One after the other the names of writers and bloggers who have been murdered have appeared on the computer screen: Avijit Roy, Washiqur Rahman, Ananta Bijoy Dash, Niloy Chakrabarti, and Roy’s publisher Faisal Avefin Dipan. In the course of the year, these people have all been killed, often hacked to death, by religious fanatics who have aimed to silence them and to stop them from pursuing an open intellectual debate. The murders of Avijit Roy and Ananta Bijoy Dash made deadlines in world media, but many others have been assaulted and yet others are living under constant threat for their lives. Assassination lists of secular bloggers are circulating on the web—those who are still alive are meant to be intimidated by these killings, and thereby to be silenced.
This past year, a constant flow of similar horrendous news has been reaching us from Bangladesh. The list of names of murdered persons, however, must not become any longer. All these victims have been killed for the same reason: they have attempted to pursue a serious and intellectual debate about the relationship between scientific findings and social progress and, most importantly, about the role of religion in society. The killers attack these serious-minded debaters with their machetes—all in the name of religion. The guest writer Ratan Kumar Samadder describes in detail what this terror campaign looks like. Several of those killed were connected to the respected blog site Mukto-Mona (literally “freethinker”), which is a platform for critics of religion, agnostics, and secular humanists; the story behind the blog is here given narrative form by the contributor to the site Siddharta Dhar.
It is of course possible to understand the on-going cynical power struggle going on behind the scenes. Several writers in this issue such as Salil Tripathi and Priynaka Bose contribute with some parts in the puzzle, for example, how representatives of the former military rule are trying to silence critics and debaters thereby avoiding to face up to the violent acts that were committed during the War of Freedom from Pakistan in the 1970s—a period that was followed by a long term without democracy. The violence may be connected to a perverse kind of political logic but the result is devastating for a whole society. The constitution that once turned Bangladesh into a secular democracy is now under pressure from religious extremists to abandon the openness that was meant to create a pluralistic society that embraces all kinds of ethnic minorities and all kinds of religious belongings. Small terrorist groups representing a marginalised minority are exercising brutal violence in order to once and for all silence those who are trying to uphold an open society, a vital dialogue, and the kind of knowledge that allows people to grow.
There is a risk that what is happening in Bangladesh is overshadowed by other major crises in the world such as the refugee crisis, the war in Syria, and ISIS threat to all. So we need to be updated on current events: Bangladesh, a country in the geo-political centre of South East Asia is moving from a democratic development to quite the opposite. If the religious extremists and the violent groups that support them manage to halt the development towards a greater openness, this may inflame a catastrophic development in the whole region. It is in all our interests to increase the diplomatic pressure on the democratically elected Government of Bangladesh to ensure the rule of law and the freedom of expression in the country. A society where shared problems may not be debated, and where politicians cannot be held to account, is a society that risks utter stagnation and political deadlock. Terrorism impacts everybody’s life and creates a dark undercurrent of suspicion that severs the bonds and common trust between people. As the writer Anisur Rahman says it in his poem written especially for this issue of PEN/Opp:
“In this city, in the multitude of the thousands, the murderers kill your brother
without being caught, how can you live with yourself”