The recent trend of unhinged attacks on free-thinkers in Bangladesh continued as one of the most prominent writers in Bangladesh, Dr. Muhammad Zafar Iqbal, was stabbed in his own university on March 3, 2018. Two years ago, Xulhaz Mannan, the publisher of the only LGBT magazine and an employee of the US Embassy in Dhaka, was stabbed to death in his home by religious extremists. Avijit Roy, a Bangladeshi American scientist and writer, was also murdered on an open street during a festival in 2015. I can list several more incidents of similar nature but these three summarize the dangerous trend of intolerance that has been in the making for many years.
However, in my opinion, the most recent attack on Jafar Iqbal represents a much darker shift in the extremist movement in Bangladesh. Because most of the previous atrocities transpired on people who could be, in some way, associated with either secularism or atheism or LGBT movements. They would be writers, bloggers, or publishers who could be linked to books, articles, magazines, Facebook posts, and blogs that directly clashed with some beliefs of Islam, albeit extreme ones. But Jafar Iqbal is a devout Muslim who had never associated himself with any movement, something that I don’t appreciate about him. The son of a martyr of the Bangladeshi Liberation War, he had been a successful researcher in the U.S. before returning to Bangladesh to teach in a local university. He is one of the most popular writers in Bangladesh, if not the most popular young adult novel writer, authoring more than two hundred books over the last forty years. His enormous fanbase and the support he yields from the public is what makes the attack on him even more surprising. The fact that he could have been attacked in a public program even after he was receiving police protection also speaks to the level of integration the assailant had.
In my understanding, he has been a perfect moderate in the recent climate of Bangladesh. While he has been a vocal proponent against religious extremism, he has eschewed supporting the LGBT movement or the more progressive secular-atheistic movements. Most of his work has centered around preserving the true history of the liberation war of Bangladesh, opposing anti-liberation, pro-Pakistan political parties in Bangladesh, and promoting free-speech. For example, as an extremely powerful influencer for teenagers, he has promoted non-sectarianism between Muslims and Hindus through his novels and books. He has written extensively about the importance of tolerance and fairness for minorities who might not share the beliefs as most people in Bangladesh do. Issues that had generally been accepted by the conservative Bengali society as issues worth promoting. An attack on him represents a seismic shift in the extent of religious extremism in Bangladesh. It is a prelude to an attack on freedom of speech of all genres. It is a prelude to communal riots in even larger scales than before.
While I begrudgingly accept the fact that freedom of speech or a bill of rights for the irreligious or LGBT community in Bangladesh is out of reach for now, I can’t accept a country where every act of progression can be halted in the name of religion. At this juncture, I must wonder: at what point would the government step in?