On the afternoon of February 26th, Avijit Roy was in Dhaka, finishing a column for BDNews24, a Bangladeshi Web site of news and commentary. Its title, in Bengali, was “Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?,” and it adapted ideas from his new book, a primer on cosmology. For Roy, who was forty-two, science trumped religion. He took after his father, Ajoy, an emeritus physics professor at Dhaka University and an ardent rationalist. “I don’t bother about whether God exists,” Ajoy Roy told me. “Let him do his business, and let me do my business.” Avijit, even more vocal than his father, liked to compare faith to a virus—infecting human beings and impelling them into conflict. He once wrote, “The vaccine against religion is to build up a scientific approach.”
Roy and his wife, Rafida Ahmed, an executive at a credit-rating agency, lived in Atlanta. They had fallen in love from afar: in 2001, Roy started a collective blog called Mukto Mona, or Free Thinker, and Ahmed wrote to him after reading one of his posts, agreeing with his dismissal of religion as “fairy tales.” In 2006, Roy moved to Atlanta, where he worked as a software architect. But his real interests emerged in his blog posts, and in several books in which he dismantled the dogmas of religious belief—of his own Hindu background, but also of Islam, the state religion in Sunni-majority Bangladesh. “He was an addabaaj,” his father said. He used the word to mean “gossip,” but it also hinted at his son’s love of argument.
Mukto Mona’s comments section often drew irate Islamists, and Roy waded into earnest debates with them. He could seem as inflexible as the people he bickered with, refusing to acknowledge any grace or meaning that religion might grant its faithful. When one commenter claimed that the Koran was a repository of scientific wisdom, Roy asked why the Islamic world was “so behind in science and technology?,” and added, “Even Israel has more scientists than all the Muslim countries nowadays.” His father warned him that he was “too passionate.” On Facebook, one extremist wrote, “Avijit Roy lives in America, so it’s not possible to kill him right now. But he will be killed when he comes back.”
When Roy told his parents that he planned to visit in February, his father tried to dissuade him. “Dhaka is now not a very good place. The law-and-order situation is worsening day by day,” Ajoy Roy said. “I pointed out, ‘You’re a targeted person. Your name has been publicized as an atheist.’ ”
Roy and Ahmed went anyway, staying at her family’s house, not far from the city center. After finishing his column, Roy wanted to visit the Ekushey Book Fair, where hundreds of booksellers and publishers gather every February to celebrate Bengali literature. Ahmed and Roy attended an event hosted by Roy’s publisher before browsing through a section of children’s books. A photograph on Facebook shows them sitting on the ground. Roy, wearing a red kurta, is looking down; next to him, Ahmed reaches into a paper bag for a snack.
At around 8 P.M., as they walked toward their rented car, a young boy asked Roy for a handout. He gave the boy a hundred takas—a little more than a dollar—and an admonition to go home. Ahmed doesn’t recall the men who rushed at Roy and hacked at him with machetes, and she doesn’t recall trying to stop them. She received several wounds to her head and another that severed her left thumb. Later, in photographs of the attack, she noticed that there had been policemen standing nearby; they did nothing to intervene. Roy fell to the sidewalk, face down; his attackers dropped their weapons and ran away. By the time his father reached the Dhaka Medical College Hospital, Roy was dead.
Roy’s murder was claimed by a Twitter account belonging to the Ansarullah Bangla Team, an Islamic militant group. He was an American citizen, the tweets noted, and his death avenged the actions of the United States against ISIS. A Bangladeshi police official called the group the “closest relative” of Al Qaeda on the Indian subcontinent, and it has been linked to the murders of at least five other secular voices—the first in 2013, but the others since Roy’s death, at the rate of roughly one every other month. In October, when I visited Dhaka, there had been no attacks for eleven weeks, and the writers I met seemed to be steeling themselves for bad news. Three days after I left, Roy’s publisher was killed in his office, and, elsewhere in the city, another publisher and two bloggers were attacked.
Of the six who have died, four were on a list of eighty-four “atheist bloggers,” which was sent anonymously to newspapers in 2013. In nearly every attack, the weapon has been a machete. Two dozen suspects have been arrested, but so much doubt persists over the killings—and over the government’s handling of them—that Dhaka is rife with conspiracy theories. Some of the bloggers who number among the eighty-four revealed suspicions that the state’s security agencies ordered the hits.
