakistan. During the 9 months that ensued anywhere from 300,000 to 3 million Bangladeshis were murdered by the Pakistani army and Islam militias in what is known as the 1971 Bangladesh genocide. (Dummett) (Al Jazeera) Many members of the pro-Pakistani forces entered Bangladesh’s political system under the right wing party Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh. (Islam)
Between 2010 and 2013, 11 Islamists in Jamaat and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party were indicted for war crimes. The entire process was welcomed by the world community, but heavily criticized by human rights organizations due to some glaring problems with the tribunals including problems with due process and a lack of transparency on the part of the tribunal. (Adams). Human Rights Watch also implored the Bangladeshi government to protect defense attorneys as they were not popular with the majority of Bangladesh. (Human Rights Watch).
Things came to a head in 2013, when Abdul Quader Mollah was tried and convicted for war crimes by the tribunal. Quader Mollah was convicted of killing 344 people and other war crimes as a member of the Al-Badar militia, a pro-Pakistani militia during the 1971 genocide. The International Crime Tribunal sentenced Quader Mollah to life in prison. (International Crimes Tribunal-2 Dhaka, Bangladesh).
This sentence sparked outrage on both sides of the issue in Bangladesh. People in the Jamaat party called for a general strike the day before the verdict was announced in protest of Quader Mollah’s conviction. The Hindu Times also reported that Jamaat had carried out terrorist attacks during the tribunal “on a scale which even suggested that the movement was challenging the state, the independence of which it had violently opposed four decades later.” (Habib)
On the other side of the issue, there were a number of younger people who believed that Mollah’s punishment was too lenient. They took to social media to air their disagreement and eventually began to gather at Shahbagh intersection in peaceful protest. The Shabagh protestors published their list of demands including the death penalty for Quader Mollah and all war criminals convicted by the ICT (BBC News), and a permanent ban on the Jamaat party from Bangladeshi politics (brdnews24.com)
The Bangladesh State Minister for Law, Quamrul Islam, stated that had the Shabagh protests taken place before the verdict, it might have affected the outcome of the sentencing. Islam and the Bangladeshi government decided to amend the law to allow for the government to appeal the sentences handed down by the second International Crimes Tribunal, known as the ICT-2. The first International Crimes Tribunal was known as ICT-1. This change in law caused an escalation amongst the pro-Jamaat protestors, who called for another general strike the next day. The amendment passed (The Daily Star), and the government sought to have Quader Mollah’s sentence changed. Eventually, the ICT-2 sentenced Quader Mollah to death. Quader Mollah was hanged on December 12, 2013.
The entire authencity of Bangladesh’s International Crimes Tribunals was called into question by the magazine The Economist when it published leaked Skype calls and e-mails from then head of the ICT-1, Mohammed Nizamul Huq and a Brussels-based Bangladeshi attorney named Ahmed Ziauddin. The leaked correspondence indicated that the ICT-1 was neither independent nor neutral towards the defendents who appeared in the courtroom. The leaked correspondence also indicated that the Bangladeshi government wanted swift resolution to the tribunal, regarless of whether or not justice was served. It should be noted that Huq didn’t preside over Quader Mollah’s trial, as he was convicted in ICT-2, not ICT-1. (The Economist)
The response from Jamaat was violent, they began arson campaigns. This is also the point where we begin to see the current pattern of hacking victims with machetes. Jamaat has since been banned in Bangladesh due to their violent response which is ongoing. (Tribune Online Report)
So what does this have to do with Chatterjee? Secular bloggers were at the forefront of the Shabagh protests in its early stages. (Inu, Qiltik and al-Hussein) Islamists drew up a list of the bloggers whom they thought were using “hate language” towards Islam, which the Islamist groups then handed over to the Bangladesh Home Ministry (Inu, Qiltik and al-Hussein). Bangladesh’s Minister of Information confirmed on May 30, 2015 in a BBC interview that six bloggers had been held for violating Bangladesh’s anti-blasphemy laws, but were released on bail by the time of the interview. (Inu, Qiltik and al-Hussein). This began a tactic amongst Islamists of exploiting laws and rules against secularists in order to stifle their voices of the fledgling movement in the Muslim world.
Secularists in Bangladesh face a dilemma. One horn of the dilemma is that secularists face assault or death in the face of their speaking out against religion. The other horn, especially in the Muslim world, is that Islamists will exploit weaknesses in law enforcement and other systems to silence secularists. In Bangladesh, many secularist bloggers were arrested for blasphemy. (Inu, Qiltik and al-Hussein). A similar pattern has been picked up lately, only the battleground is no longer Bangladesh, it is the internet itself.
