The debate over Islam’s role in Bangladesh has devolved into machete attacks against secularists and religious minorities in homes and on the streets of the overwhelmingly Muslim nation.
On Monday, Xulhaz Mannan, an editor at the country’s first LGBT magazine, was hacked to death in his apartment at the hands of several men who posed as couriers. One other person was killed and another injured in the attack in Dhaka, the capital. Mannan, a leading gay-rights advocate, also worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Although no group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, assailants in previous deadly assaults—including on journalists, minorities, and secular activists—have claimed links to ISIS. The government has, however, dismissed those links, saying ISIS does not operate in the country of more than 150 million people, more than 90 percent of whom are Muslim.
On Saturday, Rezaul Karim Siddique, a university English professor, who his attackers said was an atheist, was killed with machetes near his home. Authorities say they believe Siddique was targeted for his cultural activities, which included editing a literary magazine and founding a music school. A fellow university professor told The New York Times, “He was a purely academic person, but he was a progressive and secular person.” He is the fourth university professor killed by Islamist militants in recent years.
On April 7, a law student who had posted his secular views online was attacked with machetes and shot dead in Dhaka. The 28-year-old wrote, “I have no religion,” on his Facebook page, along with other secular-themed posts. Late last year, four so-called “atheist bloggers,” who were on a list circulated by Islamist groups, were killed with machetes, as well. Several other religious leaders and foreign workers have been killed in recent months.
Bangladesh is a secular country in principle. After gaining independence from Pakistan in 1971, following a bloody nine-month conflict, the constitution was written to include secularism as one of its main tenets. But Lieutenant General Hussain Muhammad Ershad, the country’s military ruler through the 1980s, approved new constitutional amendments in 1988 that declared Islam the country’s official religion.
While the Bangladesh Supreme Court in 2010 reinstated secular protections in the constitution, Islam remains the country’s official religion. Last month, the Court refused to hear a challenge to that law, effectively enshrining Islam’s place in the constitution for the near future.
One of the men who filed the petition to remove Islam as the official religion of Bangladesh said the amendment to the constitution led to more violence. “It changed the whole atmosphere of the country,” Serajul Islam Choudhury told The New York Times. “It gives a kind of impunity to those who act in the name of Islam. People have over the years gotten away with a lot in the name of religion, and it has led us to last year’s murders.”
Bangladesh’s attorney general, Mahbubey Alam, maintains there’s no connection between the amendment and increased killings. Indeed, some in the country have blamed the increase in violence on Bangladesh’s political environment. Islamist parties have enjoyed wide—though not universal—support in the country ever since its birth in 1971. Last November, Bangladesh was on high alert after it executed two leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, the Islamist party, who were convicted of war crimes during the war of independence.
Then there are internal political considerations: Critics blame supporters of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which has promoted Islam’s official place in government, for the recent spate of attacks. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the leader of the ruling Awami League party, said the opposition had created an environment that justified attacks, including on a visiting Japanese farmer and Italian aid worker last year. ISIS claimed responsibility for both incidents, and has boasted of other attacks in Bangladesh through its online English magazine, calling it a “revival of jihad.” Still, officials in Bangladesh have said on multiple occasions that ISIS is not operating inside the country.
Although it may be unclear if ISIS is present in Bangladesh, what is clear is that there have been more attacks against religious minorities and secularists in the past several years. As the BBC reports:
Nobody knows how many radical Islamist groups are operating in the country, but one security source estimates there are 10-15 groups in existence. Over the past year, the police have arrested more than 100 people, suspected of being involved with different Islamist groups. They have also arrested around 20 people, including a British citizen of Bangladeshi origin, who were allegedly trying to “establish contact with Islamic State.”
Political instability may not allow the government to fully go after militants, even as attacks continue. When Bangladeshi officials attempt to tackle religious extremists, they risk possible violent retribution. Indeed more attacks could be on the way. Imran Sarker, a widely known blogger who led secular protests in 2013, told the BBC his life was threatened on Sunday. He received a phone call, he said, from someone who said he would be killed “very soon.”