Sunday, August 09, 2015

Ruminations 57: On Hacking Bloggers to Death in Bangladesh and the Price of Insulting Religion

(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2015)


On August 7, 2015, the Wall Street Journal, like other Western media outlets, reported that another blogger,  40-year-old Niloy Chattopadhyay writing under the pseudonym Niloy Neel, had been hacked to death in Bangladesh.  He was the fourth to meet this end there over the course of a short period of time.
Mr. Chattopadhyay is the fourth blogger critical of Islam to be murdered in Bangladesh this year. American-Bangladeshi writer Avijit Roy, who championed atheism through his Mukto-Mona [Freethinker] blog, was killed in a machete attack in February. Two other writers, both admirers of Mr. Roy, were killed by suspected Islamic militants in similar attacks in March and May.

The rise of religious extremism in Bangladesh, a Muslim-majority nation of 160 million people, could affect regional stability, analysts say.

In May, an al Qaeda group based in India claimed responsibility for the killing of Avijit Roy. Ansarullah Bangla Team, another militant outfit, claimed responsibility for the same killing shortly after the attack in a Twitter post.

The Bangladeshi government has banned Ansarullah since then, but security analysts say such groups often change names or operate through loose alliances with other extremist outfits. (Syed Zain Al-Mahmood, Fourth Blogger Hacked to Death in Bangladesh: Killing sparks renewed fears of growing radicalization of Islamic fundamentalists, The Wall Street Journal, August 7, 2015).

This post considers the interesting contrasts between  these murders and those  that are visited upon writers and bloggers in the West, though at the hands of a related set of actors.  It suggests that these reactions, especially of the killings in Bangladesh, reveal much about the way in which ideological contextualization changes expectations of behaviors.  From a Western, and perhaps from a local perspective as well, what tends to be treated generally as outrageous in Paris, for example, tends to be treated as an occurrence less unexpected in Dhaka, not because the level of civilization in Paris is higher or more advanced than in Dhaka, but because its societal foundations are different.   And not merely different, but different and moving in quite dissimilar directions.





The Constitution of the People's Republic of Bangladesh invokes a Divine source: "In the name of Allah, the Beneficient, the Merciful)/ In the name of the Creator, the Merciful."(Bangladesh Const. Substituted for the words, commas, signs and brackets `BISMILLAH-AR-RAHMAN-AR-RAHIM (In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful)` by the Constitution (Fifteenth Amendment) Act, 2011 (Act XIV of 2011), section 2) to establish a secular republic, but one founded on religion. Article 2A, amended in 2011, provides:
2A. The state religion of the Republic is Islam, but the State shall ensure equal status and equal right in the practice of the Hindu, Buddhist, Christian and other religions.
Article 12 of the Constitution, amended in 2011, now provides:
12. The principle of secularism shall be realised by the elimination of -
(a) communalism in all its forms ;
(b) the granting by the State of political status in favour of any religion ;
(c) the abuse of religion for political purposes ;
(d) any discrimination against, or persecution of, persons practicing a particular religion.

Discrimination on grounds of religion or gender are prohibited. Article 28 provides:
28. (1) The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth.

(2) Women shall have equal rights with men in all spheres of the State and of public life.

(3) No citizen shall, on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth be subjected to any disability, liability, restriction or condition with regard to access to any place of public entertainment or resort, or admission to any educational institution.

(4) Nothing in this article shall prevent the State from making special provision in favour of women or children or for the advancement of any backward section of citizens.
But speech rights are more tightly circumscribed. Article 39 provides:
39. (1) Freedom of thought and conscience is guaranteed.

