No one in Bangladesh’s government wielded the machetes that hacked to death Xulhaz Mannan, a prominent LGBT activist and local USAID officer, at his home on Monday in Dhaka.
Just like no one in the Bangladeshi government actually perpetrated the murders of so many active bloggers before him in the last two years. Asif Mohiuddin or Ahmed Rajib Haider in 2013.
Or Shafiul Islam in 2014.
Or Avijit Roy or Washiqur Rahman or Ananta Bijoy Das or Niloy Neel or Faisal Arefin Dipan in 2015.
None of these names are necessarily household names in the United States or even in Bangladesh. In aggregate, however, they represent an audacious attempt by ultraconservative Islamists to silence the secular voices in the world’s eighth-most populous country.
And, with Mannan’s gruesome death, it may be working.
In 2013, hardline Islamists published a ‘hit list’ of at least 84 prominent online writers in Bangladesh, many of whom are secularists, like Mannan, a 35-year-old who published Rupban, a Bangladesh-based magazine for LGBT people in his country. Roy, perhaps the most high-profile victim, was a Bangladeshi-American activist who hosted a website that brought together many brands of secular humanist thought in Bangladesh.
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With a discrete list of bloggers publicly identified for reprisal by jihadists and radical Islamists who have pledged loyalty, in some cases, to the Islamic State group that controls parts of Syria and Iraq, it should not be difficult for a functional government to protect seven dozen individuals in a country of 169 million people.
Quite to the contrary, government officials have done little to apprehend the perpetrators of crimes that have chilled freedom of speech and expression in Bangladesh, often suggesting that murdered writers may have crossed an invisible line by criticizing Islam too harshly in a country where religion and politics have been dangerously intertwined since its bloody war for independence from Pakistan in 1971:
Rather than condemn the killers, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan scolded the victims, telling CNN: “The bloggers, they should control their writing. Our country is a secular state. … I want to say that people should be careful not to hurt anyone by writing anything — hurt any religion, any people’s beliefs, any religious leaders.”
The problem goes deeper than the government’s cowardice in at least three ways, all of which are interconnected and quickly becoming systemic challenges for Bangladesh.
A government in over its head?
The current government, despite its secular posture, has little capability or interest in protecting the freedom of the press or of individual speech. The current prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, has increasingly ruled Bangladesh as a one-party state known both for its corruption and chaos. Her government forced out Muhammad Yunus as head of the celebrated Grameen Bank in 2011 after two decades of globally recognized success; Yunus had become synonymous with the concept of microfinance and the ways in which it empowered the poor, especially women.
Bangladesh’s GDP has grown considerably since 2009, when Hasina last took power. But it’s come mostly as a result of boasting lower labor costs than manufacturers like China and, sometimes, tragically, as a result of poor working and safety conditions, like collapsing buildings that have killed hundreds of textile workers.
A remarkable land swap deal between India and Bangladesh is finally taking effect, giving hope to citizens trapped in enclaves of counter-enclaves on both sides of the border. But deals like that, and important economic links, have been a higher priority to Indian leaders than Bangladesh’s rule of law and democracy. Prime minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist allies are happy that Bangladesh’s government isn’t Islamist. His predecessor, Manmohan Singh, was happy that, like the Gandhi family-led Indian National Congress, Hasina also leads a secular government. But generations of Indian leaders have had little to say about Hasina’s shortcomings.
The Hasina-Zia feud is over… and Hasina has won
Hasina’s current government is the result of three decades of feuding between two powerful women. Hasina, the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh’s first president, is the head of the Bangladesh Awami League (বাংলাদেশ আওয়ামী লীগ). Her rival, Khaleda Zia, the leader of the far more conservative, Islamist-friendly Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP, বাংলাদেশ জাতীয়তাবাদী দল), and the widow of former prime minister Ziaur Rahman, assassinated by a group of army officers in 1981.
For years, the country’s politics were dominated by the rivalry between Hasina and Zia, who have essentially swapped power since 1991. But the power balance between the two sides started to slip in 2013 and today, Hasina is now more powerful than any leader in a quarter-century. Though the personal feud between the two leaders was always a petty distraction, on both sides, from the more pressing issues in a country lacking in development, it’s a feud that Hasina now appears to have won.
The BNP boycotted the last set of parliamentary elections in January 2014, and Hasina used the opportunity to persecute Zia and the BNP through legal and other avenues, at one point indicting Zia and placing her under house arrest. Hasina has reduced the ability of Bangladesh’s opposition even to contest, let alone win, the next elections scheduled for 2018. That means that Zia’s conservative supporters, which includes a strong contingent of hardline Islamists, increasingly feel — with good reason — that they have no legitimate path to political power.
A country still divided over 1971
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, politics in Bangladesh has polarized deeply in the last five years, as Hasina has carried through a promise for a special panel, the International Crimes Tribunal, to hold accountable those Islamist leaders alleged (and, in many cases, now convicted) of committing war crimes in the 1971 fight for independence.
The tribunals are now an incredibly sensitive subject in Bangladesh, to say the least. When it looked like Hasina’s government was backing down from a pledge for accountability in late 2012 and early 2013, it led many citizens, often young and secular, to take to the streets in the ‘Shabagh’ protests that demanded, among other things, death sentences for the most horrific offenders.
The problem, however, is that many of the worst offenders had become or remained important political leaders in post-1971 Bangladesh, including many figures in charge of the Jamaat-e-Islami (বাংলাদেশ জামায়াতে ইসলামী), a hardline Islamist group upon which the BNP often relied for support when Zia was prime minister. The government carried out a death sentence last November for Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury, a BNP leader, and Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojaheed, a top official in the Jamaat-e-Islami. Motiur Rahman Nizami, the current leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami, has also been sentenced to death. The war crimes tribunals, however monumental, have led to international questions about due process and, of course, the use of the death penalty. It’s a complex issue, given the spotty record of Bangladeshi criminal justice.
Hasina has used the alliance between the BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami to tag Zia and her political opponents as the equivalents of radical terrorists and the abetters of war atrocities. With no path to political power and with a government that’s been so willing to pursue reprisal instead of conciliation, it’s not surprising that the reaction has been an equally strong response from Bangladesh’s Islamists. It comes at a time when even developed countries like France and Belgium struggle to contain the lure of jihadism.
Considering that many secular bloggers, writers and activists were central to the Shahbagh protests, and are some of the loudest voices for justice relating to the 1971 crimes, they’ve quickly become a main target of Islamic extrajudicial violence in response.
Taken together, the cycle of ineffective governing institutions, democratic backsliding and political (and religious) polarization have created a climate of increasingly entrenched dysfunction that Hasina’s government now seems unwilling or unable to stop.