Ahmed and Roy hadn’t anticipated Bangladesh’s lurch into murderous extremism. “I don’t think we missed it because we were away,” Ahmed told me. “I think this is a sudden shift, but it has been cooking for a while.” A few days before his death, Ahmed said, Roy had given her a tour of the places where he grew up. “We walked around the university campus. He showed me where he lived when he was little. He showed me his elementary school. He used to say, ‘Who will touch me in my own neighborhood?’ ”
In Dhaka, conversations about the killings inevitably circle back to 1971, when Bangladesh broke away from Pakistan, whose strict Islamic pieties and Urdu culture encroached on Bengali liberalism. The Ekushey Book Fair occupies a sprawling park called Suhrawardy Udyan, where, in March, 1971, a politician named Mujibur Rahman urged an audience of two million to embrace civil disobedience and turn East Pakistan into an independent Bangladesh. The speech, an electric moment in Bangladesh’s history, is depicted in posters that still hang in many living rooms in Dhaka.
The ensuing “liberation war,” as Bangladeshis call it, is commemorated in a museum in the park, a half-buried, brutalist gallery whose raw-concrete shell staves off Dhaka’s soggy heat. Photographs of corpses, alone or in great piles, often charred, run along one wall. Some estimates suggest that Pakistan’s armed forces killed half a million people in the nine-month war, but most Bangladeshis—in particular, those from the Awami League, the political party that Rahman once led—say that the toll was closer to three million; they also call it a genocide. Early in December, 1971, the Indian Army intervened, hastening Pakistan’s defeat. Two weeks later, in Suhrawardy Udyan, the commander of Pakistan’s occupying forces surrendered, granting Bangladesh its independence. The war’s violence and the actions of Bengalis who collaborated with Pakistani forces remain the source of many of Bangladesh’s political questions. The word razakar, or “volunteer,” once used to describe members of pro-Pakistan militias, has entered colloquial Bengali as a scathing pejorative.
In 2008, an Awami League government was elected on the promise of establishing a war-crimes tribunal. Initially, the European Union, Human Rights Watch, and the United Nations gave the trials their blessing, but before long observers began to suspect that the government was using them to punish opposition parties. In 2011, Human Rights Watch noted that state officials were harassing defense lawyers and witnesses. The tribunal’s three-judge panels handed out death sentences and lengthy prison terms to members of the Bangladesh National Party, the main opposition party, and of the Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist party and a B.N.P. ally that, in 1971, had opposed the independence movement.
Even so, in early 2013 a contrary fear—that the Awami League had secretly agreed to be lenient toward the Jamaat—began to find purchase in Bangladesh. One Jamaat member, convicted of multiple murders and of the rape of an eleven-year-old girl, received a life sentence. Kowshik Ahmed, who writes for a Web site called Somewhere In Blog, and whose name was on the hit list, told me that anything short of capital punishment seemed to be a concession. “People thought the Awami League took money” in return for a gentler verdict, he said. In protest, a few dozen bloggers and student organizers occupied Shahbag, an intersection near the northern corner of Suhrawardy Udyan. Shahbag became a symbol for the bloggers, a testament to their power to organize. By the middle of February, the crowd had grown to more than a hundred thousand people, calling for the abolition of the Jamaat and for more death penalties.
Kowshik, as he is called, is a stocky, bald forty-one-year-old. When I met him, at a coffee shop a few miles from Shahbag, he was wearing a T-shirt that said, “Everything Will Be Fine.” We were joined by his friend Baki Billah, a former student leader and a stalwart at the Shahbag protests. Billah was slim and wore a wispy beard. His English was hesitant, and he stared into the distance as he talked, trying to hoist phrases out of his memory. Kowshik and Billah were competitive conversationalists, pitting their recollections of events against each other. Sometimes they veered into Bengali to confirm facts before presenting them to me.
I told them that it seemed odd that Shahbag’s liberal protesters were demanding the death penalty. “The death penalty wasn’t actually our goal,” Kowshik said. Then, with pretzel-shaped logic, he added, “We were demanding the highest punishment possible.”