(2) Subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interests of the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence–
(a) the right of every citizen to freedom of speech and expression; and
(b) freedom of the press,
are guaranteed.
Religious rights are also similarly constrained. Article 41 provides:
41. (1) Subject to law, public order and morality –
(a) every citizen has the right to profess, practise or propagate any religion;
(b) every religious community or denomination has the right to establish, maintain and manage its religious institutions.
(2) No person attending any educational institution shall be required to receive religious instruction, or to take part in or to attend any religious ceremony or worship, if that instruction, ceremony or worship relates to a religion other than his own.
Those constraints of "public order, decency or morality", grounded in the special status of Islam as the state religion of Bangladesh, are given effect in law.  Bangladesh has enacted laws protective of religious sensibilities and their sense of the truth of their profession. Bangladesh, like other states, have enacted a series of laws protective of the sensibilities of religion and the adherents of religion.  These include, in particular, the following in the Penal Code:
Section 295A.  Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of citizens of Bangladesh, by words, either spoken or written, or by visual representations insults or attempts to insult the religion or religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extent to two years, or with fine, or with both.
* * * 
298. Whoever, with the deliberate intention of wounding the religious feelings of any person, utters any word or makes any sound in the hearing of that person or places any object in the sight of that person or makes any gesture in the sight of that person or places any object in the sight of that person, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to one year , or with fine, or with both.
These have tended to favor the views and sensibilities of Bangladesh's official religion.  But this has put the government of Bangladesh in a bind.  On the one hand, the government of Bangladesh is officially secular, that is, it favors no religion. On the other, societal norms suggest that these penal law provisions merely serve as an affirmation of religiously based societal norms protective of Islam.
Bangladesh is considered a democratic and moderate Muslim country, and national law forbids the practice of sharia. But activist and journalist Shoaib Choudhury, who documents such cases, said sharia is still very much in use in villages and towns aided by the lack of education and strong judicial systems. The Supreme Court also outlawed fatwas a decade ago, but human rights monitors have documented more than 500 cases of women in those 10 years who were punished through a religious ruling. And few who have issued such rulings have been charged. (Farid Ahmed and Moni Basu, Only 14, Bangladeshi girl charged with adultery was lashed to death, CNN, March 29, 2011)
These societal structures and norms are particularly in evidence in the face of perceived attacks by secularist or freethinking Bangladeshis who no longer adhere to the traditional standards of the Muslim community of Bangladesh as expressed by certain influential elements in Bangladesh. The government has been vigorous in its prosecution of these indivviduals and their blogs under the insulting religion laws. In 2013, "Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina today pledged stern action against people found guilty of defaming Islam using the internet as right-wing Islamic parties threatened to wage an intensified street campaign against "atheist bloggers". You (Islamic parties) do not need to go for any movement. As a Muslim, I have the responsibility to take action," Hasina said at a party meeting of her ruling Awami League, this evening."(Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina pledges to punish online insults against Islam, NDTV, March 31, 2013).
As a consequence, the government's attempts to prosecute free thinking bloggers and to shut down their blogs are criticized as authoritarian.  Indeed, "the four arrests took the nation by surprise as the Awami League, the party leading the center-left coalition government, likes to be identified as a secular political party. They also undercut one of the party's major electoral pledges, to build a digital Bangladesh -- a promise believed to have swayed a decisive number of young voters in the last national election. Social media and blogs were flooded with posts furious about the arrests." (Emran Hossain, Bangladesh Arrests 'Atheist Bloggers,' Cracking Down On Critics, The World Post, April 3, 2013) On the other hand, the recent hacking murders of bloggers has been criticized as anti-Islamic by religious elements in society. Some have taken matters into their own hands.  "A group identifying itself as Islamist has claimed responsibility for three murders, including that of Rajib Haider, a blogger whose throat was cut on 15 February 2013, and has named other future victims including Asif Mohiuddin, a blogger who narrowly survived a stabbing on 14 January 2013" (Bloggers on hit-list posted by supposed Islamist group in Bangladesh, Reporters Without Borders, Nov. 11, 2014). (See also here, here, here, and here).

