“Atheism” as Bangladeshi Weapon

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Accusations of atheism led to the brutal attack of many secularists and blogger activists in Bangladesh. It also led to other rarely discussed consequences.

 

 

The radical Islamist killers of secularist writers, bloggers, and publishers in Bangladesh have achieved their goals, at least for now. The period of 2013-18 was witness to numerous attacks and wounded, including the brutal killings of bloggers and a publisher as well as LGBT activists and religious minorities, but there have been considerably less in recent years. This decrease is not the result of a government crackdown on violence. Rather, its cause is the censorship of dissent and freedom of expression. Militant Islamists would, of course, prefer to eliminate non-believers and anyone critical of Muslim practices, but censorship is also an effective tool to achieve conformity to Islamist ideals.

Perhaps it is a stereotype to say that Bangladeshis love to discuss politics. Indeed, the Bengali word adda, loosely translated as a lively discussion (or gossip), is nearly synonymous with animated political debate. Topics for adda include elections, political parties, the state of democracy, the role of Islam in politics, and very frequently the Liberation War of 1971, Pakistan, war crimes, razakars and others sympathetic to Pakistani’s rule of East Pakistan, and the intentions and dreams of the newly founded nation of Bangladesh. Given this societal propensity, it shouldn’t be surprising that blogging, especially when it became accessible in Bangla script, quickly became a space for lively political debate.

Despite the Internet’s promise of democratizing information, there is now an ocean of examples that show we do not behave our best civic self when online, especially if we opt to be anonymous. While the Bangladesh blogosphere presented important opportunities for people to exchange ideas and broaden their views on various issues, it also created a space for outrage baiting. Among many well-intentioned posts that examined the relationship between politics and religion, there were also reductive and inflammatory statements about Islam. The Internet also became a space for violent condemnation of freethinkers and secularists, as well as others.

 

Atheists vs. Islamists?

As has been described through many news reports and academic writings, hostility between Islamists and atheists came to a head during and after the 2013 Shahbag movement (Gonojagoron Moncho, or “platform for the people’s uprising”), a protest movement held at the intellectual center and busy intersection of Dhaka, where thousands gathered to hold 24-hour vigils.

Actually, the Gonojagoron Moncho movement had nothing specific to do with atheism, but over time, the movement came to include a demand to limit Islamists from politics. Their original aim was to push the current Awami League government to uphold its promise of prosecuting the war criminals of Bangladesh’s liberation war to the fullest degree permitted by Bangladesh law.  Within a short span, however, the terms of the debate changed from specific demands regarding the sentencing of Abdul Quader Mollah to a “debate” about atheism and Islam. This debate was given fuel when the newspaper Amar Desh published many blog posts by Rajib Haider right after his brutal murder by radical Islamists (Parvez 2022). Amar Desh portrayed Haider as an atheist whose blog posts insulted Islam and Muslims.

For the general population who had not been exposed to blogs previously, “blogger” and Shahbag activists became synonymous with anti-Islamic atheists. The conflation of these concepts stirred people’s emotions and mobilized them against the Shahbag movement and against anyone (rightly or wrongly) associated with atheism. This outrage, in turn, was rallied to create a groundswell of protests led by Hefazat-e-Islam. In early May 2013, Hefazet led large demonstrations in Dhaka, most of which were peaceful but some of which turned violent, resulting in numerous deaths. Although the initial objective of Gonojagoron Moncho was met (Abdul Quader Mollah faced a retrial and was executed later that year), all other goals have been buried under new legal measures (e.g., Digital Security Act of 2018), dead bodies, and a resurgence of Islam in the political sphere.

This divide between Shahbag participants and organizers and Islamists and devout Muslims had several consequences on understandings of what it means to be Muslim or atheist in Bangladesh. First of all, it grouped a wide range of people with different beliefs, backgrounds, and positionalities into binary categories, pitting one group (Muslims/Islamists) against another (atheist). Second, the simple dichotomy allowed differences to be accentuated and weaponized through emotional attachments. Hefazot capitalized on this difference by giving voice to offense and outrage, leading to killings, despair, exile, and censure. Bloggers enflamed hostilities through outrage baiting as they discarded any shared ground between groups and limited definitions of Muslims and atheists to soundbites.