Billah jumped in. “If the highest punishment possible was life imprisonment, we would have demanded that,” he said. “Since the liberation war, these people, these war criminals, have lived in Bangladesh like kings. Our anger towards them was very high.”
Kowshik started blogging in 2006, well before Somewhere In Blog became the largest community of Bengali bloggers, with more than a hundred thousand contributors. Facebook had not yet arrived in Bangladesh, so blogs functioned as a social medium, connecting members who were scattered across the country or living overseas. Kowshik’s family came from Barisal, in the south. His father worked for the government, and they moved every three years. After studying literature at a Barisal college, Kowshik went to Dhaka to find work. He wrote poetry and maintained a journal, but he found no readers until he discovered blogging, like many other young, secular urbanites. “For everyone, this was new,” Kowshik said. “There was a feeling of free space. People who were critical of religion could express themselves without any hesitation, without any restrictions.” In one post, Kowshik satirized the thoughts of an Islamic fundamentalist: “The people outside my community are lower than dogs. My war is against those who are not my brothers. So I look for any wrongdoing by non-Muslims. . . . Allah . . . made us fortunate enough to put such people to the sword.” When the assaults on bloggers began, Kowshik deleted the post.
The comments sections on most of Bangladesh’s political blogs tend to devolve into ad-hominem attacks. On one post from Somewhere In Blog, on Islam and terrorism, angry readers contend that the author knows nothing about Islam, that he is part of a conspiracy against the religion, that his audacity will earn him a quick death. The trolls and the counter-trolls—the standard side effects of the Internet—would be risible were the consequences not so tragic.
The first hint that the rancor had spilled into the physical world came a month before the Shahbag protests, in January, 2013, when a blogger named Asif Mohiuddin was attacked by three men armed with knives and machetes. Mohiuddin, an atheist who, on Somewhere In Blog, had called God “Almighty only in name but impotent in reality,” survived a deep gash to his neck. Then, in February, as Shahbag gained momentum, another blogger, Ahmed Rajib Haider, was murdered near his home by five young Ansarullah recruits. The night before the murder, they had played cricket in front of Haider’s house, in order to scope out the terrain.
In the spring of 2013, a conservative group, Hefazat-e-Islam, staged two large rallies in Dhaka, demanding capital punishment for every “atheist blogger.” When the list of eighty-four bloggers began circulating in newspapers and on social media, Kowshik discovered that his name was on it. The list wasn’t well thought out, he found. It included Haider’s name, even though he was dead, and many duplications, mentioning bloggers by their names and again by their handles. But its provenance was the bigger mystery. Newspaper reports were unable to determine whether it was compiled by Hefazat, as part of the demand for the executions of the bloggers, or by the government, in an initiative to prosecute bloggers who were critical of Islam. No one has yet claimed authorship of the list.
In April, the police arrested four bloggers, under a vague law criminalizing electronic publications that might offend the followers of any religion, disturb law and order, or “deprave and corrupt” readers. To many, the arrests appeared to be an attempt to appease Islamic conservatives. Sara Hossain, a prominent human-rights lawyer, told me, “There’s a general climate of fear that the police can come after you at any time. The fact is the state isn’t robust enough to protect you, or perhaps even interested in protecting you.”
Kowshik, learning that the police were looking for him, fled to Nepal, returning only after the other bloggers had been released on bail, a month later. “Over the next couple of months, nothing happened,” Kowshik said. “And nothing happened in 2014 also.” Then Roy was killed, and Kowshik grew fearful again. Besides going to work every day, he said, “I’ve been totally confined at home.” He meets few friends, and he never takes his children out; his relatives keep their distance. “Now they all know I’m an atheist, because my name has appeared in the papers,” he said. “So they do not like me.” He has stopped blogging—or even posting on Facebook—about current events. Occasionally, he writes about cinema, but, he said, “If I can’t write about politics and religion, I feel I have nothing to write.” And he changed his footwear.
I looked at his feet, clad in gray Power sneakers with banana-yellow laces. “So that you can run?”
“So that I can run.”
