Bangladesh Authorities Go After Bloggers, Claim They Are ‘Anti-Muslim’

As deadly clashes between Islamist activists and authorities continue to escalate religious tensions in Bangladesh, the country's telecommunications authority is making moves to silence bloggers deemed anti-Muslim or anti-state.

Award-winning blogger Asif Mohiuddin and three other bloggers have become the latest target of the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission, according to online news site Timesworld24.com [bn]. The commission recently contacted Somewhereinblog.net, the largest blogging platform in Bangladesh, requesting that the four blogs be taken down from the site.

In a report on its website, Somewhereinblog.net officially acknowledged that it had removed the four blogs in line with the government request.

The Bangladesh government formed [bn] a nine-member committee on March 13, 2013 to track bloggers and Facebook users who made derogatory remarks about Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. The Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission, a member of the committee, has requested information on a number of bloggers from different blogging platforms in an effort to ban certain writers considered insulting to Islam or anarchistic.

This development comes after Islamists had claimed that bloggers who support the ongoing Shahbag movement – which demands capital punishment for the country's war criminals, some of which are high-ranking leaders of the country's largest Islamist political party Jamaat-e-Islami – are atheist and anti-Islamic, and foster anti-social elements.

Some Islamist activists have gone so far to declare that Shahbag bloggers will be slaughtered in public. Blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider, who was on the forefront of the Shahbag movement and wrote frequently about religious fundamentalism in Bangladesh, was brutally murdered outside his home in capital city Dhaka on February 15, 2013.

Mohiuddin, a self proclaimed atheist, has been vocal for the Shahbag movement and wrote against religion and religious politics. But whether his blogging has anything to do with inciting religious violence and hatred is yet to be proven. In January 2013, he was brutally attacked by unknown assailants, presumably for his writings. The police recently arrested four persons who revealed that they attacked Mohiuddin on instruction of a religious extremist.

In an interview with Deutsche Welle Syeda Gulshan Ferdous Jana, founder of Somewhereinblog.net said:

This is the first time in the over seven years of somewhereinblog.net that authorities have issued written instructions to discipline bloggers. The email named four bloggers, including Asif Mohiuddin's blog profile, and advised us to permanently remove all of these blogs immediately.

Mohiuddin, whose blog won the best social activism blog from the Deutsche Welle Best Of Blogs Awards 2012, has suffered backlash from his writing in the past. He was arrested in 2011 during an offline protest and police suggested that he should stop writing.

Blogger Asif Mohiuddin. Image by Siam Sarower Jamil. Copyright Demotix (10/2/2013)

Blogger Asif Mohiuddin. Image by Siam Sarower Jamil. Copyright Demotix (10/2/2013)

On March 20, 2013, Mohiuddin and seven other bloggers were sued by an individual in the northern Bangladeshi district of Natore [bn] on charges of libeling Islam, God, and the Prophet Muhammad. Another lawsuit against these bloggers in Chittagong was dismissed on March 6, 2013 for lack of evidence.

Mohiuddin commented in a Facebook note [bn] about his recent ban:

প্রায় প্রতিদিন ধর্মের পক্ষে অসংখ্য ব্লগে অসংখ্য লেখা পোস্ট হয়। অথচ অনলাইনে শুধুমাত্র “আমি প্রচলিত ধর্মে অবিশ্বাসী” এই কথাটুকু বলার অপরাধে অসংখ্য অশ্রাব্য গালিগালাজের সম্মুখীন হয়েছি।

Each day, many posts are published on religion. But when I wrote only that “I do not believe in traditional religions”, I was attacked by many.

