Blogs shut down, Bloggers arrested, Bangladesh in crisis

In that last few days Bangladesh has seen some very worrying developments in the battle between fundamentalist Islamic groups such as the Jamaat e Islami and the Blogger-led Shahbhag youth movement. I have great misgivings about what is happening.

At the time of writing, four bloggers have been arrested and, according to Bangladesh’s Daily Star, a large number of blogs have shut down in protest over the arrests. Many other blogs have been forcibly shut down for alleged ‘atheist’ writing. By the time you read this, figures will have undoubtedly changed and not for the better.

Accusations of blogs being ‘doctored’ so the writers can be accused of promoting atheism and insulting the Prophet (PBUH) are rife to the extent that I’m nervous about even this blog despite the fact I deliberately keep religion out of these pages.

The politics driving this continues to be very complex. I’ll try and break it down to a short summary but I apologise to those who know more about these things than I do for the inadequacy of my findings.

After the Shahbhag movement arose in February – the first significant non-political party affiliated youth movement in the history of Bangladesh and one that protests peacefully with no violence – the Jamaat e Islami party became scared. They were the main target of the Shahbhag movement (also known as Gonojagoron movement) which sees the Jamaat as a “party of war criminals” and considers them to have no place in modern Bangladesh “built upon the values of the Liberation War”.

But the Jamaat were clever. They picked up on this youth movement’s Achilles heel. Because it was organised by bloggers who, by nature, tend to be free-thinkers, they highlighted the few who were overt atheists and made that the subject of their attack.

And it is working.

I wrote, in previous posts how Bangladesh has an identity complex which has become a crisis while the war criminal trials have been going on: Are you a Muslim first and only who happens to live in Bangladesh? Or are you a Bangladeshi who happens to be a Muslim (if you are one of the 140 million + who are Muslims)?

But now the Jamaat and BNP (the main opposition party and chief ally of the Jamaat) have successfully shifted the focus to: Are you a Muslim or are you an atheist blogger?

In fact, those two words – ‘atheist’ and ‘blogger’ – seem so well joined now in the press that they are virtually inseparable. The implication is clear:

If you blog and are not one of the Jamaat then you are an atheist.

The Awami League – the ruling party – with an eye on the elections due at the end of the year cannot afford to be seen as the ‘atheist’ party and are quickly going back on their reputation as the party that defends the secular nature of the state of Bangladesh. This means that Shahbhag – which they had supported for its innocence, its peaceful nature and its support of the war trials going on – has now become the Government’s enemy too.

Sites deemed to offend the Prophet (PBUH) or encourage atheistic thinking are being shut down and bloggers connected to the Shahbhag movement are arrested. Violence continues.

It only takes a handful of violent bullies to intimidate and terrify hundreds of the weak and helpless. This is now happen around the country.

A few days ago, a train to Chittagong was derailed when activists pulled up the lines sending, I believe, seven coaches and the engine crashing off the line. The daughter of one of our friends was on the train at the time and though, fortunately, she was not in a coach that came off, she was left stranded in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night. It was a terrifying moment.

Violence has stayed largely away from where we live though there has been plenty in our nearest city – Dinajpur. But just this week one man was killed in a village very close to us. Hindus are being attacked and their homes destroyed but by whom exactly is harder to ascertain. Guilt and innocence in Bangladesh is almost impossible to work out as no one comes out clean. All I know is, our local friends and neighbours are nervous. I’m not worried about the safety of myself or my family – I think we’re some time off seeing trouble here – but I do worry for my Santal, Hindu and Christian friends.

Meanwhile, all the International Press see is Police brutality against ‘peaceful’ BNP and Jamaat demonstrators (see the link to the Economist below for a different interpretation on this ‘brutality’) and a focus on the fact that the ‘bloodthirsty’ shahbhag youth are demanding the death penalty for war criminals. In international eyes this makes the movement the enemy too despite the fact that this youth movement is really crying out for justice. It knows that if life imprisonment is given then these criminals – who raped, tortured and murdered thousands between them – will be released as soon as the BNP come to power and be back in positions of high authority to abuse their ‘enemies’ all over again. The international press is missing this completely.

Who will support the Shahbhag movement now? No wonder I’m reading posts of utter frustration, anger and desperation by many Bangladeshi friends in the blogging community.

Today (Saturday), a big rally is being held to demand the ‘highest punishment’ for atheist bloggers (meaning the death penalty). The Shahbhag movement has responded by announcing a nationwide hartal (strike) to prevent them from rallying in Dhaka. The Hefajat-e Islam group organising the rally have promised an indefinite hartal if they are prevented from marching. The country is already being crippled by the sheer number of these hartals which bring everything to a halt. Economically, it’s a disaster for the poor.