Using reductive statements about Islam and Muslims and superfluous obscenity was effective in getting attention and creating hostility, but in the process, Bangladeshi bloggers contributed to the entrenchment of a dichotomy between Islam and atheism.

 

Outrage Baiting

Who were the atheists of Bangladesh? Various lists, including the infamous published list of 84 “atheists” purportedly worthy of elimination, circulated, but these lists tell only a superficial story of names (including pseudonyms) gathered from blogs and social media. The so-called atheists included organizers of Gonojagoron Moncho. However, some of the main organizers of Shahbag were practicing Muslims, not atheists, although their names also appeared on lists of atheists. So, while “bloggers” became synonymous with atheists, actual bloggers included people of various religious persuasions and beliefs (yes, Islamists and other Muslims also blogged).

Among atheist bloggers, some of the more provocative ones found inspiration from the New Atheists, whose views on religion can also be argued as being reductive. In their focus on rationality, empiricism, and scientific inquiry, New Atheists claim that religion and science are entirely incompatible. They also contend that religion is morally bankrupt and prone to violence. These celebrity atheists gained prominence “at a time of growing anxiety about the danger posed by fundamentalist religious groups” (Newheiser 2022).

A similar observation can be made of Bangladesh, where Islamists continued to vie for socio-political influence after the setbacks they experienced from the Liberation War of 1971. Within this local and global context, where Islamists have at times used violence, some Bangladeshi bloggers have drawn on the arguments of New Atheists to pit Islam against science, arguing that Islam is irrational, patriarchal, based in superstitions, and morally corrosive. They sought to expose superstition by revealing “tricks” performed by Muslim pirs for the faithful. They focused on apparent contradictions in Islamic teachings and practices.

Two other blogging examples are worth noting. A common way to criticize Islam and expose its “backwardness” was to state that Muhammad had many wives. Another tactic was posting nude photos of women. Neither of these involve a critical examination of women and their roles in Islam in the past or present. They do not historicize the Prophet. They certainly do not invite discussion. It’s also unclear what these posts have to do with religious belief or practice. They are merely reductive assertions with the likely intent to insult and provoke an emotional reaction.

It’s possible that these comments, as well as the visibility of women in activism and other spheres, have refueled focus on women in Bangladesh. Islamic hardliners condemned the participation of women in the Shahbag movement, noting their presence in the streets at all hours of the day and night. When Hefazat-e-Islam posted a 13-point demand in April 2013, two of the points address women: “Stop foreign cultural intrusions including free-mixing of men and women and candlelit vigils…” and “Scrap anti-Islam women policy and education policy and make Islamic education mandatory from primary to higher secondary levels” (2013, points 8 and 10). No wonder there has been an increase in the number of women Bangladeshis seeking asylum (personal communication with ICORN, 2019).

Using reductive statements about Islam and Muslims and superfluous obscenity was effective in getting attention and creating hostility, but in the process, Bangladeshi bloggers contributed to the entrenchment of a dichotomy between Islam and atheism.

 

Bengal Context

Sadly, this polarization has flattened the categories of atheist and Muslim. Both groups are much more varied and nuanced – historically and currently, though the politicization of these identities has overshadowed the diversity. Traditionally, the region of Bangladesh has been home to a wide array of traditions, practices, and beliefs, often merging and separating like the complex network of rivers crisscrossing the land. The Bengal Delta has linked the enormous river system to the Indian Ocean, opening the region up to trade of goods and ideas. Indigenous and foreign practices have merged, mutually influenced each other, and sometimes been subsumed by one or the other. Even after the widespread adoption of Islam, local practices and beliefs persisted in many areas of society and life. This reality was part of the impetus behind the fight for Bangladesh’s independence: people were as influenced by their local traditions and language as they were by Islam.

