Slashing at freedom: New York Times Magazine targets attacks on Bangladesh 'freethinkers'

While liberals carp about the religious right allegedly chipping away at freedom in America, some Muslim extremists are hacking away -- literally -- at dissenters. So it's a grimly welcome surprise when the New York Times, the Gray Lady of liberalism, spotlights jihadi atrocities in Bangladesh.

The massive magazine feature, nearly 5,300 words strong, tells of the "freethinker" movement of secularist bloggers who have been stabbed and slashed by extremists in that south Asian land. In particular, the story centers on Asif Mohiuddin, a secular atheist journalist who fled to Germany after being stabbed several times.

And he's just one of more than a half-dozen victims, most murdered, some mangled. The attacks have leaked into western media for years, but retelling them in a single story carries its own visceral punch. The bottom line: It's good to see coverage of the rights of religious liberals, agnostics and atheists in troubled lands.

Some examples:

* Ahmed Rajib Haider was stalked by a five-man team, who "studied his movements over a period of days" and even played cricket outside his home. When he ventured out alone at night, the men pulled machetes and killed him.

* Avijit Roy and his wife, Rafida Ahmed Bonya, were attacked after a book fair. Two men with machetes "struck him three times on the head, penetrating his brain and killing him. His wife lost a thumb trying to protect him."

* "Weeks after Roy’s killing, two men armed with meat cleavers struck down the satirical blogger Rhaman."

* Masked men murdered blogger Ananta Bijoy Dash, who had protested police inaction about the murder of Roy.

* Attackers also used machetes to kill blogger Niloy Neel in his own apartment in Dhaka. "The whole floor was completely covered with blood," his wife, Asha Mone, tells the Times.

* Two of Roy’s publishers were attacked simultaneously. "One, Faisal Arefin Dipan, was killed in his office; the other, Ahmed Rahim Tutul, managed to survive."

Mohiuddin, as the Times acknowledges, is no meek lamb. He says he "learned many ridiculous things" in his Muslim upbringing -- "that I would get virgins in heaven, or that I would suffer the ultimate punishment in hell for eternity." He and fellow secular bloggers have called for gay rights, women's rights and secular education, and questioned the infallibility of the prophet Muhammad. And the late Avijit Roy parroted an old canard: ‘‘Religion has been used all throughout history to justify war, slavery, sexism, rape, racism, homophobia, polygamy, mutilation, intolerance and oppression of minorities."

But of course, none of that is anywhere near a justification for hacking at an opponent. As tmatt wrote in March, such attacks are unleashed more on liberal or moderate Muslims than Christians, Jews or anyone else. And as religious freedom experts Nina Shea and Paul Marshall have said, laws against blasphemy or "insulting Islam" are increasingly used not just to police religious belief, but to hobble science, muzzle literature and stifle political discourse.

The Times story goes into some length on Mohiuddin's plight -- not just because of the viciousness of the attack …

Late one night in January 2013, four men surprised Mohiuddin as he stepped out of a motorized rickshaw in front of the I.T. firm where he worked night shifts as an office manager. The assailants struck quickly. As Mohiuddin paid the driver, they approached from behind and hit him with an iron rod, then delivered a series of rapid cuts using a standard kitchen knife with an eight-inch blade. The attackers fled down the deserted street.

… but also because of the callousness of medical workers and the government. As he tells the Times, he staggered, weak from several stabs, to a small private hospital. He was refused treatment because of a law that "made it difficult for doctors at private clinics to treat victims of violent crimes until the police arrived to investigate." He took a rickshaw to a second hospital, but a doctor there referred him to the city’s largest hospital, where he finally got treatment. By then, he'd lost three pints of blood.

Even then, the ordeal wasn’t over: An Islamist group called Hefajat-e-Islam demanded the arrest of Mohiuddin and three other secular bloggers for "insulting religion." The government did arrest him and shut down his blog.

And in a biblical-level irony, Mohiuddin says one of his assailants was a fellow inmate -- who said that if he were released, he would try again.

The Times magazine admirably digs into the history of Bangladesh, showing that it was born with an extremist strain. Even before independence from Pakistan in 1975, the article says, a militia called Jamaat-e-Islami began killing "intellectuals, scholars, university students, Hindus and others."

Jamaat was banned from taking part in politics, and several of those who committed the earlier murders were imprisoned, but the group is believed to continue working through Hefajat-e-Islam, the Times says.

What sets this article apart, though, is not just collecting the horror stories: The Times reporter actually visited the Hathazari Madrasa, a quranic school that serves as a headquarters for Hefajat, and interviewed its chief, Junaid Babunagari. The leader denies that the group has threatened or attacked bloggers, or even that it seeks a Saudi-style theocracy in Bangladesh.

The reporter spells out the problems in contradicting Babunagari:

Evidence of misdeeds as elusive and untraceable as inciting violence against bloggers is difficult to come by. Even a well-funded, fully uncompromised police force would have difficulty. The ideas that drive these attacks could come from anywhere — from individual imams or a school as large as this one.

As this article wound down, I was most depressed not by the incidents, ghastly as they are, but by the lack of a clear solution. Police seem inept and lack resources; government authorities tell the times they're "powerless to stop the violence."

Perhaps this spotlight by the Gray Lady will help. It keeps the killers from slashing in the dark. The bloggers of Bangladesh have staked their lives on it, and some have forfeited their lives.

Please respect our Commenting Policy