The crisis in Bangladesh — and what can be done

The situation for secular intellectuals in Bangladesh is worsening by the day. According to the American human rights defender Michael De Dora, hopes cannot be pinned on civil society and international organisations. If any real change is to be made, the national authorities and leaders in Bangladesh need to take the crisis seriously. 

December 17 2015 Text: Michael De Dora

On February 26, 2015, I received an email from a close friend who informed me that Avijit Roy — a tireless secularist and humanist writer and activist with whom I had worked for years — had been hacked to death in the streets of Dhaka.

As a U.S.-based human rights advocate, I cannot fathom someone wanting to murder me over my values or my profession. But, then, I do not live or work in Bangladesh.

The facts are said to speak for themselves, so let them speak: five gruesome murders in less than one year. Avijit Roy, attacked on the crowded streets of Dhaka, while leaving a famous book fair with his wife. Ananta Bijoy Dash, on his way to work. Washiqur Rahman, also on his way to work. Niloy Neel, whose killers tricked their way into his home, locked his wife in another room, and proceeded to butcher Niloy. Faisal Arefin Dipan, a publisher slain in his office.

And this does not include Ahmed Haider, who was murdered in 2013, and whose killers’ trial may be the only sign of justice for any of the slain bloggers. Or the many others have been attacked but survived: Humayun Azad. Asif Mohiuddin. Kazi Mahbubur Rahman Raihan and Ullash Das. Saunir Rahman. Bonya Ahmed.

As a result of these attacks, innocent Bangladeshi citizens have lost their lives. Families have lost loved ones. Friends have lost lifelong companions. Activists have lost comrades. And Bangladesh has lost some of its brightest young minds and bravest defenders of basic human decency.

To make matters worse, through these attacks terrorists affiliated with Ansarullah Bangla Team and Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent have scared many others into silence at a time when their voices are most needed to counter extremist ideology.

No wonder, then, that the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom considers Bangladesh one of its thirty most concerning countries.

In fact, Bangladesh has many human rights challenges. But recent events, including attacks now linked to ISIS, illustrate the urgent and growing crisis in the country.

My personal connection to Bangladesh traces back to 2013, when Avijit Roy emailed me requesting my organization lend our organizational weight — CFI is a formal lobby group with representation in Washington, D.C., and at the United Nations in New York and Geneva — to help Bengali secularists defend against a government crackdown on their rights. In particular, blogger Asif Mohiuddin had just narrowly survived an attack by Islamic extremists, and was then arrested for posting “derogatory comments about Islam and Prophet Muhammad.” CFI helped to secure the release of Asif, as well as several other bloggers detained that year, and continues to support human rights in Bangladesh through public awareness, protests, formal advocacy, and humanitarian assistance.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including but not limited to mine, have responded to the current crisis in Bangladesh in similar ways.

For instance, many NGOs have directly engaged with governmental representatives in Bangladesh, as well as countries which might be in a position to apply diplomatic pressure to Bangladesh government leaders. For our own part, CFI has lobbied the U.S. State Department, both formally and through public channels, to engage with the Bangladesh government, and urged the United Nations to focus on the situation in the country. Many NGOs have joined in similar efforts, including in the U.S. the Hindu American Foundation, whose community has also been harmed by the rise of extremism in Bangladesh and was able to secure introduction of a resolution on human rights in Bangladesh in the U.S. House of Representatives. Civil society members can join in these efforts by calling and writing their elected officials in Congress and the Administration and relay their concerns.

NGOs have also provided assistance to threatened writers, journalists, and publishers seeking to relocate both within and outside of Bangladesh. Most of this work necessarily has to happen in quiet, in order to protect the identity and safety of threatened individuals as well as the organization providing assistance. But, suffice to say NGOs have been deeply involved in helping threatened individuals move within or outside of Bangladesh, or else help threatened individuals living outside the country to secure means to remain out of the country while Bangladesh is in turmoil. Such assistance also includes financial aid. As with visas and asylum efforts, this is sensitive work. My own organization has a public-facing fund, which people can contribute to online. However, several NGOs have their own private funds; readers can email me to learn more.

It should be noted that many of these NGOs depend on individual human rights activists and the few NGOs which exist in the Bangladesh for reliable information regarding the situation there, which allows outside NGOs to coordinate proper responses. Yet we also support these human rights defenders and NGOs because, as representatives or citizens of Bangladesh, their efforts will be those that achieve true change in the country.

