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'Exposes level of political volatility'

Interview: Gabriel DomínguezMarch 5, 2015

The killing of Avijit Roy underscores the fact that there is an emerging pattern in Bangladesh to silence the opinions of those that certain radical elements perceive as being a threat, Dr. Tazreena Sajjad tells DW.

Bangladesch Protest gegen Ermordung von US-Blogger (Bildergalerie)
Image: DW

The recent killing of Avijit Roy, a US writer and blogger of Bangladeshi origin, by machete-wielding men in the South Asian nation's capital Dhaka has turned the focus on the state of freedom of expression in Bangladesh. Roy's wife Rafida Ahmed also suffered head injuries and lost a finger in the attack.

An outspoken atheist, Roy was a critic of extremist Islam and the intertwining of religion and politics. He was also prolific online; his blog had been selected as a nominee for the 2014 Deutsche Welle Bobs award for online activism.

The violent attack follows a spate of similar incidents in the country in recent years, and drew condemnation from across the world.

Terming it as "a shocking act of violence" the US government offered to help with the investigation into the case. On March 3, Bangladeshi police arrested a "fundamentalist" blogger Farabi Shafiur Rahman in connection with the murder.

In a DW interview, Dr. Tazreena Sajjad, Bangladesh expert and Professorial Lecturer at American University, says that this use of extreme targeted violence against individuals with certain expressed religious and philosophical orientations is relatively new in Bangladesh. However, she adds, it is critical to keep in mind this is happening within a hyperpolarized political context where violence is used on a regular basis.

Bangladesch Protest gegen Ermordung von US-Blogger (Bildergalerie)
Roy's killing sparked a wave of protests in BangladeshImage: DW

DW: What does the murder of Avijit Roy reflect about the state of freedom of speech in Bangladesh?

Dr. Tazreena Sajjad: In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, it is easy to understand why the lens of "freedom of speech" is the one through which incidents such as Avijit Roy's murder is being discussed, but it is important to be mindful of solely analyzing the recent events in Bangladesh in terms of "Muslim hatred for freedom of speech," which dominant narratives in the West seem to imply.

Focusing only on this particular lens obscures a much more complex reality on the ground. This is not to say that Avijit was not targeted because of his expression of his religious and political beliefs. His writings and his blog Mukta Mona (The Free Spirit) had definitely caught the attention of certain radical elements that had threatened him in the past.

His brutal murder, the attack on his wife, and the killings of a blogger and of a professor in recent years underscore the fact that there is an emerging pattern to silence the opinions of those that certain radical elements perceive as being a threat.

This use of extreme targeted violence against individuals with certain expressed religious and philosophical orientations is relatively new and is certainly a growing threat to freedom of speech, but it is critical to keep in mind this is happening within a hyperpolarized political context where violence is used on a regular basis.

Especially in recent years, violence has frequently been instrumentalized to intimidate, harass and abuse people with different political affiliations and from different sections of the society who are just trying to go about their lives.

Bangladesch Protest gegen Ermordung von US-Blogger (Bildergalerie)
Sajjad: 'Violence has frequently been instrumentalized to intimidate, harass and abuse people with different political affiliations'Image: DW

A recent report indicated that Bangladesh is very low in the ranking for the freedom of the press index, underscoring the difficult and dangerous work that journalists face on an every day basis.

This most recent attack is not just a commentary on Bangladesh's current state of freedom of speech and an attack on a US blogger, (a problematic assumption which obscures the fact that Roy had Bangladeshi heritage and was deeply engaged in reflecting on Bangladeshi politics).

Rather, it also exposes the level of political volatility at play, the weakening law and order situation in the country, and a virulent strain of political and pseudo-religiosity that is trying to move from the obscure margins to the mainstream.

What does the incident reflect about the current state of violence and religious intolerance in the country at the moment?

Political violence has unfortunately dominated Bangladesh's landscape since its birth. Since 1990, after the fall of a nine-year military dictatorship, the country's political fabric has been defined by different forms of low to high levels of violence.

The current state of violence in many ways is a continuation of the same narrative. At the same time, it is very possible to argue that the violence has intensified in terms of the different means used to destabilize the political climate. The recent political standoff between the government and the main political opposition and their inability to seek any form of compromise has deepened the country's ongoing crisis.

The "winner takes all" mentality has ensured that other challenges to governance including the rise of extremist elements in society due to both internal and external forces are not being tackled effectively.

In this polarized climate, where strikes are profoundly impacting the economic sector, creating a sense of fear among small business owners, stalling the education sector, and limiting mobility because of the fear of petrol bombs and other forms of violence, one could easily argue that Bangladesh is being pushed to the brink of extreme instability.

Under these circumstances, virulent elements of society are able exploit the conditions in ways which suit their agendas.

