Police in Bangladesh have recently arrested a number of “atheist bloggers” and subsequently shut down their websites. One of the more popular bloggers, Asif Mohiuddin, had been viciously attacked in January, almost resulting in death. Islamists have given the Bangladeshi government a list of 84 “atheist bloggers” who they are demanding that they repent or face blasphemy charges. Actually, many of the demands of these Islamists are much more malicious.
On April 6th, hundreds of thousands of men (so we’re talking about a pretty large mob here) filled the capital Dhaka to demand the hanging of these atheist bloggers. According to their cries, these bloggers were so offensive, so repugnant to the faith of Islam, that they should be hanged for their opinions.
The British Humanist Association (BHA) is calling for the British High Commissioner to Bangladesh, Robert Gibson, to make a formal complaint with with Bangladeshi government. The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) has spoken against these arrests, saying that the authorities are “walking into a trap set by fundamentalists”.
Indeed, it seems that the authorities have taken the offence to religion as far too serious an act. The authorities have traded in justice and free expression for the violent and hateful interests of fundamentalists. There are real concerns about the violation of human rights that may occur in the legal proceedings. But perhaps more worrying than that is the danger that these bloggers may face even if they are released without any blasphemy charges.
Members of the Jamaat-e-islami party have explicitly called for the death of anyone who “insults Islam”. It’s not simply the case that members of this party and others talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. These people are beyond psychotic – they are willing to parade their threats of death in public and then actually go through with it. In February this year, a blogger known in connection with anti-islamist protests, Ahmed Rajib, was murdered with a machete in his home.
The irony of the whole situation is that these angry Islamist mobs should in fact be arrested for what they’re expressing, not the atheist bloggers. The atheist bloggers are not harming anyone in what they say or do. The Islamists, on the other hand, are clearly inciting violence, an act which should be prevented by the authorities. Furthermore, it should be prevented with haste, considering that violence is more likely to be incited by a mob which gathers in the hundreds of thousands.
Andrew Copson, Chief Execute of the BHA, commented, “This is a grave politically motivated situation which yet again shows the danger of ‘blasphemy laws’ to those who dare to express an opinion which goes against religious and fundamentalist sentiments.” Andrew Copson has also said that the British government must take a strong position on this issue, ensuring that the arrests, violence and harassment stop as soon as possible.
Andrew is correct in identifying this as a political tactic. There are only 6 million internet users in South Asia, out of its 160 million, so it’s unlikely that the crowds of Islamists had even read the blogs. The largest opposition party in Bangladesh, the BNP (Nick Griffin’s not involved; it stands for the Bangladesh National Party) have supported those who protest against a secular government. The anger directed at the atheists could merely be a way to sway public opinion in the lead up to next year’s country-wide elections.
The fear of Western values encroaching on Bangladeshi politics, such as free expression, has made some extreme-minded citizens opposed to the idea of speech which attacks the status quo. The opposition party is hoping to harness this fear and strong reaction as a way to support their cause. It is clever, subtle, but ultimately dangerous.
The opposition are using Islam as an excuse to vilify some imaginary enemy – the bloggers who are attacking the faith of the Muslim population. This deception is revealed by the fact that one of the “atheist” bloggers, Asif Mohiuddin, specifically says, in his actual blog entries, that he is not even anti-religious. By arresting bloggers for causing offence to religion an even greater offence has been committed – an offence against the right of free expression.