India’s leading newspaper published my interview. Here it is.
Since 2013, more than 20 people – including secular writers, bloggers, professors, members of religious minorities and foreigners – have been killed in targeted attacks in Bangladesh. Why are secular individuals being targeted in Bangladesh? Who is killing them?
Jihadists have been silencing or threatening voices of sanity because democracy and pluralism are anathema to them. All they want is to establish a theocracy. They want to create Darul Islam, the land of Islam in Bangladesh. They want no law but Sharia, no women’s rights, and no freedom of speech. They want group loyalty perforce, which has no space for freedom of thought. There are 148 jihadi training camps in Bangladesh. Jihadists are helped by Jamat-e-Islami, 132 Islamic terrorist organizations including Ansarullah Bangla team and 231 fundamentalist institutions including ‘Islami bank’. In the last 40 years, almost 40 thousand crores takas have been used for the military training of Jihadists in Bangladesh. It is only 20% of total profits that was earned from the Islamic fundamentalists’ economy. It is well established that the Islami bank has been financing terrorism.
Six years ago when Bangladesh restored secularism in its constitution, it seemed it was on a progressive path. What happened in the last few years that there is such violent reaction against secularism? Has the trial and conviction of 1971 Jamat-e-Islami war criminals in Bangladesh triggered this violence?
If that were so, Islamists would have attacked the judges or people in positions of power. But Islamists have been killing atheist bloggers, critics of Islam, intellectuals, and progressive Muslims. Islamists can kill anyone they want with impunity, and it becomes possible because the country has been Islamized for the last few decades because the government is not only a mute spectator but also directly encouraging the Islamists by criticizing bloggers for hurting the sentiments of people. This is bizarre, unthinkable in a society governed by rule of law. It seems that Bangladesh is hurtling back to the medieval age.
What is the extent of religious extremism in Bangladesh? Can ISIS find support there? How is Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina fighting religious fundamentalist forces?
All of the terrorists and fundamentalists of the country support ISIS. Many received training from ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Sheikh Hasina denies this because of political compulsions. The denial is facile and nothing short of political skullduggery. The killings of atheists and bloggers punch holes in her claims. Islamists once attacked her with grenades. However, out of political compulsions she prefers to forget about it under imposed amnesia. Instead of proclaiming she is actually a secular person, she says she is a deeply religious person. There is a competition among political leaders as to who is more religious. Politicians use religion to get votes from the ignorant masses. Sheikh Hasina created the Ulema League in her party, the Awami League. The Ulema League is the organization of Islamic fundamentalists. Members of this organization are not different from the Jamat-e-Islami goons. They support the killing of freethinkers and atheist bloggers in the country.
India is stigmatized by 1984 anti-Sikh violence, 1990 ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri Pandits, 2002 Gujarat riots. According to Indian government’s own admission, communal intolerance and violence has gone up in the last couple of years in India too. Three rationalists were killed last year and two Muslim boys lynched to death. How is India’s majoritarian violence against minorities different from Bangladesh?
Islamic fundamentalists have systematically targeted Minorities in Bangladesh. Hindus are harassed, tortured, and even killed only because they are Hindus. Hindu girls are getting raped, and Hindu-hating Muslims forcibly takes lands owned by Hindus. Hindus are frequently told to leave the country. In 1947, Hindu population in Bangladesh was 31%. Now it is around 8%.
I do not think Muslims in India are oppressed the way Hindus are oppressed in Bangladesh. Hindu extremists hate Indian Muslims but the Indian Constitution is secular which guarantees equality before law and the equal protection of law to all irrespective of religion, caste, sex, place of birth etc., and the laws are applied uniformly, which protect Muslims. Muslims in India are given lots of facilities and opportunities to get education and jobs for being Muslims. The population of Hindus is currently less in Bangladesh because of the exodus that started since the partition of India. Hindus do not fight back in Bangladesh, but in India Muslims often fight back against their oppression. It can happen only if you have equality.
In India, all politicians appease Muslims. In Bangladesh there is no such thing as minority appeasement policy. Hindus are leaving Bangladesh for other countries to save their lives. Muslims in India do not need to leave their country.
Pakistan is fighting Islamists too. How is Bangladesh’s situation any different from Pakistan’s?
Bangladesh was born as a secular country; its constitution was secular. Pakistan is an Islamic republic. But Bangladesh, once a secular state, is now degenerating into a country of Islamists. Because of the Islamization of Bangladesh for 40 long years, its political system is now totally Islamic. You will not find many Muslim countries with political systems as Islamized as is the case in Bangladesh. Islamic fanatics have killed so many secular writers and bloggers and freethinkers in recent years. Not a single killer has been punished. But the Islamic fanatic who killed secular and progressive Salman Taseer in Pakistan was hanged. You can get at least some justice in Pakistan, but not in Bangladesh, which has become a safe haven for Islamists. Even Syria and Iraq are not as accommodating of Islamic fanatics as Bangladesh. No air raid or drone attacks disturb Bangladeshi jihadists. The government of Bangladesh is providing them with protection and has warned atheists and free thinker bloggers to quit writing about atheism and secularism and stop hurting religious feelings. Atheists are getting arrested under 57 ICT acts, a new law which was created to fight free thought.
All three states that emerged from the partition of Indian subcontinent seem to be challenged by the same communal conflicts that our freedom fighters were fighting through the 1940s. Was Partition a good idea to begin with? How has creation of Bangladesh helped?
Partition was a mistake. Now India has two neighbours dominated by Islamic fundamentalists. The 1971 Bangladesh-Pakistan war proved that Muslim unity was a myth and the two-nation theory was a blunder. Bangladesh could not remain as a secular state due to the Islamic policies that were introduced by corrupt political regimes. Bangladesh is becoming the worst Islamic country in the world. Having a neighbour like Bangladesh is not good for India. You never know when the ISIS and al-Qaeda and other Islamic terrorist organizations will come to India and begin killing innocent people. Bangladesh is totally a failed state. The so-called democratic government is a theocratic government in reality. The creation of Bangladesh as a secular state has failed miserably. Bangladesh has become a breeding ground for terrorists.
You have been very critical of Indian liberals and the Left. Why?
I have always been critical of far right politics. I am also critical of Indian liberals and leftists. I noticed liberals and leftists are generally very critical of Hindu fanaticism but not of Islamic fanaticism. Islamic fanatics are against human rights, women’s rights, free speech and democracy. The truth is those Islamic fanatics are against everything Indian liberals stand for. But liberals strangely sympathize with them. This is how they have distorted the concept of secularism.
You have been opposed to all religions? Don’t you think criticism of religion is unnecessarily provoking even moderate religionists to take hardliner positions?
I do not think so. Freethinkers, rationalists, atheists, humanists are a minority in most societies. Moderate religionists do not need criticism of religion to become hardliners. They have political reasons to become hardliners. Criticism of religion should hopefully provoke people to think rationally and give up irrational blind faith. We must not forget that without criticism of religion no society has evolved and no state becomes secular. Critical scrutiny of religion is necessary for a healthy society. No religion should be protected from critical scrutiny, from questioning unethical aspects of its doctrines. Criticism encourages people to become secular humanists.
Hardliners have been killing atheists and rationalists in Bangladesh. They became hardliners because they were indoctrinated with Islam from a very early age, and they sorely need to be exposed to a rational and tolerant worldview.