The murder of Avijit Roy: championing illiberal liberals

Despite rising political violence in Bangladesh, the west has reserved its outrage for the murder of a secular Bangladeshi-American blogger. But his site tended to curtail rather than uphold free speech.

Mahin Khan
10 March 2015
avijit roy shrine.jpg

A memorial to murdered writer-blogger Avijit Roy at the University of Dhaka campus. Demotix/SK Hasan Ali. All rights reserved. 

The murder of Avijit Roy, a Bangladeshi-American blogger, in Dhaka last week has provoked much due outrage and denunciation. Avijit was stabbed to death at University of Dhaka campus and his accompanying wife was also viciously attacked. That it was so brutally inflicted on both Roy and his wife only adds to the horrific nature of this crime.

It is however important to address this tragedy not with the hot-headed approach of the assailants but the cool-minded thinking of those who believe in the rule of law and the essential equality of human life. Standard legal procedure in any professed democracy dictates that a crime first be investigated before criminals are identified and made accountable. The demand now must be that impartial investigations be conducted and justice delivered accordingly. The FBI too have offered their assistance in this. Yet, Avijit’s murder is already being treated with the simplistic narratives witnessed around the Charlie Hedbo tragedy: as an attack on the liberal proponents of free speech by religious extremists. This threatens further polarisation and violence in an already toxic environment.

A nation in turmoil

Bangladesh has been experiencing severe political upheaval. Since January the opposition alliance has called for elections under an impartial caretaker authority to challenge the controversial 2014 polls that returned the Awami League to power. Opposition-enforced transportation blockades and street protests have brought much of the nation to a standstill. The government has reacted with arrests of at least 20,000 opposition activists. These included arrests of minors, punishment for being related to the opposition–on February 20 Rifat Abdullah Khan, the 15-year-old son of an opposition leader, was arrested and allegedly tortured.

Extrajudicial executions in police custody have spiked, with individuals seized and their bullet-ridden bodies later found in city morgues. Between January and February at least 54 individuals, mostly opposition members, have been murdered like this, with neither investigations nor accountability. Four bodies were found pumped with 62 bullets in Dhaka on 24 February alone. An Asian Human Rights Commission submission this week to the UN decried this crime as a state tool to silence dissent. Meanwhile, the firebombing of buses have led to the brutal deaths of dozens more. The authorities swiftly accused the opposition, but have failed to conduct a single impartial investigation. The opposition denied any role, alleging the attacks to be the work of ruling party members, several of whom were caught.

It is in these politically charged circumstances, rife with confusion and violence, that Avijit Roy’s murder took place. Like the questionable firebombs, it is neither sensible nor accurate to jump to conclusions regarding Roy’s murder, yet speculation abounds. Some media and government figures have sought to implicate the opposition party Jamaat-e-Islami, who have denied any role and demanded UN-supervised investigations. Screenshots shared on social media and news reports alleged that extremist group Ansar Bangla 7 took responsibility for the murder on Twitter. However the group has no other visible political activities and its Twitter account, whose authenticity and credibility remains unclear, has disappeared. Roy’s bereaved father, Dr Ajoy Roy, also expressed fears that religious fundamentalists may be behind this crime but critiqued a recent suspect arrest.

Avijit’s case is not the first notable murder of a commentator in Bangladesh. In 2012 a journalist couple, Sagar Sarowar and Meherun Runi, were murdered in their home in a strikingly similar attack of savage stabbing. Three years later, despite widespread media coverage, the murders remains unsolved and subject to speculation. In 2013 Rajib Hader, an atheist blogger like Avijit, was similarly hacked to death. His case too remains unresolved although also subject to easy claims of extremist involvement. What emerges is both a reflection on the lack of security in Bangladesh and the failures of a trigger-happy police force which is quick to target political opponents but sluggish in addressing legitimate crimes.

Problematising the Charlie Hedbo effect

Meanwhile the international media, too often reticent regarding Bangladesh’s issues, have extensively reported on the Avijit’s murder, but with the standard, simplistic approach towards nations often left out of the spotlight. One must question the ethics of a press that seemingly ignores the death of some but champions others, and equally question the value of Bangladeshi life. In the last fortnight six bodies with extensive bullet wounds were discovered between Dhaka and Jhenaida in a single day, eliciting nationwide outrage. However, the international press was silent. Now with the murder of a secular blogger with American citizenship, the media have erupted.