In the same post, he called the commission's efforts to shut down blogs a dangerous precedent:

কোন ব্লগারের লেখা সেই ব্লগটির নিজস্ব আইন অনুসারে বেআইনী মনে হলে বা শর্তাবলী লঙ্ঘিত হয়েছে বলে মনে হলে ব্লগ কর্তৃপক্ষই তার সিদ্ধান্ত নেবে। ব্লগ কর্তৃপক্ষ এই বিষয়ে স্বাধীন এবং কোন লেখা থাকবে আর কোন লেখাটি থাকবে না, তা সিদ্ধান্ত নেয়ার দায়িত্ব কোনভাবেই কোন ক্ষমতাশালী মহলকে দেয়া যাবে না। ভেবে দেখুন, আজ এই অজুহাতে কারো ব্লগ সরকার বন্ধ করে দিতে সক্ষম হলে সরকার ভেবে নেবে ব্লগারদের তারা নিয়ন্ত্রণ করতে সক্ষম। তাই কাল আরেকজন ব্লগারের ব্লগও তারা বাতিল করার আবদার তুলবে। কোন সরকারই অনন্তকাল থাকবে না, আগামিতে কোন ধর্মান্ধ গোষ্ঠী ক্ষমতায় চলে আসলে পরিস্থিতি কোনদিকে যাবে?

If the writings of any blogger defies any of the rules of the blog or is deemed illegal then the blog owners can decide on that. Which posts should be published or not should be at the discretion of the blog platform, not the regulatory authorities. Just imagine, if the authorities can manage to shut down a voice by forcing the platforms to do so they can start believing that they can control the bloggers. So they will find another reason to ban another blogger. The government will change and imagine if any radical Islamist government comes to power what will happen?

In an interview with Deutsche Welle radio Mohiuddin has said that he will not give up blogging.

Stop authoritarian aggression against bloggers. Blogging is our right. Image courtesy Asif Mohiuddin

“Stop authoritarian aggression against bloggers. Blogging is our right.” Image courtesy Asif Mohiuddin

Bangladesh is a non-religious parliamentary democracy, so there is no sharia law or blasphemy law. If anybody claims to be an atheist, he or she has the same rights as other citizens. However, Under Section 295A of Bangladesh's Penal Code (1860), any person who has a “deliberate” or “malicious” intention of “hurting religious sentiments” can be subject to imprisonment.

The commission has stated [bn] that according to the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Act, it can ask required information from any individual or institution who uses the Internet. However, blogging platform Amarblog [bn] published a statement on March 22, 2013 saying that it won't jeopardize bloggers’ privacy at the request of the government. It questioned the commission's legal authority to ask for blogger information as well as questioned if it has jurisdiction over Amarblog which is registered in the United Kingdom and hosted on an overseas server.

Bloggers have also doubted the legal basis for such demands.

Blogger Mohammad Munim [bn] criticized the commission on Muktangon, a community blog:

বাংলাদেশের সংবিধানে মত প্রকাশের পূর্ণ মৌলিক অধিকার সকল নাগরিককেই দেওয়া হয়েছে। [..] BTRC নামের তথাকথিত স্বাধীন এই কমিশনটির হাতে যে-কোন ব্লগ বা ওয়েবসাইট বন্ধের সুইচ থাকলেও সে-সুইচের ব্যবহার দেশের সংবিধান মেনেই করতে হবে, কোন কর্তাব্যক্তির খেয়ালখুশিমতো নয়।

According to Bangladesh Constitution, every citizen has the right to express their own opinion freely. [...] The self-proclaimed independent commission may have the switch to block any website or blog, but they will have to act according to due process as per the constitution, not at the whim of some officials.

Blogger and activist Rayhan Rashid [bn] wrote on Facebook that the government might be piggybacking off of rising religious tensions in order to broaden its power:

বিটিআরসি'র সাম্প্রতিক এই অপতৎপরতার সাথে কোথায় যেন জামাত-শিবিরের শাহবাগ আন্দোলনকে “নাস্তিকদের আন্দোলন” হিসেবে সুযোগসন্ধানী ব্র্যান্ডিংয়ের মিল আছে। জামাত-শিবিরের দরকার ছিল শাহবাগ আন্দোলনকে প্রশ্নবিদ্ধ করা, আর সে লক্ষ্যে তারা ১৯৭১ এর মতোই অস্ত্র হিসেবে বেছে নিয়েছে ধর্মীয় উম্মাদনা, আর বিভাজন-বিদ্বেষকে। সরকার বা বিটিআরসি'রও একটা সুযোগ দরকার ছিল যাকে পূঁজি করে স্বাধীন চিন্তার এই শেষ প্লাটফর্মগুলোকে কোনোভাবে নিয়ন্ত্রণের আওতায় আনা যায় – এখানেও নাস্তিকতা, ধর্মীয় অনুভুতি ব্যবহৃত হচ্ছে সুযোগসন্ধানীর অস্ত্র হিসেবে।

