Bangladesh struck by wave of atheist blogger murders

A blogger known for his atheist views was brutally killed Monday in Bangladesh, a month after February’s murder of the Bangladeshi-American blogger Avijit Roy.


Portrait of Washiqur Rahman posted on his Facebook page.

A blogger known for his atheist views was brutally killed Monday in Bangladesh, a month after February’s murder of the Bangladeshi-American blogger Avijit Roy.

Washiqur Rahman, 27, who died of serious injuries inflicted in the assault in the capital Dhaka, was known for being critical of Islam and of Koranic schools. According to our Observer, it is becoming increasingly dangerous to criticise the state religion in his country.

Rahman, who is the latest in a string of bloggers to be attacked in the south Asian country, was assaulted in his own neighbourhood in southern Dhaka as he was heading to work. Three men slashed his face with machetes, and continued attacking him once he fell to the ground. Police have arrested two men for the murder, who they say are in their twenties and are students at madrasas, which are Koranic schools. A third attacker is still on the run.

Washiqur Rahman's body, at the hospital, after his murder.

Like most blogs that are critical of Islam, Rahman’s blog had been censored by the government since 2013. But like other activists, he simply moved to Facebook to continue spreading his ideas. His Facebook page has been purged of content, but this Facebook page, which is written in both Bengali and English, has published the transcript of a conversation he had with an imam during a public debate (see screengrab below).

Before the murders of Rahman and Roy – the latter's prompted large protests back in March, with demonstrators asking the government to better protect freedom of speech – two other bloggers had been attacked in 2013. In February, the body of Ahmed Rajib Haider was found, decapitated, in a suburb of Dakha, and in April, our Observer Asif Mohiuddin was violently attacked. Their assailants were identified as members of a radical Islamist group, Ansarullah Bengali Team, which published a list of public figures to kill because of their criticism of fundamentalist Islam.

"The situation is becoming unlivable for anyone who describes themselves as atheist, secular or humanist"

Asif Mohiuddin is an atheist blogger who was forced to flee Bangladesh after he was attacked and then imprisoned on blasphemy charges. He has found refuge in Germany.

Unfortunately, I am not surprised by what happened. Washiqur Rahman was on the Ansarullah Bengali Team’s list of 84 public figures to kill. On his Facebook profile, he received direct threats from numerous Islamist fundamentalists. I believe that his murder is not an isolated act, that it was ordered by the Ansarullah Bengali Team.

In Bangladesh, the situation is becoming unlivable for anyone who describes themselves as atheist, secular or humanist. The number of madrasas in the country keeps rising. Some are financed by Saudi Arabia or other Muslim countries. Since our country is very poor, and families often have many children, the madrasas are an attractive solution since the kids are housed and fed. But many of these schools are run by radical Islamists.

In addition to this, the government isn’t doing much to protect those who criticise radical Islam. In April 2013, I was attacked by four men. I still bear the scars today; I can’t move my neck very well. This didn’t stop the authorities from arresting me a month later. They charged me with blasphemy, and sentenced me to three and a half months in prison.

After I was attacked, there were protests. The authorities promised to assign bodyguards to 19 public figures who had received threats over their writings, including myself. But they never contacted me, and I never received any protection. So I fled to Germany.


"My attackers had never read my blog"

Rahman, the latest victim, was an IT worker in a finance company. I read his writings; I loved his sense of humour and his logical demonstrations against Islamist obscurantism. He was very critical of what’s being taught at madrasas, notably creationism. The theory of evolution is not taught in these schools.

I believe the madrasa’s students go through a thorough brainwashing; they’re taught that Islam is the only law. When I was in prison for blasphemy, I was able to meet my attackers. I talked to them for an hour. They told me that they had studied in a madrasa; that they had never read my blog; that all they knew was that I was an ex-Muslim who now defined himself as atheist, and that therefore I was an apostate who had to be killed.

Bangladesh, which gained independence in 1971, made Islam its state religion in 1988. The country’s laws ban “insulting religious sentiment”. Anyone with a “deliberate” or “malicious” intent to do so can be sent to prison. The law also allows the government to ban any publication that is considered blasphemous. In a ranking by Reporters Without Borders, Bangladesh was ranked 146 out of 190 countries for freedom of the press. In 2013, several people were killed during violent protests asking for harsher punishment for blasphemy.

The country, 90 percent of whose population is Muslim, has two networks of Islamic schools. One is run by the state, and counts about 25,000 schools. The other, called the Qwami schools, is funded by private donors and counts 20,000 registered schools. However, according to certain analysts, the actual number is four times that. The Qwami schools are headed by Shah Ahmad Shafi, known for his ultra-conservative views, in particular against women getting an education or working outside the home.