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Posted by on Apr 10, 2013 in Atheism, Philosophy, Secularism | 1 comment

Intimidation of atheist bloggers in Bangladesh

The IHEU recently issued a call to action regarding the persecution of atheist bloggers in Bangladesh. Three have been arrested, and a list of 84 of them have been handed to the government – by Islamist political parties – with a request that they all be arrested. In a tragedy which appears related to the hostility aimed at atheist bloggers, if not explicitly to these current developments, one blogger was even killed in February.

The IHEU call to action follows their earlier reporting on how the ostensibly secular Bangladeshi state is kowtowing to religious extremism. If you’d like to support these 84 bloggers – or more generally, to support freedom of thought and speech in Bangladesh and elsewhere, please consider responding in one of the ways suggested in the call to action.

Here in South Africa there is a Bangladeshi High Commission, contactable via the email address listed on this page. Feel free to borrow whatever text you like from the letter I submitted to them, reproduced below, whether you’re a fellow South African, or for a similar letter to your local embassy or consulate wherever you might be in the world.

To Whom It May Concern

Re: Intimidation of atheist bloggers in Bangladesh

The Free Society Institute of South Africa notes, with concern, the recent upsurge in hostility towards atheist bloggers in Bangladesh. Three atheist bloggers have recently been arrested, and we fear that further arrests will follow. The march in Dhaka last week, during which 100,000 participants called for a blasphemy law – and also for the execution of atheist bloggers – is an additional contributor to a climate of serious hostility to freedom of thought, expression and political opinion in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh is a secular country, in which a “crime” such as blasphemy should not be recognized. We are pleased that your Prime Minister affirms this, and we welcome her opposition to a blasphemy law. In addition to being secular, Bangladesh is also a respected member of the international community, and a country that should not allow for intimidation and political blackmail to result in the chilling of free speech or other rights violations in the case of bloggers expressing a legitimate opinion.

We are aware of the reaction to the Shahbag protests by your Islamist political parties, and the list of 84 atheist bloggers that they have provided to your government to aid the arrest of those bloggers. However, action such as arrests are only appropriate in response to crimes, and these bloggers have committed no crime in expressing views which might be unpopular to those parties. The criminal justice system in Bangladesh should not be allowed to fall hostage to threats and intimidation, as that would be the sacrificing of the rule of law to mere bullies.

It is a matter for concern that Prime Minister Hasina has spoken of “taking action” against blasphemers, even as she opposes a blasphemy law, when those same “blasphemers” are being arrested and in the case of Ahmed Rajib, even murdered. Freedom of religion is important to all of us – the religious, in order that they be free from persecution, but also the non-religious, in that they should be reassured that a lack of faith is a perfectly legitimate choice in a free society. Freedom must also entail the possibility of disagreement, so long as it is expressed within the bounds of the law.

Allowing for the demands of the Islamist parties to be met in the case of these bloggers will be a victory for intimidation over reasoned discussion, and will also set a dangerous precedent, in that the Government will be signaling that threats are a way to achieve your goals. This might well embolden people to make even more outrageous demands in future, threatening violence if those demands are not met.

We do understand that criticism can be hurtful, and can even be offensive. We stand with you in hoping that people can continually find better and more productive ways to communicate, free from threats and intimidation. Criticizing religion and religious belief is often perceived as particularly hurtful and offensive – and can sometimes be unduly so.

However, these forms of criticism are not automatically and always hateful. Criticism of religion and religious belief needs to be protected, because we are most vulnerable to not considering our views objectively on matters that are of the deepest emotional significance to us. It is precisely when we are deeply invested that we should recognize the rights of others to disagree with us. This is a liberty that is essential to a secular state, and also to human freedom.