Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Killing Atheists. A Wedge Issue in Bangladesh

Yet another Bangladeshi blogger has been hacked to death. This is the third time in just the last two months that someone has been hacked to death in BD for being an "atheist blogger".

The victims:
1. Ananta Bijoy Das

2. Avijit Roy

3. Washiqur Rahman

Two born Hindu, one Muslim, all three known to be associated with Bangladeshi rationalism and "freethought" and in particular with the freethought blog "Mukto-Mona". 

Someone with more local knowledge can comment about them and add their tributes. I wanted to focus on a more general issue: Why kill these bloggers? As Bond noted, the first time is happenstance, the second time coincidence, but the third time, it's enemy action. This is not just some random Muslim fanatic getting riled up and going to earn his virgins. This is a systematic campaign...and it makes a lot of sense. These killings are a near-perfect "wedge issue" for Bangladeshi Islamists. How does that work?

1. Bangladesh is a relatively liberal Islamic country. There is a significant Hindu minority (though it shrank somewhat at partition and then again, drastically, during the anti-Hindu genocide of 1971) and thanks to strong traditions of secular Bengali nationalism and old-fashioned (i.e. not Post-Marxist Western elite and University imported) Left wing activism, there is a significant Muslim Bengali secular tradition. Another factor is the fact that when the Awami League led the Bangladesh liberation movement against West Pakistan, the West Pakistani army was supported by the main Islamist party and its cadres provided the volunteers who were their eyes and ears (and in many cases, their eager executioners).
After independence, as a "right-wing" Bangladeshi political grouping developed with military (and Pakistani, Saudi and possibly CIA) assistance, it was provided crucial support by the Islamists and in return their successive regimes provided assistance to the Islamists and protected them against prosecution for war crimes. At the height of the honeymoon between Islamists, the Pakistani intelligence agencies, Saudi Arabia and the CIA, this right-of-center alternative (first as military rule, then as the BNP) established itself firmly as one half (and for much of that time, the dominant half) of Bangladeshi politics. Since then, things have changed. Saudi Arabia is now somewhat conflicted about the Islamists and at a minimum, distinguishes between "good Islamists" (who behave themselves and support the royal family) and "bad Islamists" (who prefer to go the whole hog and aim to replace the royal family with a more authentic Islamist alternative). Pakistan and the CIA are no longer BFFs (though wary cooperation and buying and selling continues). And Western powers are not entirely happy with Islamism. As a result, the playing field in BD seems to have tilted towards the Awami League and towards relatively secular Bangladeshi nationalism. In the nature of things, the BNP or some such will still be needed to provide the other half of a stable two-party electoral system, but their Islamist allies are under some pressure. There is even the possibility that the BNP will have to carry on without hardcore Islamist cadres being sheltered under its umbrella and will have to (perhaps as an "India-skeptic" critic), go along to some extent with a new "India-friendly" regional order.
2. But there is another alternative. Is there some way the Islamists can recover and even win new heights they did not possess even under BNP regimes in the past?
3. Some of them, and perhaps some of their backers in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia (in Saudia, more in the private sector than in the government? who knows) seem to think so. And they are using these killings as a wedge issue.
4. By going after atheist bloggers (many or most of them Hindus), they have found a near perfect wedge issue. The Hasina government is not happy with these blasphemers being killed, and unlike in Pakistan, the regime seems to have made some arrests. But if they take a very public stand against these killings and aggressively protect the rights of these free-thinkers, then they stand with atheists and blasphemers and risk losing the support of "moderate Muslims" who don't go in for machete-wielding execution, but whose core beliefs include the belief that atheism and apostasy cannot be tolerated....But if the Hasina government lets this go on, then they permit the Islamists to grab the initiative and drive away atheists, secularists and Hindus...all of whom are more or less her voters and supporters (and whose friends and supporters are also the "intellectuals" of the Awami League regime). At a minimum, it is an uncomfortable position for the regime.
5. Moderate Muslims may condemn free-lance executions, but such executions also bring to light the existence of atheists, Hindus and blasphemers in what is, after all, a Muslim majority country. For the moderate Muslim the best thing would be for this conversation to just go away. The longer it goes on, the more they have to commit to options they don't like: should they come down in favor of Hindus, atheists and blasphemers (not necessarily in that order, but all these items are uncomfortably connected in mukto-mona)? Or, when push comes to machete-shove, do they stay silent and "understand" that the blasphemers have sorely provoked their Muslim executioners? whatever they decide, the discomfort is a net plus for the Islamists. They are betting on the fact that by making this an "Islam versus atheism/Hinduism" issue they make it hard for moderate Muslims to chose atheism and Hinduism over Islam.
6. With the penetration of bullshit-postmarxism into the Bengali elite increasing as their access to expensive Western education increases, the "high-end secularists" can be split too. "Black and White" division of the world between Islamists and anti-Islamists is anathema to postmodern-postmarxism. They too would prefer to opt out of this "complex and nuanced" issue. Their discomfort is an added bonus to the Islamist cause (of relatively little practical importance, but these people have some visibility in high-end intellectual circles, so their discomfort doesn't hurt either).

Can Bangladeshi secularism (meaning in practice, the Awami League regime, there being no other secular alternative on the horizon) defeat this rather well-chosen point of attack? Maybe they can (in which case the Islamists will have gambled and lost and the secular cause will emerge stronger than before). But it is a big if...If they lose, Bangladesh is in play again as a possible Islamist base in Eastern India. The Islamists know what they are up to...