The space for such ideas is shrinking in Muslim countries

Raza Rumi writes about Bangladesh’s slide into theocratic misery.

The brutal, cowardly murder of freethinker Avijit Roy on the streets of Dhaka is a reflection of embedded intolerance in many Muslim societies. Bangladesh, despite its secular credentials, is no exception.

Rumi has experience of that kind of brutal cowardice.

This incident left me deeply disturbed. As someone who was also subjected to (missed) bullets in 2014, Roy’s murder brought back memories of my close brush with death, subsequent exile and the fear of returning to my own country, Pakistan. Like Roy and many others, Islamist extremists found my views unacceptable to the extent that physical elimination was the only answer. I miraculously escaped the assassination attempt, but my driver was killed and another companion was injured.

While a few gunmen were arrested, the trial lingers on. But from my experience as an analyst, Pakistani courts seldom punish attackers, and the masterminds are never apprehended or brought to book.

So there’s no reason not to murder infidels, apart from conscience, and the conscience of this brand of murderer is all on the other side – murdering infidels is righteous.

One can disagree with the approach that some atheists take to matters of faith, but it is utterly disconcerting to note that the space for such ideas is shrinking in Muslim countries. And Bangladesh is no Saudi Arabia or even Pakistan. Its liberation in 1971 from Pakistan was an act of defiance to preserve the political and cultural rights that the so-called Islamic Republic of Pakistan was trying to suppress. For Bangladesh to become more like Pakistan is even more tragic.

In addition to Bishwasher Virus, Roy was also promoting his book, Shunno Theke Moha Bishwo (From Vacuum to Universe), at the Immortal 21st Book Fair held each year in late February. The date of the festival coincides with an important period of Bangladesh’s secular history, when students were killed by security forces for demanding equal rights for the Bengali language. At that time, Pakistan had tried to impose Urdu as a national language on East Pakistan, which later became Bangladesh in the war of 1971.

The enduring fault line in Bangladesh since its independence has to do with the existence of Islamist groups such as Jamaat-e-Islami, which opposed the creation of the country and found greater political space due to its alliance with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the main opposition outfit. Both these parties boycotted the 2014 elections and, therefore, are excluded from the current system of governance.

But there are other, softer versions of Islamism that are rising in Bangladesh. For instance, the Tablighi Jamaat has found major traction in society. Like in other Muslim countries, Islamist ideas are appealing to the younger segments of the population.

And not just other Muslim countries; also countries with significant Muslim populations.

For decades, Bangladeshi governments, like their nemesis in Pakistan, have appeased religious passions. A clear case is that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina covers her head. There is no Quranic injunction for women to wear a hijab (headscarf). This was true for Pakistan’s slain prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, who also demonstrated similar acquiescence to religious fervor by not only covering her head with a scarf, but also donning Islamic rosary beads to prove piety and credentials of being a devout Muslim.

Media freedoms have also been under threat as the incumbent Bangladeshi government has, on occasions, tried to muzzle critical commentaries on elections and the democratic evolution. But surely the religious opposition to free-thinking remains the most serious challenge, leading many to leave the country and not return. Taslima Nasreen, a writer, has been in exile for decades, scared of the radicals back home. Ironically, she is blamed for being too “extreme” in her views.

So Bangladesh empties of independent thinkers, secularists, rebels, critics, nonconformists, apostates, kuffar – how can that be good?

I had always admired Bangladesh as a secular nation and even wroteabout its cultural and intellectual space. Sadly, it is only following the country it left behind in 1971: Pakistan. But when it comes to religious bigotry, few Muslim countries are safe for writers, bloggers and those who challenge extremist interpretations of Islam.

I am afraid of returning home to Pakistan. I was lucky to have narrowly escaped the fate of Roy and perhaps will not be as fortunate next time. The Taliban affiliate that tried to kill me number in the thousands, are well-organized and entrenched. Their level of intolerance is such that I am not even an atheist, yet I am a target.

I mourn Roy’s loss and also lament the state of exile that pernicious extremist ideologies have forced me into.

It’s enough to break your heart.

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