I previously questioned whether western feminism is capable of championing violence against Bangladeshi women when it does not directly affect the western marketplace. I am now forced to question whether the liberal western press is capable of equally championing human lives when they don’t fit a liberal, secular, western narrative. 143 souls have been brutally lost in Bangladesh’s unrest since January. How many had the dignity of international coverage? I have written on the horrific murder of a teenage girl by government thugs in her own home for being the daughter of an opposition leader. Where was our outrage and coverage then? Mukto Mona presents itself as a blog of secular free thought that critiques religious fundamentalism equally. Yet, like Charlie Hedbo, it bears an Islamophobic edge with a further tendency to close debate in contradiction to free speech.

Avijit Roy reflects the narrative of the Charlie Hedbo massacre victims in a number of ways, and his supporters have championed him as the latest martyr of free speech. This too arguably assists in driving his potent narrative in our press–a secular blogger and author, who seemingly challenged religious fundamentalism, who founded a blog agreeably named Mukto Mona (Free Mind). Indeed, the US issued a statement declaring the murder an attack on “free, intellectual and religious discourse”. Since the murder, Mukto Mona has been taken offline and its content reportedly censored. It is unclear who conducted this, but as a consequence the present site is not fully accessible.

Let me reiterate here that absolutely nothing excuses murder. This includes and extends beyond discourses on free speech; murder is illegitimate and unconditionally deplorable whatever the circumstance. The horrific killing of Avijit and the equally cowardly attack on his wife are beyond justification and can only be condemned. Amid the raw emotion however, it is important to question which values we champion, and recognise–as has been argued regarding the Charlie Hedbo tragedy–that it is possible to unreservedly condemn a crime without agreeing with the beliefs of the target of that criminality and declaring #JeSuisCharlie–or #AmioAvijit.

Mukto Mona presents itself as a blog of secular free thought that critiques religious fundamentalism equally. Yet, like Charlie Hedbo, it bears an Islamophobic edge with a further tendency to close debate in contradiction to free speech. As one ex-contributor, Mohammad Munshi, states, “The promoters of the site claimed they were rationalists and free thinkers but were really nothing of the sort as their sole objective was to lampoon and tarnish Islam but leave other religions and faiths unaffected and there was also a tendency to close debate that was deemed too critical of Indian policies and of certain political parties in Bangladesh.”

As an example, this post regurgitated extreme misrepresentations and Islamic stereotypes by pretending to speak the mind of the religious organisation, Hefazat-e-Islam. Less than a month later, Hefazat would be subject to a state-sponsored massacre while being dismissed as “fundamentalists” by the state and domestic press. The slaughtered lives of at least 61 religious conservatives did not capture the imagination of our western secular liberal press. Rather, they too participated in the alienating “fundamentalist” rhetoric.

It is worth noting that Mukto Mona is a virulent champion of Bangladesh’s Shahbag movement, which called for the summary executions of several opposition leaders on trial for alleged crimes during the 1971 Bangladesh War of Independence. The politicised trial has been replete with controversy and condemned by the international community, including in a recent report by Geoffrey Robertson QC, for its lack of impartiality and contravention of international law. Mukto Mona also echoed Shahbag’s demands for the closure of news outlets and opposition-affiliated institutions critical of Shahbag as well as banning of particular political parties. The blog’s professed ‘liberal’ status is then highly debatable.

That Mukto Mona, a site that actively marginalises groups and voices it disagrees with, is being uncritically lionised by our press as a champion of free expression highlights the very double-standards underlying the discourse on free speech and liberalism. At the height of the movement, Shahbag–which also projects itself as a liberal, secular movement–was similarly uncritically portrayed in the press. It is crucial we be as critical of those who profess to align with secular, liberal western values as those who seemingly don’t. The consistent failure to do so has precipitated the championing of the very forces complicit in oppression, while neglecting the narratives of the oppressed.

After the appalling murder of Avijit Roy, it is tempting to adopt a discourse on the attack of free thought and fall back on a narrative of secularism and western Enlightenment. But to do so will ultimately be harmfully simplistic and pervert the course of justice. Already in France we are witnessing multiple cases of the curtailment of free speech in the wake of Charlie Hedbo. And protests against Avijit’s tragic murder have included Islamophobic banners that equate Islam with innate violence. With the good intention of condemning a crime, these simplistic narratives have perpetuated the very injustices they purport to condemn.

We cannot afford to fall into the same trap and replicate this reactionary approach elsewhere. Enough lives have been unaccountably lost and it is high time legal justice took its due course–this is owed to the victims first and foremost. In the wake of yet another senseless murder in Bangladesh, sensible minds must now prevail.

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