That puts the government in an awkward position, one which is at odds with both elements of its societal structures.  It is in this environment that the murders--deliberately cruel and sensationalized to send a message--can be understood. And more importantly, the limited nature of the reaction beyond Bangladesh can also be understood.  
According to the main domestic human rights organization Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK), which publishes annual statistics on violence against religious minorities, 495 statues, monasteries, or temples were destroyed; 278 homes and 208 businesses were destroyed; 188 persons were injured; and one person was killed during the year. Local and international press, human rights organizations, and Hindu community leaders blamed the attacks on Shibir. (U.S. Dept. of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, 2013 Report on International Religious Freedom, Report Bangladesh, July 28, 2014)
Beyond the blogger community, beyond the global community of reporters, the murders produced outrage, but not one that suggested something out of the ordinary.  Likewise, the difficulty of  Bangladeshi officials in apprehending the killers, something that they have found substantially harder to accomplish than the detaining of the bloggers and the suppression of their blog, can also be understood. This has enmeshed Bangladesh into global networks, triggered in this case by the nationality of one of the murdered bloggers. 
Bangladesh has said it will welcome the FBI’s assistance in investigating the murder of secular blogger Niloy Neel who was brutally hacked to death by suspected al-Qaeda linked Islamists here.

“If the FBI wants to assist us in the investigation process, we will welcome it,” Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal told reporters last night, as officials said the US investigating agency conveyed its interest in the case.

Kamal, however, said Bangladeshi investigators “are close to identifying the murderers” who were “religious fanatics”. (FBI to assist Bangladesh in blogger murder probe, The Indian Express, Aug. 9, 205)
The international community has criticized religious insult and incitement laws.  The Rabat Plan of Action on the prohibition of advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence: Conclusions and recommendations emanating from the four regional expert workshops organised by OHCHR, in 2011, and adopted by experts in Rabat, Morocco on 5 October 201, concluded that incitement laws tend to be misused.  But many states continue to apply them.  Where such laws reflect the religious sentiments of adherents to individuals who belong to a majority religious group in a state, the effects can be powerful.  And they are powerfully in evidence in Bangladesh.  But elites understand that.  And thus there is outrage but little surprise when free thinkers are hacked to death in Bangladesh.  That appears to be the normal state of affairs in such states; the violence is indigenous culturally.  Such states might be prodded to "improve" or "change" to more closely resemble the law structures of the West, but that transformation is itself impeded by their constitutional structures.  A more powerful reaction  is reserved for those states, large powerful Western and East Asian states, where such murders would be perceived as invasive and counter to indigenous imagining of their collective selves.    

And perhaps that is the great lesson of the hacking murders in Bangladesh.  Societal norms may overwhelm a state and produce tension where that state seeks to deviate from those norms to embrace another, global, set.  Likewise, other states will judge a foreign state by its willingness to adhere to global norms but from a baseline of their perceptions of the character of its societal norms.  In this case, Western media would suggest the effect of those frameworks where, as in Bangladesh, bloggers are hacked to death.  On the one hand there is an expectation that Bangladeshi government and its formal structures adhere to some extent to international standards--of constitutionalism and the like. On the other, there is an expectation that Bangladesh, as a Muslim majority state,  would embrace the societal structures of Islam as a functional basis of governance.  That insight would be enhanced by Bangladesh's embrace of its religious insult and incitement laws, its weak government apparatus and the strength of the religious establishment within that Republic. It would thus be lamented but not viewed as unexpected, when the most conservative elements of the Islamic religious and political establishment would then mobilize societal and legal forces to incite extreme measures against those viewed as a threat, however small, to their hegemony and the religious-political order they believe they represent. The rise of an international and elite culture--rationale, open, free thinking, multi-cultural and tolerant--has detached itself from many of the states within which some of its elements reside. Traditional sensibilities and organizational structures, including those grounded in religious supremacy and inter-religious chauvinism may mix with ethno nationalism in traditional ways. In many states, the existence of these two cultures produces conflict--and not just in Bangladesh, the culture wars of the United States reminds us of the tensions even within the most advanced Western states. Within that zone of conflict one or the other might be managed or suppressed.  And in the process the casualties--in bodies, ideas, and social stability, may continue to result. 


















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