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'He shouted Allahu Akbar while stabbing me with machete'

Interview: Arafatul IslamDecember 4, 2015

A culture of impunity in Bangladesh is to be blamed for continued attacks on bloggers and freethinkers in the country, says a secular publisher who survived a slash-and-kill attack recently.

Bangladesch Blogger
Image: picture alliance/NurPhoto/Z. H. Chowdhury

Secular publisher and writer Ahmedur Rashid Tutul and two bloggers - Ranadipam Basu and Tarek Rahim - were brutally attacked in Dhaka on October 31 by a group of young men wielding machetes. While they survived the attack, another secular publisher Faisal Arefin Dipan was hacked to death on the same day in a separate but similar incident in the Bangladeshi capital. The Islamist militant group 'Ansar al-Islam' has claimed responsibility for both attacksand justified them by pointing out that both men had published books by the atheist writer and blogger Dr. Avijit Roy, who was murdered in Dhaka on February 26 this year.

43-year-old Tutul has published four of Roy's books. One of the books explains the scientific and socio-psychological aspects of homosexuality, a highly taboo topic in the Muslim-majority country. The other books cover topics like atheism, science and rationalism.

Bangladesch neuer Angriff auf säkulare Verleger und Autoren Ehefrau Dipan
Secular publisher Faisal Arefin Dipan was hacked to death on October 31 this year in DhakaImage: Getty Images/AFP/M. Uz Zaman

Tutul is now staying at a secret location while he wounds heal. In an interview with DW he explains why bloggers and freethinkers are being attacked in Bangladesh.

DW: Why have you been attacked? Who are the attackers?

Ahmedur Rashid Tutul: Ansar al-Islam, an Islamist group that claims to be Bangladesh chapter of al Qaeda on the Indian subcontinent, has claimed responsibility for the attack and the reasons. It says it is because I have published books about the thoughts of freethinkers. I believe in free thinking as well and also supported activists who believed the same. As a result, I received a direct threat in February this year and during the recent attack, one of the assailants shouted 'Allahu Akbar' while hacking me with a small machete. I can't remember anything else about the attack.

Two bloggers were also attacked with machetes in your office in Dhaka when you were attacked. Were they also a target?

After practicing freethought and writing about it in Bangladesh, you can't expect not to be targeted by fundamentalists. Therefore, I can't consider myself as the sole target of the attack. Moreover, if blogger Ranadipam Basu and Tarek Rahim had not been there that day, I wouldn't have been able to give this interview. They tried desperately to save my life despite being stabbed and hacked by the assailants in the process.

After the murder of Avijit Roy, there was a rumor that you could be attacked as well. Did you seek police protection?

I was threatened a few days before Roy was killed on February 26 this year. After the murder I filed a complaint with the Dhaka police seeking protection. Police officers visited my office two or three times after that. I saw their patrol bikes in front of my office a couple of times. But I didn't get any other protection from them. We are passing through a tough time in an insecure environment at the moment.

Do you think bloggers and writers who practice atheism are the targets of religious fundamentalists?

Fundamentalism doesn't recognize any other philosophy than its own. After the murder of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding father of Bangladesh in 1975, the country became a safe place to be a fundamentalist. This was because of political instability and military rule. The space required to think freely was reduced systematically. However, the emergence of the internet has opened a new window for free thinkers. They started writing on the internet and spreading their views and the young generation showed interest. Fundamentalists were panicked by this trend and murdered bloggers Ahmed Rajib Haider, Avijit Roy, Washiqur Rahman Babu, Niloy Neel and Ananta Bijoy Das in an attempt to stop it. Four of them have been killed this year. Fundamentalists also tried to kill me, but I survived the attack despite sustaining serious injuries.

Is the government doing enough in protecting the freethinkers?

If the police had responded effectively to any of these attacks, it could have been stopped. I don't know why the criminals can’t be arrested or prosecuted. The room for freedom of expression has shrunk so much in the country.

The interview was conducted by Arafatul Islam.