The murder of Oyasiqur Rahman, the latest Bangladeshi blogger to be hacked to death last Monday, has all the elements of a B-grade Bollywood movie. The 27-year-old atheist and online activist was a little way from his home in downtown Dhaka when three cleaver-wielding men hacked him repeatedly in the face and neck and started to run. The incident caught the attention of a female pedestrian who mistook the bearded men for muggers and cried for help. The police, sensing something was amiss, started to chase the trio. A kilometer long pursuit that ensued culminated in a group of hijras catching two of the attackers.
Rahman, who has apparently made some ‘unkind’ comments on some Islamic rituals in his Facebook posts, is lucky that his alleged killers were nabbed. Avijit Roy, another atheist writer and blogger, was killed over a month ago, and Bangladesh police and the US Federal Bureau of Investigation have so far failed to point finger at anyone. Incidents like Rahman’s or Roy’s hog the headlines of local newspapers the following day, followed by routine condemnation from certain foreign quarters before everything fizzles out.
It is however different this time, for the two alleged murderers are madrassa students and they have been quoted to have said in the primary investigation that they were inspired by a senior at Darul Uloom Madrassa (DUM) in Hathazari, the largest Islamic school in the Indian Subcontinent after Darul Uloom Deoband, India. The DUM is a kawmi madrassa, the Islamic seminaries established during the colonial era, with active patronization of the British Raj.
The suspects are madrassa students and say they were inspired by a senior at Darul Uloom in Hathazari
In the more recent times, DUM and its 94-year-old rector Shah Ahmad Shafi shot to fame two years ago after declaring a self-styled Long March to Dhaka that ended in a bloody sit-in at Dhaka’s Shapla Square, the heart of Matijheel business district. Hefazat-e-Islam (HI; Guardians of Islam), the non-political group that he still heads, stormed into Bangladesh’s capital on the evening of March 5, 2013, demanding the introduction of blasphemy law and death penalty to ‘atheist bloggers who had insulted Islam and its practices’. Shafi and his around 200,000 supporters were brutally evicted even before the crack of dawn; the government crackdown and the number of casualties have become a subject of modern myth.
The government’s banning of two Islamic channels that were broadcasting the incident live gave credence to the claim that hundreds, if not thousands, were ‘massacred’ by the police and paramilitary border guards. It has earned itself some earnest fan-following not only in Bangladeshi hinterland, but also in the bustling towns of the country, resulting in the inevitable – Awami League (AL) lost miserably in all the major city corporation elections that were held after the Shapla incident.
But make no mistake: DUM is a Hanafi madrasa, and Shafi is no Maulana Abdul Aziz of Lal Masjid fame, neither is he like Abu Bakar Bashir of Jemaah Islamiyah. The AL has made friends with him and his HI since then, so much so that he has been given acres of railway land and the cleric for his turn has also resisted the temptation of doing some more Long Marches. What makes him even more benign is his madrassa’s denouncement of Salafi or Ahle Hadith schools of Islam, from where Islamic extremism draws some of its edicts.
The DUM alumni’s involvement in Rahman’s killing is significant on many more counts. For the first time in such an incident, a madrassa student is going to be implicated. Surprising it may be, a significant number of the young Islamic extremists in Bangladesh are educated in secular schools, study subjects that vary from Economics to Metallurgy, and are fluent in English.
The nature of the murder and the background of the killers tell us that whoever has masterminded the event has planned well. According to newspapers, the two alleged murders have told their interrogators that there were two more persons in their cell and preliminary investigation suggests that to nab anyone beyond the four will need the arrest of the group’s leader who did not take part in the operation.
It is not clear how many such cells are at work in Bangladesh, and if they are linked with each other or not. It may so happen that the previous attacks on bloggers have given birth to a slew of copy-cat groups who are working as ‘lone wolves’, independent of the original plan.
There is no denying that incidents like Rahman’s or Roy’s cannot be stopped. But Bangladesh can always fall back on its rich Islamic past and on the country’s glorious cultural heritage that is essentially non-communal. Bangladesh, which got independence 44 years ago on the basis of socialism and secularism, might have to strike a tricky balance between religion and secularism to move forward. That explains why all the major political parties have failed to quickly condemn Rahman’s murder. Sensing that the public opinion has shifted westward, leaders of the AL or the opposition might resort to religious rhetoric to garner popular support in the days to come. Of late, two Bangladeshi Communist leaders have made pilgrimage to Mecca. Many more, there is no doubt, are ready to follow suit. These are signs that Islam is going to claim more political space in Bangladesh, one can only hope that it is filled with the strands that Bangladesh’s political actors have experience handling.
Ahmede Hussain is the Editor of The New Anthem: The Subcontinent in its Own Words (Tranquebar; Delhi; 2009).