The details of the bloggers’ lives and deaths seem to constitute a morbid parable about the turbulent novelty of social media. “It’s the speed at which these pieces are disseminated online,” Tahmina Rahman, the director of the Bangladesh chapter of Article 19, a nonprofit that defends free speech, told me. “Sometimes these pieces aren’t very well thought out, so when they contain provocative material in a language that borders on abusive they reach their readers in a raw fashion.” Like the majority of Bangladesh’s Muslims, Rahman disapproved of the most outrageous of the pieces. Still, she criticized the government for its “lukewarm and apologetic” response, and for its readiness to freeze speech. In mid-November, the government executed two war criminals—a Jamaat member and a B.N.P. leader. Anticipating protests, it blocked access to Facebook, WhatsApp, and Viber for more than two weeks. For seventy-five minutes, the Internet was shut down altogether.
One afternoon, I visited Hasanul Haq Inu, Bangladesh’s information minister. He sat at a vast desk, across from a wall hung with six small televisions on mute and a large one broadcasting the news at a low grumble. During the liberation war, Inu trained ten thousand guerrillas. In the late seventies, after being found guilty of revolting against the military junta that governed Bangladesh, he spent five years in prison. Now he heads a Socialist party allied with the Awami League. He is a large, calm man with a polite manner; when he learned that I had a British passport, he expressed regret that one of the suspects in Roy’s murder was a British citizen of Bangladeshi origin.
When I arrived in Dhaka, two men, one Italian and the other Japanese, had recently been murdered, their deaths claimed by ISIS as a warning to “citizens of the crusader coalition.” Cesare Tavella, an aid worker, was shot while jogging in Dhaka’s diplomatic enclave; Kunio Hoshi, an agronomist who had been in the country for five months, was shot in the countryside far to the north. Midway through my stay, heavy security for a Shia procession in Dhaka failed to stop three homemade bombs from exploding, killing two people and injuring more than a hundred. ISIS claimed this attack as well.
Inu ascribed the murders to religious fanatics and linked them to the Jamaat party. The Jamaat had covert operatives, he said: “Around seven thousand, eight thousand Jamaat members were sent to Afghanistan when bin Laden was there, have been trained, and have come back.” (These assertions, often advanced by government officials, have never been substantiated.) Other groups, too, were preparing for a Sunni revolution, he said. “The hell with Shiism. The hell with Hinduism. That’s what they’re propagating.”
The government insists that, although the local terror groups may owe some allegiance to Al Qaeda, they have nothing to do with ISIS, whose claims for various attacks remain unverified. But in a November issue of ISIS’s English-language periodical, Dabiq, an article titled “The Revival of Jihad in Bengal” described fighters in Bangladesh “busy preparing for further attack.” A crisply recorded audio file on SoundCloud exhorted listeners, in singsong Bengali, to commence jihad and join the caliphate.
It is likely that ISIS is asserting ownership of local Islamist terror groups. Whether the activities of these groups suggest a rise in religiosity in Bangladesh is difficult to say, Hossain, the human-rights lawyer, told me. But, she added, “Anecdotally, I see more hijabs, more beards, more people in their twenties doing their prayers than when I was in my twenties.” Amena Mohsin, a professor of international relations at Dhaka University, was more certain. “People go to the Middle East and come back thinking a certain way,” she said. “There’s Wahhabi money flowing in.” Mohsin told me that her maid had recently gone home to her village and returned wearing a burka. “It gives her an increased status,” Mohsin said. “In that area, near Chittagong, by and large everyone supports the Hefazat.” In the past, the politicians of the Awami League had sounded such grave alarms about fundamentalist Islam that, Mohsin said, “the religious have come to think that Islam is under attack.”
I asked Inu if the government had drawn up the list of bloggers. “The official position is that there is no such official list,” he said, but he admitted that security agencies might keep a roster of provocative writers. He also denied that the Hefazat-e-Islam had given the government the list, as part of a demand for the execution of atheists. “Our position vis-à-vis Hefazat is very tough,” he said. “There is no official dialogue with Hefazat.” At the same time, he said, the state had a duty to prosecute those who offended the sentiments of the faithful. Some bloggers were guilty “of using very filthy language against Prophet Muhammad.”
