On February 26, Bangladeshi-American blogger Avijit Roy was murdered in the street by religious extremists in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Roy was an avid advocate for secularism and spoke out constantly against religious extremism. Because of his blog posts and books, he was repeatedly threatened online, including by his suspected assailant, and told that he would be murdered if he ever went to Bangladesh. He is not the only writer who has suffered this horrific fate, as another blogger, Rajib Haider, also a critic of extremism, was murdered in 2013. Since Roy’s death, hundreds of people have protested against the murder and called for justice.
On paper, Bangladesh is a secular democracy, but the reality seems to tell a different story. Since 2013, the current government, led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League, has been prosecuting Bangladeshi collaborators who worked with the Pakistani army to carry out genocide during the 1971 Liberation War. Many of these people are part of Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), an Islamist Party that has used violence in the past and continues to use it in order to achieve its goals, such as by throwing firebombs during protests. The war crimes tribunals have become politicized as the opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has aligned itself with JI, giving the extremist party more legitimacy and a platform to gain more supporters. BNP is led by Khaleda Zia, who was Prime Minister before the current government came to power.
One of the demands of Roy’s murderers was that the government enact a blasphemy law that would make it illegal to insult religion. While the Awami League government has refused to thus far, they are also condoning this violence in their own way. After Haider was murdered, the government arrested four people that the Islamist leaders accused of blasphemy and helped take down over a dozen websites for the same reason. Though justice for the countless victims of the genocide is important, the government made the trials an election issue and, thus, not really about justice. Because of this, BNP boycotted the 2014 elections, making an Awami League win all but a sure thing. A year later, in January 2015, Bangladesh had a big surge of violence again as Zia was put under house arrest. The death of advocates like Roy is sadly just a consequence of this political climate.
Recently, we have seen a rise in attacks against those who speak out against extremism, most notably with the Charlie Hebdo shootings in France. However, the death of Roy is just as important because it highlights the struggles a secular country with such a lasting history and strong ties to religion has. Since it gained independence, Bangladesh has become more developed economically, particularly with its large garment sector. In order to remain a vibrant democracy, it must work much harder to maintain its secularity by guaranteeing freedom of speech and religion, as well as speaking up against violent extremists, just like Roy did.