There is a striking similarity between the commission's recent “anti-religion” ban order and the Jamaat-Shibir branding of the Shahbag protests as an “atheist movement”. Jamaat-Shibir wanted to taint the Shahbag movement, and they did so by inciting religious tensions and enacting a division/hatred strategy. The commission or the government might have also exploited this opportunity to assert some kind of control on these free speech platforms. “Atheism”, “hurting religious feelings” keywords are being used as opportunistic tools.

Blogger Farhana Ahmed [bn] explained on Mukta Mona (Free Thinkers), a blog on freedom of expression, the reasoning behind why atheists and secular online activists are being targeted:

আমার মনে হয়, এই রকম ঘটার পেছনে দুটো বিষয় কাজ করছে। প্রথমটা অনেকটা তাত্ত্বিক, নাস্তিকদের নিয়ে ধর্মব্যবসায়ী বা অ-ব্যবসায়ী দু’শ্রেণীর এস্টাব্লিসমেন্টের পক্ষের লোকজনের মনে সন্দেহ ব্যাপক। এসটাব্লিসমেন্টের স্তম্ভগুলোর মধ্যে ধর্ম অন্যতম শক্তিশালী মাধ্যম, কখনো কখনো তা রাষ্ট্রের চেয়েও শক্তিশালী, রাষ্ট্রকেই ধর্মের মদদ নিতে হয়। এসটাব্লিশমেন্টের অন্য স্তম্ভগুলোও ধ্বসে পড়ার উপক্রম হলে মদদ মাঙ্গে ধর্মের। [..] বিনা প্রশ্নে মেনে নেওয়া, অতিপ্রাকৃত শক্তির ভয়ে ভীত করে রাখা—এইসব অস্ত্র ব্যবহার করে ধর্ম তার কার্য হাসিল করে। নারী পুরুষের পুরুষতান্ত্রিক শোষণের বিরুদ্ধে সচেতন হয়ে উঠলে, ধর্মই তাকে ঠান্ডা করে; মালিকের বিরুদ্ধে শ্রমিক যেতে পারে না, কারণ আল্লা যাকে এই যামানায় কিছু দেননি, আখেরাত তো তারই জন্য। রাষ্ট্রক্ষমতায় থাকার জন্য রাজনৈতিক দলগুলোর সহজ ব্যবহার্য অস্ত্র হলো ধর্ম।

I thinks there are two reasons behind this. The first one is theoretical, both the Islamist hardliner and practicing Muslims are skeptic about atheists. Religion is very powerful, sometimes more than the state such as when the state has to accept the help of religion. If any of those establishments are in trouble, they take refuge in religion. [..] Religion accomplishes their job by deploying instruments like blind faith, taking things for granted, and keeping people in fear. When patriarchal oppression is protested by women, religion keeps them in check, workers cannot revolt against autocratic employers as religion reminds that for those who have less in this world, there is an afterlife waiting for them. To remain in power the simplest of weapons is religion.

She continued:

দ্বিতীয় দিকটা শাহবাগের গণজাগরণ মঞ্চের প্রতিক্রিয়ার সাথে জড়িত। নাস্তিক মরলে বা মার খেলে তার প্রতি যে ঔদাসীন্য দেখাচ্ছেন আন্দোলনের সহযোদ্ধারা তাতে করে নাস্তিকরা জামাত-শিবির-হি্যবুতের সবথেকে সহজ টার্গেটে পরিণত হয়েছেন।

The second reason is the reaction to the Shahbag mass-uprising. Being labeled as an atheist is a distraction even among fellow protesters, so the atheists are becoming an easy target for the [religious political establishments] Jamaat-Shibir-Hijbut Tahrir.

According to the latest reports, the nine-member committee participated in a discussion forum with the clerics community of the country. A list of 84 bloggers and Facebook users have been submitted and the committee asked from the community concrete evidence against their allegations. The committee has publicized an email account where complaints on blasphemous contents will be received.

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