An innocent young man is brutally hacked to death in the street by marauding thugs with machetes, and the government’s response is to effectively blame the victim. This is the outrageous and absurd situation in the supposed democratic state of Bangladesh, where a bloody campaign of terror is being waged against secularists and atheists who have criticized radical Islam. But rather than act to protect the rights and safety of its people, Bangladesh’s leaders are coddling the killers and chastising the dead.
Last week in Dhaka, 28-year-old law student Nazimuddin Samad found himself surrounded by Islamist extremists, reportedly linked to al Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent. They hacked at him with machetes, and shot him to ensure he was dead, all because he had written posts on Facebook promoting secularism and criticizing radical Islam.
One would expect in a civilized world to see the government stand up for the rights of its people and unify the country against this kind of violence based on religion. But that’s not what has happened. 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.”
This is only the latest shameful example of the Bangladesh government doing exactly what the terrorists want: to make people terrified that if they have something critical to say about religion, they could pay for it with their lives.
Sadly, secularists and other dissidents have been paying this price in Bangladesh since at least 1999. However, this current storm of violence began in February of last year, when Bangladeshi-American writer and activist Avijit Roy was hacked to death at a book fair in Dhaka, while his wife, Rafida Bonya Ahmed, was gravely injured and barely escaped with her own life. Several similar attacks followed, with four more writers and publishers killed and others injured. Unfortunately, Hindu, Christian, and Shia minorities have also been subjected to deadly attacks.
After the killing of Roy, many wondered where the outrage was from the Bangladeshi government. Sajeeb Wazed Joy, son of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, made it clear that the silence was all about political calculation, explaining: “Given that our opposition party plays that religion card against us relentlessly, we can’t come out strongly for [Roy]. It’s about perception, not about reality.”
As more killings took place over the next several months, the Prime Minister herself declined to defend the right to free expression, and instead berated the slain. “You can’t attack someone else’s religion,” she said. “You’ll have to stop doing this. It won’t be tolerated if someone else’s religious sentiment is hurt.”
And now we have Nazimuddin Samad, a bright, promising young law student, brutally slaughtered in public for exercising his basic human rights to freedom of belief and expression. Appallingly, as Samad’s blood still stained the street, Home Minister Khan said that part of the investigation would be “to see whether he has written anything objectionable in his blogs.” This is not how a democratic state should respond to the killings of innocent civilians.
Since the beginning of this emergency, our organization, the Center for Inquiry, has been working with the U.S. State Department, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and other nongovernmental organizations to find ways to protect or bring to safety at least some of the secularists who fear for their lives, and urge the Bangladesh government to stand strong for human rights. We have also worked to see pressure placed on Bangladesh by the United Nations, and supported a U.S. House resolution introduced by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, that demands Bangladesh affirm its secular constitution, protect minorities, and prevent the growth of extremism.
As a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Bangladesh has committed to protect freedom of religion, belief and expression for all its citizens. This includes the rights to believe or not believe, to hold opinions “without interference,” and to express one’s beliefs — including open criticism of religion. Indeed, Bangladesh’s own constitution guarantees freedom of thought and conscience, as well as freedom of speech and expression.
By reprimanding the victims of these attacks, and doing little to bring the killers to justice, the Bangladesh government is abandoning its commitments and implicitly encouraging the killings to continue. And in doing so, it is putting the very future of the country as a pluralistic democracy at grave risk.