Inu argued that the government had responded efficiently to the murders, and his office later sent me an update on the investigations: seven people arrested for Roy’s death, eighteen out of fifty-five hearings completed in the trial of six men for killing Haider, and so on. But Rafida Ahmed said that no one from the police office had taken her statement. The wife of another blogger, who witnessed her husband’s murder at their home in August, told me that the police had paraded four arrested men before her. She recognized none of them.
It appears that the government is constantly calibrating its position on the murders. In 2013, when Haider was killed, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina called him a martyr. Hasina, the daughter of Mujibur Rahman, has styled the Awami League as the guardian of the country’s minorities and of its liberal values, but she remains mindful that she governs a predominantly Muslim nation. Secularism was enshrined as one of the four principles of Bangladesh’s constitution, but in 1977 it was removed, and the Koranic phrase “Bismillah-ar-Rahman-ar Rahim” was added. In 2010, under Hasina’s administration, the Supreme Court restored secularism to the constitution, but her law minister admitted that the document’s Koranic phrase would remain.
More recently, Hasina has advised writers to refrain from distorting religious beliefs. When she did not publicly condemn Roy’s murder, her son and adviser, Sajeeb Wazed, told Reuters, “We are walking a fine line here. We don’t want to be seen as atheists.” Another government adviser told me, “If we allowed bloggers to write shit about Prophet Muhammad, the people would reject us.” He added, “They’d think we started all this with our secularism business. That’s the reality. This isn’t London or New York. This is Dhaka.”
In September, the security forces arrested Mohammad Abul Bashar, calling him the acting leader of the Ansarullah Bangla Team. His older brother, who founded Ansarullah, was arrested in 2013 for Haider’s murder, so Bashar had run the group in his absence. Ansarullah denied that Bashar was its leader, calling the government’s claims “pitiful.” Two weeks later, the organization released its own hit list, of twenty writers who live overseas, their names printed under a logo resembling the black flag of ISIS. Rafida Ahmed is on the list; so are several bloggers who have moved abroad since 2013. Others are making plans to emigrate. Late one evening, I met Kowshik’s friend Shammi Haq, a twenty-two-year-old woman who has written critically about the dominance of men in Islam and other religions, and who was hoping to leave Bangladesh in the coming weeks.
Haq was waiflike and nervous. She had to take a sleeping pill every night, she said, and, while we talked, she kept looking out the window with trepidation. She’d received many threats online, and one day, late in August, two men followed her as she walked to the market to buy vegetables. “I took a detour into a shopping mall on the way, and they came in there, too,” she said. She bumped into a friend, who surreptitiously took a photograph of the men. Haq showed the photograph to the police, who placed her under protection. “The policemen are here even now,” she said. “But I’m not allowed to point them out.”
Her friend Niloy Chatterjee, a forty-year-old blogger who founded an association of rationalists, had been on the original hit list. In mid-May, heading home from a rally protesting another blogger’s murder, Chatterjee found that he was being trailed by two men. When he tried to lodge a complaint with the police, he wrote on Facebook, he was told to “leave the country as soon as possible.” Through the summer, Chatterjee lay low, even staying in his parents’ village for two weeks. Not long after he returned to Dhaka, on a lazy Friday afternoon, he was in his apartment with his wife, Ashamone, and her sister when four men with machetes broke in. Before killing Chatterjee, they pushed the sisters onto the balcony, Ashamone told me. When she was able to get back into the living room, she said, “the place was flooded with blood.” One of the killers had pulled a fresh shirt out of his bag and discarded his bloodstained one near the apartment gate before joining the others in a waiting auto rickshaw.
Ashamone was temporarily staying in a spare room at the office of an N.G.O. A duffelbag lay half packed on a cot. Ashamone, perched on a plastic chair, wore a trace of pink lipstick that matched the color of her shalwar kameez. With her left hand, she picked at a scab forming over a scratch on her right thumb. “I cut myself yesterday, and it pained so much,” she said. “Then I thought, How much pain Niloy must have gone through.
“Niloy used to think our house was safe,” Ashamone continued. “But now I can’t imagine any place is safe.” She wanted to flee Bangladesh, but she didn’t like the idea of being a refugee. “And if we, the freethinkers, don’t stay we leave the country in the hands of the fundamentalists. Those people will rule here. They will win. Why should we leave it all to them?”