Debate about belief and religion is nothing new in the Bengali-speaking region, and there have always been non-believers, non-practitioners, critics of socio-religious mores, agnostics, atheists, non-theists, and others who can’t be reduced to simple nomenclatures.

Take, for instance, the song by 18th century Madan Baul:

“The path that leads to you is cluttered with temples and mosques.
O Lord! I have heard your call but cannot proceed:
Hindu and Muslim teachers block my way…
There are many locks on your door: the Puranas, the Koran, and recitations.
Alas Lord! What a terrible torment this is, cries Madan in despair!”
(translated from Bengali by Shamsuzzaman Khan)

While this song critiques Islam and Hinduism, the message can’t be reduced to atheist, non-religious, or anti-religious positions (putting aside questions about how to define “religion”). Bauls and Fakirs, like Madan Baul, resist easy categorization, and they argue that religions lead to divisions and therefore to discrimination. Instead, they emphasize the inherent value of each individual, who they consider more worthy of worship than something that is unseen. But with the rise of religious hardliners in Bangladesh, the scope for religiosity has restricted to very narrow interpretations, limiting the diversity and humanistic possibilities in Bangladesh.

Bauls and Fakirs have also been among those threatened, attacked, and killed by radical Islamists. Historically, this isn’t new, although now Islamists have more tools at their disposal. Not only are they physically attacked, but Baul performers’ livelihoods are threatened by court cases filed by hardliners. Unlike some bloggers, these performers, predominantly residing in rural areas, have no option for exile. And this leads me to point out a very different consequence of these constructions of atheists.

 

Exile of Atheists

With the violent spree against secularists, atheists, LGBT activists, and religious minorities, some went into exile. Given the very real threats and lack of protection given by the government, there was good reason to flee. Many sought asylum in foreign countries, although only a few received it; others went into hiding in Bangladesh or in nearby countries. Others silenced themselves through self-censorship, hoping to avoid being in harm’s way. Even those who currently live in safety find their voices made irrelevant by the distance. Being removed from everyday discourse, these voices are doubly exiled.

But not everyone is silent. “Atheism” and writing posts about it also became an opportunity for Bangladeshis to gain asylum status – if they could demonstrate that they were at risk. Bangladesh is no newcomer to the search for opportunities abroad. A large number of Bangladeshis are migrant workers in the Gulf States, Italy, Greece, US, UK, and elsewhere. Most frequently this is temporary migration for the purposes of sending remittances home. Others are students seeking education and new opportunities, including those who return to Bangladesh or continue their careers abroad. And yet others seek opportunities and a new life for a host of different reasons, including economic, social, and political ones. For example, in the 1980s and 90s, communists were being persecuted, and many sought and were granted asylum. More recently, as livable land shrinks, climate refugees from Bangladesh have been making headlines, with alarming statistics about internal displacement and future refugee trends. But obtaining visas or opportunities for any type of long-term stay has insurmountable odds. Given this diverse migratory landscape, it should come as no surprise that being accused of “atheism” might also present an opportunity to start a new life.

In no way does this imply that asylum seekers can be reduced to opportunists. Asylum seekers come from varied circumstances, but the threats they feel are generally real. Just as the term “atheist blogger” was reductive and misleading when used by Islamist mobilizers, atheist asylum seekers also shouldn’t be disparaged or dismissed. Openly critiquing Islam and Islamic practices really is dangerous in Bangladesh. Whether particular critiques about Islamic practices are necessary or constructive speech acts can (and should) be debated, but from international perspectives, freedom of expression should be protected – and it’s not in Bangladesh. We also cannot assume to know someone’s intentions.

Nonetheless, the authenticity of an individual’s claim to needing asylum is debated by Bangladeshis at home and abroad and by organizations such as PEN, Amnesty, and ICORN, which seek to help those under genuine threat. Many Bangladeshis debate claims, looking for evidence of high risk in a person’s history of writing and activism, for instance, and the depth of their contributions before and after exile. When an individual appears to have become atheist “overnight,” suspicions are raised. Given that some Bangladeshis have been deeply invested in secular and activist projects – often at great risk and sacrifice – this concern isn’t a surprise. From the perspective of those who have worked long and hard for a secular Bangladesh, humanist ideals, and rights for marginalized groups, “atheism” isn’t only a weapon wielded by Islamists against them; it is also an instrument of mobility that some abuse, leaving others in greater risk behind.