I wrote some time ago that I feared the country was descending into civil war. Although it is still, in some ways, small-scale, I see no evidence yet that the country is heading anywhere else.

I pray I’m wrong. I really, really do.

Further Reading:

The Economist: Bangladesh Legal Process

For deeper opinion read this blog post.

This entry was posted in Bangladesh, community, Life and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Blogs shut down, Bloggers arrested, Bangladesh in crisis

  1. Pingback: Bangladesh versus Banglastan: A civil war of ideals | kenthinksaloud

  2. Pingback: A Northern Bangladesh Santal Wedding | kenthinksaloud

  3. Politics is a dirty game, and much of what you explained seems very well orchestrated. Unfortunately the losers are the wider public for whom the government(s) should represent.


  4. adnanramin says:

    Great post. Its sad that Shahbag has taken the atheist bait. Hope all protesters run out of energy / money – so ‘commerce’ can resume. Fingers crossed.


    • Yes indeed – all this fighting and blockading is just hurting the ordinary people of the country who can’t go about their business. Just when Bangladesh was looking like it would rise from the oppression of poverty…


  5. Ruby Tuesday says:

    I don’t like — no, I hate what’s going on over there. What I like is your explanations of what is going on, which are, of course, much more comprehensive and intelligent than anything I have been able to find. Although credit where it is due, The New York Times did run an article some time ago, when things were just really beginning to come to a head, which included the things you are frustrated are not being talked about — how the fear and fact is that they will be released to do more horrific things should their party come to power. It was a much more accurate and fair piece, one in line with all you have written (albeit the very abridged version). So there is a small flicker of truth and understanding alight in the international press. Of course it was in The New York Times, the gold standard of real journalism, and what all other papers should aspire to be.

    I applaud your bravery in continuing to write, and your objectivity and honesty while speaking of such an emotionally charged situation.


    • Thanks Ruby. To be fair – there are reports out there getting it right (or, more often, almost right) but it is the fact that most of what is going on is just ignored or picked up on for all the wrong reasons.

      I’ve looked at the NY Times reports and, yes, I agree with you that they are good though there are still inaccuracies (how can you get away from that though?!). The problem is, by the time the International press really pick up on what’s going on, I fear things may be too late. Where’s George Harrison when you need him..?

      Thank you for your kind comments. I’m not sure they’re deserved – my family and I continue to be relatively safe even if we’re all a bit nervous and reading the news avidly each day to see how things are progressing. Even since writing and posting this article, the news has moved on and prompted me to postpone my planned post (again) to write a follow-up for this tomorrow. I am trying to remain objective – as much because I am an outsider who can never truly and completely understand all that is going on or why – but it is difficult to do so. Sometimes one can’t help but think “nope, this bit here – that’s just pure evil…” :-/


  6. I hope that you and your family and friends are safe Ken


  7. Rinth says:

    My dad recently bought a “box” that lets us see Bangladeshi channels, and so I feel much more updated on the topic now. You know, for me it seems like this will never truly end and I doubt if any of the sides will “win”. It will only continue and people who don’t want to be a part of it will be forced into a side, people will be hurt and they will die.


    • I can only hope that you and I are both wrong in our thoughts Rinth. I think you are right that there will be no true end, but I hope that things will change at least enough for peace to be given a chance.

      What’s saddest of all is that the International press will see this, yet again, as being about religion when in reality religion is being used as a pawn in a game of power. That fact affects us all even outside of this current conflict. People just won’t see what is really lying behind these troubles.


      • Rinth says:

        Yeah well international media has always misunderstood Bangladesh, there’s nothing really new to that. I just heard my brother say to my dad about why people insist on retaliating and simply can’t ignore. I wish it were that easy.


        • I wish it were too. It reminds me of the troubles in Northern Ireland when I was growing up. It looked like that would never end and no one would ever ‘ignore’ rather than retaliate. In the end though, some sort of peace was found – even if it occasionally flares up again even now. I still hope for Bangladesh…


    • For now…we are.
      Others, however, are not so fortunate. 😦


      • renxkyoko says:

        have you heard of the Marcoses of the Philippines ? Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos…. If not, please Google them…. my parents had to hide from them… won’t talk about them here on your blog….. just be safe.


        • Yes of course I have heard of them. In the UK ‘Imelda Marcos’s shoes’ are words used to describe anyone with too many shoes. We were all shocked by the stories of extravagance and abuse we saw when they were finally hunted down. I am sorry to hear your parents were victims of theirs. Feel free to email me privately if you wish to share more. Bless you.


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