Bangladeshi-born blogger Omar Farooq Lux is calling out to the government in Dhaka for action after finding himself on a death list issued by radical Islamists this week.
“The government must act to ensure rights to all faiths, including atheism, to uphold democracy in Bangladesh,” secular blogger Lux told dpa by phone from his adopted home in Germany.
The list was issued by Ansarullah Bangla Team, believed to be an affiliate of al-Qaeda’s branch in the Indian subcontinent, and thought to be behind recent high-profile killings of secular bloggers.
The death list comprises nine people in England, eight in Germany, two in the United States and one each in Sweden and Canada, describing them as “infidels.”
“Let Bangladesh strip off citizenship of these enemies of Islam,” it said.
Police have linked Ansarullah Bangla Team to the recent murders of five secularist bloggers in Bangladesh, and arrested seven of its members, Dhakar police joint Commissionner Monirul Islam said.
He said there was little threat to society within Bangladesh, where more than 90 per cent of the 160 million people are practising Muslims.
Many intellectuals, especially among the Bangladeshi diaspora, do fear for the future however, and worry that the South Asian country could be seen as a safe destination for radical Islamists if the blogger killers are not caught and prosecuted.
Four of the bloggers were killed this year alone.
Bangladeshi-born US writer Avijit Roy was hacked to death by unidentified assailants on February 26 when leaving a university book fair in Dhaka with his wife.
Oyeshekur Rahman Babu, an atheist writer, was chopped to death in central Dhaka on March 30, after he criticised Islam, followed by the killing of science writer Ananta Bijoy Das in a similar attack in north-eastern city of Sylhet on May 12.
The government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who campaigns for secularism beside Islam as a state religion, was criticized for requesting local bloggers and activists “not to cross the limit” over sensitive religious issues after blogger Niladri Chattapadhay was killed in another gruesome murder in Dhaka on August 7.
For critics, the government’s stance seems like double standards.
More than 150 writers from around the world issued an open letter to the Bangladeshi government after the killing of Ananta Bijoy Das.
The writers including Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, Yann Martel and Colm Tóibín, in the letter said freedom of expression is a fundamental right under Bangladesh’s constitution and one of the rights under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
It called Bangladesh to provide protection and support to bloggers and other writers at risk in the South Asian country in line with Bangladesh’s obligations under national and international laws.
Lux said the death list was nothing new, and warned that the extremists could also strike others.
Like others who received it by email, he has taken precautions, he said, and is under German police protection.
Religion and secularism have frequently clashed in Bangladesh’s recent history.
Secularism was one of the basic principles of Bangladesh’s constitution when the Muslim-majority part of the then Pakistan (East Pakistan) became independent after a bloody war in 1971.
But military-chief-turned-president Ziaur Rahman began the process of Islamizing the constitution after the assassination of Bangladesh’s founding president Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975. Ziaur Rahman gave way to the Islamists, especially the Jamaat-e-Islami party which opposed Bangladesh during the war.
Military dictator Hussein Muhammad Ershad, who took over shortly after Ziaur Rahman’s murder in 1981, formalized Islam as the state religion in 1988.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Mujibur Rahman’s daughter, brought back secularism in the constitution in 2011, while keeping Islam as the state religion.
With the political stakes high in Bangladesh’s sharply divided politics, analysts say Hasina would never put her popularity at risk by repealing the state religion.
Whatever the official status of Islam, the individual’s freedom of expression must be protected, says Arifur Rahman, a writer living in London.
The government had a duty to “create an atmosphere where everyone can express their opinion without fear,” he said.