Committing the political sin of telling the truth about what she thinks, Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina responded to the machete-murder of atheists in her country by shrugging it off. At least seven outspoken atheists have been chopped to death in public with machetes, shot with pistols, hacked with cleavers, and otherwise brutally murdered.. Several were killed in public, in daylight hours, with police seeming reluctant to seek out the networks responsible.
Security services claim that it is homegrown extremists, not al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups. However, few arrests have been made. Meanwhile, a “kill list” of academics, atheists, and outspoken “free thinkers” has been circulated anonymously.
Bangladesh’s government has the duty to protect its citizens from violence, but when asked about the matter Sheikh Hasina showed little interest in making it a priority. Indeed, she seems to feel that the murders are just and merited in some sense:
“Everyone has to hold their tongue, has to maintain a level of decency in what they write. If they write something provocative and something bad happens, the government will not take responsibility… If someone writes filthy things about my religion, why should we tolerate it?”
The premier also said, “Recently it has become a fashion to call someone a freethinker who says nasty things about religion. I do not see any free thinking here. All I see is filth.”
While she also went on to add that “the government will also not tolerate those who attempt to kill someone just because of what they said,” she made no promises to take specific action. The government’s clear lack of interest in devoting resources to tracking down and destroying these networks sends a clear sign of encouragement, which her remarks only worsen.
Bangladesh is responding to challenges to Islam in a familiar way. Tolerating or encouraging vigilante violence against outspoken writers has been characteristic of Iran’s approach to “blasphemy” since it declared a death sentence on Salman Rushdie in the 1980s. But this is not limited to Islamic-majority nations. Many murders of cartoonists, newspapermen and filmmakers have occurred in Europe in the name of silencing any “blasphemy” of Islam. Even in the United States, there have been repeated acts of vigilante jihad aimed at forcing silence on critics of Islam.
Islamic governments like Bangladesh’s have even pushed for an international norm that would create an exception to the human right of freedom of speech when it comes to criticizing Islam. Their efforts at the United Nations, especially as part of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, are a threat to basic human liberties. At this point, the members of the OIC clearly believe that they have successfully framed international law in such a way that it justifies their enforcement of anti-blasphemy laws. Unfortunately, increasingly Western governments seem inclined to go along with them. We must stand together against these attempts to silence us. Protecting our basic liberties is the reason that governments exist. Any that surrender in this fight must be altered or replaced.