On Mukto-Mona, a blog at the center of the Shabagh movement and targeted by Bangladeshi Islamists, author Arifur Rahman claims that there are several online cabals of Islamists who exist to report content in oder to subvert or exploit Facebook’s system for maintaining community standards. One such cabal is known as Islamic Reporting Group. According to a picture posted on Mukto-Mona, Islamic Reporting Group has nearly 55,000 members and is a closed group, which means in order to join the group, you will need to be solicited by the group’s leaders. (Rahman)
These groups may be altering Facebook’s programming in order to facilitate heavy reporting of content that they deem as blasphemous, or merely offensive. Rahman provides screen shots on his blog of the possible alterations to Facebook’s code. And at the end of the reporting group’s campaign, Facebook reports back to the user who initiated the reporting to update them of the status of their complaint. When successful, the Islamic reporting group celebrates and reports this to their members. (Rahman)
Major social media sites, including Facebook, have been known to outsource their site moderation to companies overseas. (Chen) Often times, final decisions of account suspensions are determined in the United States, where a better understanding of the English language is needed to accurately determine any nuance that may contextualize posts that are reported as being in violation of Facebook’s Community Standards (Chen). However, it is unknown by this writer whether or not the account suspensions reported by Mukto-Mona were decided in the United States or elsewhere. This writer reached out to Facebook to see if they could answer this question. Facebook has yet to reply.
What also remains to be seen is what role secular bloggers had in the calls for the death penalty to be given to Quader Mollah, if any. Experts seem clear that secular bloggers had an integral role at the beginning of that Shabagh movement in Bangladesh. This writer was not able to find any evidence that any of the murdered bloggers made any statements in relation to asking for the death penalty for Quader Mollah. Whether or not such evidence exists may have little to do with Bangladeshi Islamists’ reasoning behind targeting secularist bloggers. However, given the overall context of this story, it is an important thing to keep in mind.
That is not to say that what has been going on in Bangladesh shouldn’t enrage secularists in the West. We need to stand with our fellow secularists anywhere they are in the world, and help them in any way we can to fight for their freedom of thought and expression.
American secularists, particularly in the anti-theist/atheist camps tend to obsess over the dower and often pedestrian attacks offered against our views by theist Americans. We tend to take dissension in speech for granted. People make empty threats against outspoken atheists with predictable frequency. For now, we in the West, but particularly the United States, are allowed to express our opinions without fear of arrest. In Bangladesh, one need only offend Islamic religious sentiment to be put in jail. We must not take our freedoms so cavalierly, as most of the rest of the world doesn’t yet have these freedoms.
What’s going on in Bangladesh should be a wake-up call, and a warning. The secularist movement needs to embrace those people brave enough to speak out against an overwhelming majority in a land whose laws are hostile to freedom of thought and expression. However, we must also champion transparency in judicial proceedings and laws that are fair and guarantee due process, despite the optics and polling to suggest otherwise.
A popular sentiment for justice in light of Bangladesh’s violent birth went horribly wrong when they lost both the patience and the transparency needed to execute justice. Things spiraled out of control when people on both sides of the belief and political divide consolidated their voice and demanded what they had determined was proper justice. A group was legally silenced only to reciprocate by permanently silencing those they found culpable in the political murder of their leader.
Principles of due process seem lopsided in the face of genocide and crimes against humanity, and given what I’ve learned to be the history of Bangladesh, I can certainly empathize with the Bangladeshis’ wish for death to be dealt to those who perpetrated the genocide. The case of Bangladesh’s war crimes tribunal highlights the long-term damage that the death penalty has for people in a civilized society. Our need for immediate justice is sated most efficiently by the death penalty, but the damage it causes, especially in a society divided along religious and ethnic faults can be catastrophic. The death penalty cannot lead to an equitably peaceful society in any way.
However, secularists in Bangladesh are in serious need of assistance. We must support the secularists worldwide who endanger their lives and their families lives where ever and however we can; all while vigilantly maintaining our freedoms here at home. We must guard against our transparencies becoming opaque due to monetary and religious influence in government. We must exercise our free speech and our goodwill. We must fight for further separation between church and state, lest we end up in a nightmare state of theocratic oligarchs who rule by the machete blade.
If you can donate money, please contact the Center For Inquiry. They are a non-profit organization who has set up an emergency fund to assist secularists around the world who face this level of threat every day. If you can, donate to their Freethought Emergency Fund so that we can offer support to those in need of assistance.