It is important to keep in mind that while Bangladesh is the fourth largest Muslim nation in the world, it has historically prided itself in its secular foundations. Its identity is based on a linguistic-cultural nationalism and its vision of being able to merge Hindu-Buddhist traditions with an interpretation of Islam that has traditionally not been defined by the legalistic underpinnings practiced, for example, in the Gulf countries.

It is also important to understand that over the last two decades or so, minority communities, particularly the Hindu and Buddhist communities, as well as the small Ahmediya population has been targeted time and again by extremist elements in society as well as by armed cadres for political and economic, not necessarily ideological expedience.

Is the current climate of political turmoil created by the two main parties fueling religious intolerance or the rise of Islamic parties?

The current political crisis in Bangladesh as a consequence of the ongoing standoff between the two main political parties is responsible for many of the dire challenges that are facing the country today.

The political turmoil that in 2015 alone has already claimed over a hundred lives has certainly been facilitated by the impasse, which has taken the form of the ruling Awami League (AL) party implementing draconian measures and an aggressive approach to governance, and the oppositional BNP-JI alliance holding the country hostage through ongoing political strikes that have been accompanied by extreme violence.

In such a context of deteriorating law and order, violent opportunists are trying to carve up their spheres of influence.

In that light, acts of religious intolerance are not necessarily something new in Bangladesh, although, arguably, the frequency and intensity of these attacks have increased over the years. The identification of atheists as a religious group, however, is very new in Bangladesh, and violently targeting those who profess their philosophy publicly is an even newer phenomenon.

However, far more lives, statistically speaking, have been lost in the country as a consequence of political violence and the corresponding weak law and order situation alone, irrespective of people's religious and political affiliations. It is critical to keep these issues in mind in trying to understand the dynamics of Bangladeshi politics today.

Furthermore, in the last few years, a confluence of a complex range of internal and external factors has engendered a political climate in Bangladesh that has in turn nurtured such radicalized and extremist actors and networks and given them prominence.

Proteste in Dhaka Bangladesch 24.12.2014
'Political violence has dominated Bangladesh's landscape since its birth'Image: AFP/Getty Images

For instance, the post 9/11 global political climate, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the funding of mosques and charities by Middle Eastern countries and the subsequent influence of a more legalistic approach to Islam, the transnational networks that recruited Bangladeshis to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq and their indoctrination, and the transnational nature of certain radical networks have all contributed to an environment where a certain rigid narrative about political Islam has gained traction.

Internally, Bangladesh's hyper-polarized political climate, its deteriorating law and order situation, the ability of local criminal networks to emerge and link up with transnational terrorist networks, the circulation of arms, economic instability, also need to be acknowledged.

It is the convergence of all these factors that have allowed these criminal and terrorist networks to emerge, and encouraged some of the Islamist parties to embrace an uncompromising and hardline stance.

What measures should the Bangladeshi government take to prevent a recurrence of such incidents?

There is no silver bullet that the government of Bangladesh can use to prevent such senseless killings, but there are some concrete measures that can and should be taken. First, the government should ensure that Roy's murder investigation is conducted thoroughly, effectively and impartially.

His family should be reassured that justice will be served and that they will be provided with protection if necessary. Of course, condemning his murder and assuring the public of due process is a responsibility of the government, although Bangladeshis may remain skeptical about the assurance.

The institutions of law and order need to be far more responsive and responsible - Roy's public killing and the attack on his wife was possible because the police failed to respond to their calls for help, and that in itself speaks to both the unprofessionalism of the police force and the climate of impunity that is pervasive in the country.

Kombobild Khaleda Zia und Sheikh Hasina
'The current political crisis due to the ongoing standoff between the two main political parties is responsible for many of the dire challenges facing the country today'Image: Getty Images/AFP/FARJANA K. GODHULY

In addition, the government has to ensure that there is better security for private and public citizens and has to continue with its efforts to root out terrorism in the country.

There is an ongoing effort to coordinate intelligence with different law enforcement agencies to do this, and it is important that such measures continue.

However, the government also has a political responsibility to govern effectively - it has to recognize that its fear-mongering tactics and isolating the opposition in the way it has done thus far will only embolden violent entrepreneurs and further entrench the opposition in the status quo.

The BNP and JI also have a significant responsibility in harnessing their armed cadres and taking a hard line against the use of violence in the country. Their current position is fostering an environment where violence has become an easy currency and where fear and intimidation, and not the rule of law, defines the political landscape.

Dr. Tazreena Sajjad currently serves as Professorial Lecturer in the Department of Global Governance, Politics and Security (GGPS) in the School of International Service (SIS) at American University. Her fields of specialization are International Politics and International Peace and Conflict Resolution.