But the role of non-governmental organizations is limited in human rights crises, and to solely focus or depend on these groups would be to ignore the breadth of the crisis on the ground. The problems facing Bangladesh demand action by civil society, yes, but they also require government action. It is time for Bangladesh government leaders to take this crisis seriously and protect their citizens’ basic human rights.

There are several basic steps the government could take to help alleviate the crisis.

Most immediately, the government should protect writers and publishers. Three young men attacked last weekend remain hospitalized, and some of their family members have been kicked out of their homes over concerns of follow-up attacks, or else do not know whom to turn to for help. Dozens more live in fear of new attacks. Their pleas for protection have been met with recommendations to go underground or leave the country. This shirks one of the basic responsibilities of any government: to protect its people.

Instead of abandoning these individuals to fend for themselves, the government should show its support for its citizens exercising their inalienable rights by providing security and assistance to attacked and threatened individuals and their families, and ensuring their safety.

Further, the government should also strengthen respect for human rights and law enforcement efforts to investigate and prevent extremist attacks. After the most recent series of attacks, Dhaka Metropolitan Police Detective Branch Joint Commissioner Monirul Islam stated that his department lacks the resources to identify and root out terrorists involved in attacks in Bangladesh, and prevent further attacks. He suggested the government form a unit dedicated to this effort.

Instead of allowing ongoing attacks to be drowned in the flow of other police work, the government should consider Commissioner Islam’s suggestion and consider creating a counter-terrorism unit focused on extremist groups. Doing this would not only help identify and detain offenders and prevent further attacks, it would also send a strong and positive message to the general public, and perhaps lessen the grip of fear so many are now experiencing. In this effort, Bangladesh should seek out guidance from allied democratic governments on best practices.

The protection of human rights should be a central theme of Bangladesh policymaking and policing.

More broadly, government leaders should reject the urge to use divisive rhetoric, and instead us inclusive language. Better law enforcement is only possible through sincere efforts by governmental leaders to address the situation.

Following several attacks, Bangladesh political leaders made a number of inflammatory statements. Prime Minister Sheikh Hassina said no one in Bangladesh “has the right to speak in a way that hurts religious sentiment” — despite the fact that the Bangladesh Constitution protects this very right, as do human rights treaties to which Bangladesh is a party (for instance, it is impermissible to “prevent or punish criticism of religious leaders or commentary on religious doctrine and tenets of faith”). More recently, PM Hasina laid blame on the opposition party for the murder of Faisal Arefin Dipan, a claim lacking any evidence even if said opposition party has certainly contributed to the current climate. Another Awami League official had the gall to suggest the grieving father of Faisal Arefin Dipan supported his son’s killers when the father pleaded for common action.

Instead of engaging in divisive rhetoric and victim blaming, Bangladesh government leaders should acknowledge the existence of extremist groups, largely inspired by madrassas and radical religious and political groups, and publicly stress that respect for fundamental human rights is an inclusive process which recognizes the rights of individuals of all backgrounds to practice their religion or philosophy as they wish, and to express their views on religion and related issues, in a shared civil space. Violence is almost never an answer to theological or philosophical differences.

The rise of extremism in Bangladesh harms all Bangladeshis. And for every handful of individuals who carry out an attack, there are thousands more who oppose them, as demonstrated by recent protests, and who worry about the future of their country. These individuals, of all religious and non-religious backgrounds, envision a pluralistic and democratic Bangladesh. And they wonder where their government is as this vision — and those who hold it — is being hacked away one machete attack at a time.

But, truth be told, the rise of extremism also harms us all. If the human rights situation in Bangladesh worsens — if ABT and al Qaeda and ISIS are allowed to roam more freely — the global community will soon have a much bigger problem on our hands than a series of gruesome attacks in just Bangladesh.

Bangladesh can reaffirm its secular foundation, and flourish as a modern, enlightened, tolerant society. And non-governmental organizations and foreign governments can support Bangladesh and its citizens in this process. They ask Bangladesh’s leaders to straightforwardly recognize that extremists exist, that they are tightening their grip on the country, and that the proper governmental response is to stand firm for rule of law and the rights freedom of religion, belief, and expression for all. Only that path provides flourishing for Bangladeshis and humans alike.

Michael De Dora is director of the Center for Inquiry's Office of Public Policy and the organization's representative to the United Nations. In addition, he serves as president of the United Nations NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief. The views expressed in this article are his own.