Which brings me back to Bauls and other minority groups. As a marginalized and often persecuted community, Bauls do not have the social capital, financial resources, connections, or perhaps even desire to leave Bangladesh. This simply is not an option available to them.

So, when hostility is stoked in the fires of difference and fear, and concepts like “atheism” and “Muslim” are hardened in kilns of dichotomous difference, who faces the most danger?  When secular and humanist voices are silenced, what remains in Bangladesh?

 

Selected Bibliography

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Ahmad, Irfan. 2011. “Immanent Critique and Islam: Anthropological Reflections.” In Anthropological Theory 11(1):107-132.

Ahmed, Rafiuddin. 2001. “The Emergence of the Bengali Muslims.” In Understanding the Bengal Muslims: Interpretive Essays, edited by Ahmed Rafiuddin, 1-25. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Ahmed, Shahab. 2016.  What is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic.  Princeton: Princeton University Press.

“Bangladesh: Gonojagoron Moncho, including origin, purpose, structure, membership, areas of operation and activities (April 2013-January 2014).” Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, 24 January 2014, www.refworld.org/docid/542a80df4.html [accessed 29 June 2023]

Bhatt, Chetan. 2021. “Words and Violence: Militant Islamist Attacks on Bloggers in Bangladesh and the UK.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 44 (14): 2615-2636.

Blom, A., Laetitia Bucaille, and Luis Martínez. 2007. The Enigma of Islamist Violence. New York: Columbia University Press.

Butler, Judith. 2012. “Precarious Life, Vulnerability, and the Ethics of Cohabitation.” The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 26(2): 134-51.

Chowdhury, Nusrat Sabina. 2019. “Death, Despair and Democracy in Bangladesh.” In Emotions, Mobilisations and South Asian Politics, 264-280: Routledge India.

Das, Veena. 2007. Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hasan, Mubashar and Arild Engelsen Ruud. 2020. The State and the Construction of the ‘blasphemer’ in Bangladesh. Routledge. doi:10.4324/9780429295560-16.

Newheiser, David. 2022. “Introduction: The Genealogy of Atheism.” In The Varieties of Atheism: Connecting Religion and its Critics, 1-18. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Parvez, Saimum. 2022. “Understanding the Shahbag and Hefajat Movements in Bangladesh: A Critical Discourse Analysis.” Journal of Asian & African Studies (Sage Publications, Ltd.) 57 (4): 841-855. doi:10.1177/00219096211038657.

Puar, Jasbir (ed). 2012. “Precarity Talk: A Vitual Roundtable with Lauren Berlant, Judith Butler, Bojana Cvejic, Isabell Lorey, Jasbir Puar, and Ana Vujanovic.”  The Drama Review 56(4):163-177.

Riaz, Ali. 2018. More Than Meets the Eye: The Narratives of Secularism and Islam in Bangladesh. Asian Affairs, DOI:10.1080/03068374.2018.1467659

Shamsul Alam, S.M. “Islam, Ideology, and the State in Bangladesh”, Journal of Asian and African Studies 28, 1-2 (1993): 88-106, doi:10.1163/156852193X00433

Shaffer, Ryan. 2019. “Islamist Attacks Against Secular Bloggers in Bangladesh.” In Violence in South Asia, 209-223: Routledge India.

Siddiqi, Dina. 2010. “Political Culture in Contemporary Bangladesh: Histories, ruptures and contradictions.” In Political Islam and Governance in Bangladesh, Ali Riaz and C. Christine Fair (eds), pp. 7-26. New York and London: Routledge.

Zaman, Fahmida. 2018. “Agencies of Social Movements: Experiences of Bangladesh’s Shahbag Movement and Hefazat-e-Islam.” Journal of Asian & African Studies (Sage Publications, Ltd.) 53 (3): 339–49.

 

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