Why Do These Hacking Deaths Keep Happening in Bangladesh?

On April 25, a US Embassy worker, employee of USAID, and editor of Bangladesh’s first LGBT magazine was one of two men hacked to death in Dhaka. Xulhaz Mannan and Tanay Mojumdar were in a flat when five or six men, posing as couriers delivering a package, entered the apartment and brutally murdered them.

Xulhaz Mannan, via Wikimedia Commons
Xulhaz Mannan, via Wikimedia Commons

Mannan was the editor of Roopbaan, a Dhaka-based LGBT magazine that describes itself as “a platform and publication promoting human rights and freedom to love in Bangladesh”. Mannan also led the annual “rainbow rally” in Dhaka, which has been held since 2014 on April 14, the beginning of the Bengali new year. However, the rally was canceled this year for security reasons.

Both men were openly gay and believed that if more gay Bangladeshis came out then the nation would have to accept them. Homosexuality is illegal in Bangladesh and is a highly sensitive issue in society.

A banned extremist group linked to al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the killings, adding to fears that Bangladesh is becoming a haven for Islamist extremists. In a statement from Ansar al-Islam Bangladesh, its fighters said they murdered the two men because they were “promoting homosexuality”.

A Pattern of Violence

In 2013, a small group of secular bloggers rose to prominence in Bangladesh as key drivers of a massive protest movement, demanding the death penalty for war crimes committed during Bangladesh’s liberation from Pakistan in 1971. The accused war criminals were linked to Islamist political parties, and some served in the government. As the Shahbag movement continued to grow, as it became known, many began demanding a complete ban on the involvement of religion in politics. Soon thereafter, a smearing counter-campaign began with the goal of branding Shahbag bloggers and protesters as being anti-Islamic and atheists. Many of these protesters were accused of blasphemy, and one of the first bloggers to be hacked to death was a leader of the Shahbag movement who was killed outside his home in Dhaka in February, 2013. A month later, a group of Muslim clerics submitted a list of 84 bloggers to the government, accusing them of atheism and blasphemy. A leader of an Islamist group that has been fighting against secular education openly proclaimed that these bloggers should be killed.

The hacking deaths of of Mannan and Mojumdar are just the latest brutality in a series of murders of bloggers, academics, foreigners, and members of minority Muslim and Christian groups.

On April 23, an English professor was hacked to death and nearly beheaded in the northwestern region of the country. The 61-year-old Rezaul Karim Siddiquee was attacked by assailants outside his home and died at the scene. The Islamic State took credit for the attack. People close to Siddiquee said he never spoke out against religion, but may have been targeted for his role in leading music and literature groups.

On April 7, Nazimuddin Samad, a 28-year-old law student, was similarly murdered for operating a blog about atheism. He was on that hit list of 84 atheist bloggers. Samad was known for being critical of state religion in the Bangladeshi constitution.

In another case in October 2015, a Bangladeshi pastor narrowly survived an attempt to slit his throat by men who visited his home pretending to want to learn about Christianity. Police arrested a member of the Jamaat-e-Islami party for the attack. Also in October 2015, the deaths of an Italian aid worker and a Japanese farmer were claimed by the Islamic State.

In all, the group Ansar al-Islam has been blamed by police for killing at least six secular writers and activists in Bangladesh since 2014. The group emerged in 2013 with the stated goal of eliminating “atheists and apostates.” It started out with close links to al Qaeda but some members have recently expressed allegiance to the Islamic State.

Even with this wave of murders, which usually involve hacking and shooting, Bangladeshi authorities insist that international Islamist militant groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State do not operate in their country. But few doubt that these killings are being organized and directed by such groups. One security source estimates that 10-15 Islamist groups are operating in Bangladesh, with more than 100 people having been arrested within the past year.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina

It is clear that these hacking deaths are becoming more and more common place, and that the Bangladeshi government is unwilling or unable to crack down on the violent extremists who are carrying them out. This could be, in part, because the current government has not signaled that stopping these killers is as high a priority as stifling free speech. Last week, the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina issued a statement harshly critical of athiest bloggers.  “I don’t consider such writings as freethinking but filthy words,” she said. “Why would anyone write such words? It’s not at all acceptable if anyone writes against our prophet or other religions.”

With sentiment like that coming from the top, it’s little wonder that people who espouse views that are contrary to Islamist thinking are being murdered with impunity and those who are responsible are not being deterred from continuing these crimes in the future.