End of a Secular Bangladesh?

Covered in blood, she stands over the body of her husband lying on a sidewalk on the Dhaka University campus. Onlookers, their faces stunned and fearful, circle the protagonists in what looks like a macabre scene from a Bengali jatra, or village opera.

Except this is not a play. The dead man is Avijit Roy, the Bangladeshi-American blogger known for his staunch atheism, and he has just been butchered with machetes. Islamist extremists are suspected in the attack.

This picture was relayed around the world after Mr. Roy and his wife, who were living in the Atlanta suburbs, were brutally attacked during a visit to Bangladesh as they were returning by cycle rickshaw from a book fair.

The spot where the attack took place is close to the university’s teacher-student center, where young people typically crowd around the tea stalls debating politics, philosophy and current affairs.

Some 25 years ago, I sat on those rickety wooden stools and discussed the same issues Mr. Roy wrote about in his blog, Mukto-mona (Free Mind) and his recent book, “The Virus of Faith.” We students openly proclaimed our atheism. We probably provoked some strong reactions, but we did not fear for our lives. We were proud of the Bengali tradition of secularism, unique to the Indian Subcontinent.

Bangladesh has changed. The expansion of the garment industry and the rise of microfinance and community development banks put an end to the stereotype of Bangladesh as a “basket case.” But economic empowerment also brought mass access to information. Today the disenfranchised and disgruntled can identify themselves with extremists anywhere in the world. What is their common identity? Religion.

When India was divided in 1947, East Bengal became part of Muslim Pakistan purely on the basis of its religious majority. A year later, Urdu was imposed as the national language. The Bengali language has always been linked with secular Bengali nationalism. Protests followed, and on Feb. 21, 1952, the Pakistani police opened fire on students at Dhaka University. That day — perhaps the beginning of the conflicts that culminated in the 1971 war of independence — is remembered every year in Bangladesh and in the Indian state of West Bengal, and the monthlong book fair is one of the commemorative events. When I tried to visit the fair just a few days before Mr. Roy was killed, I couldn’t make it through the crowds at the entrance to the university campus.

I had gone back to Bangladesh with two of my children so they could experience the sounds and colors that I grew up with. The first sign that things had changed was at Heathrow, when an attendant at the Bangladeshi airline desk said that we would not be allowed to enter the country because of the Israeli stamps on our British passports. I explained that I had visited with the same passport before, and we entered Dhaka without any hiccups. My confidence in Bengali liberal-mindedness thus restored, the children and I got in a motorized rickshaw, headed for the port of Sadarghat.

On the way, my 13-year-old daughter observed, “I thought it would be much more colorful. Are there no women in Dhaka?” Looking around, I realized that most women were covered in black burqas or hijabs — a style that I had seen in such large numbers only in the Middle East. Many of their male companions wore long white dishdashas and skullcaps.

I remembered that stretch as being one of the most colorful streets, with shop fronts spilling over with spices and trinkets, men and women loudly bargaining to get the best deal. Even in Dhaka’s swanky areas, I was dismayed to find stores filled with hijabs and full-face coverings, with signs on the front windows reading “For True Muslim Women.”

Were the Muslim women of my childhood, who simply flung the ends of their saris over their heads, not “true” enough?

My father was Muslim, but before I became an atheist, I had embraced my ancestral Hinduism, visiting temples and lighting lamps for the festival of lights, Deepavali. I never feared being treated as an apostate. Now I do. Now if a passport control officer in Dhaka asked me what religion I belonged to, I would think twice before saying I was a former Hindu. Or worse: an atheist.

Thinking of Mr. Roy’s book, “The Virus of Faith,” I asked my Bengali friends: How did this virus find such a welcome platform? How did it spread so far that secularism has become a restricted word?

“Unfortunately, over the past decade or so, all the attacks on secular thinkers — who include people from all religious backgrounds — were committed by self-styled defenders of Islam,” Jibanananda Jayanta, a Dhaka-based social activist, told me.

This prompted many secularists from Muslim backgrounds to distance themselves from Islam. They were in turn accused of blasphemy. The poet and author Taslima Nasrin went into exile in 1994 to flee death threats from Islamist radicals. But what were then threats or fatwas became in more recent years coldblooded killings on crowded streets.

Some friends described the murder of Mr. Roy as “copycat violence,” imitating similar attacks by fanatics elsewhere — part of the globalization of Islamism. In 2004, another writer, Humayun Azad, was severely injured during an attack that also occurred at the annual book fair. And in 2013, Ahmed Rajib Haider, an atheist blogger, was killed by machete-wielding Islamic radicals.

In both of those cases, the attackers demanded that the government pass a law against blasphemy, similar to the one that exists in Pakistan. Although the current government has strongly opposed such a law, it has nonetheless catered to Islamic political parties by harassing and arresting many secular bloggers. It has also used the existing law against hurting “religious sentiment” to punish dissenters.

After Avijit Roy’s murder, mourners placed a banner at the temporary memorial near the site of the attack. Its words could not be more true: “If Avijit is beaten, so is Bangladesh.”

Lipika Pelham is the author of the memoir The Unlikely Settler.

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