UPDATE (6:31 pm AZ Time): Another place you can check out to support Bangladeshi secularists is Movement, a beta site which crowdsources human rights issues across the planet.
Adams, Brad. “Letter to the Bangladesh Prime Minister regarding the International Crimes (Tribunals) Act.” New York: Human Rights Watch, 18 May 2011. Internet/Letter. 7 August 2015. http://www.hrw.org/news/2011/05/18/letter-bangladesh-prime-minister-regarding-international-crimes-tribunals-act.
Al Jazeera. Bangladesh sets up war crimes court. 25 March 2010. Internet. 7 August 2015. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/asia/2010/03/2010325151839747356.html.
BBC News. Huge Bangladesh rally seeks death penalty for war crimes. 8 February 2013. Internet. 7 August 2015. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-21383632.
brdnews24.com. Cry for Jamaat ban. 2 August 2013. Internet. 7 August 2015. http://bdnews24.com/bangladesh/2013/02/08/cry-for-jamaat-ban.
Chen, Adrian. The Laborers Who Keep Dick Pics and Beheadings Out of Your Facebook Feed. 23 October 2014. Internet. 7 August 2015. http://www.wired.com/2014/10/content-moderation/.
de Dora, Michael. Democratic Discourse. 12 May 2015. Internet. 7 August 2015. http://www.centerforinquiry.net/blogs/entry/timeline_of_attacks_on_bangladeshi_writers_and_bloggers/.
Dummett, Mark. Magazine. 16 December 2011. BBC. Internet. 7 August 2015. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-16207201
Fidalgo, Paul. “Islamists Kill Fourth Secularist Blogger in Bangladesh; Center for Inquiry Demands Decisive Action.” Amherst: Center For Inquiry, 7 August 2015. Internet. 7 August 2015. http://www.centerforinquiry.net/newsroom/islamists_kill_fourth_secularist_blogger_in_bangladesh_center_for_inquiry_d/.
Habib, Haroon. At Shahbagh, Bangladesh’s fourth awakening . 16 February 2013. Internet. 7 August 2015. http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/at-shahbagh-bangladeshs-fourth-awakening/article4419445.ece.
Human Rights Watch. Bangladesh: Stop Harassment of Defense Attorneys at Tribunal. 2 November 2011. Internet. 7 August 2015. http://www.trust.org/item/?map=bangladesh-stop-harassment-of-defense-at-war-tribunal.
International Crimes Tribunal-2 Dhaka, Bangladesh. “Summary of verdict in Quader Molla case.” 6 February 2013. The Daily Star (Archived). Internet. 7 August 2015. http://archive.thedailystar.net/newDesign/news-details.php?nid=268072.
Inu, Hasanul Haq, Arf Qiltik and Ahmed al-Hussein. Bangladesh’s Murdered Bloggers. with Mukul Debichand and Charlin Roma. BBC News World Service. BBC, London. 30 July 2015. Radio Broadcast. 7 August 2015. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02xzfvc.
Islam, Norzul. Islamic party wants to expel minorties, reunify with Pakistan. 3 July 2013. Internet. 7 August 2015. http://www.asianews.it/news-en/Islamic-party-wants-to-expel-minorities,-reunify-with-Pakistan-27323.html.
Paul, Ruma. Reuters. 7 August 2015. Internet. 7 August 2015. http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/08/07/uk-bangladesh-blogger-idUKKCN0QC15020150807?irpc=932>.
Rahman, Arifur. Islamic Digital Terrorism: Story of Syndicated Terror Attacks of Secular Voices. Vers. English Version. 27 July 2015. Internet. 2015 August 2015. http://enblog.mukto-mona.com/2015/07/27/islamic-digital-terrorism-story-of-syndicated-attack-on-secular-voices/.
The Daily Star. Provision for appeal endorsed. 12 February 2013. Internet. 7 August 2013. archive.thedailystar.net/newDesign/news-details.php?nid=268783.
The Economist. Trying war crimes in Bangladesh: The trial of the birth of a nation. 15 December 2013. Internet/Print. 7 August 2015. http://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21568349-week-chairman-bangladeshs-international-crimes-tribunal-resigned-we-explain.
Tribune Online Report. AQIS says its members killed Niloy Neel. 7 August 2015. Internet. 7 August 2015. http://www.dhakatribune.com/crime/2015/aug/07/aqis-says-its-members-killed-niloy-neel#sthash.vmUTlCdM.dpuf.