At least 12 bloggers have packed their bags and fled abroad in recent weeks. Others are preparing to follow suit and leave the Muslim-majority country. They are all ardent advocates of atheist standpoints in their blogs.
Despite the fact that the country’s constitution guarantees freedom of speech, these writers fear that they too will be the next targets for Islamists. Four bloggers have been murdered so far this year.
The number of atheists living in Bangladesh is not known. There has never been an attempt to ascertain the number of people who reject religion. Bloggers claim that more than one hundred thousand people are atheists in Bangladesh, a country with a population of 160 million people. More than 90 percent are Muslims.
Ever since the independence of the country back in 1971, atheism has remained as a taboo in the country. Atheist journalist Daud Haider was forced to leave the country in 1974 for writing a poem criticizing religion. Another atheist writer, Taslima Nasreen, fled Bangladesh in 1994 following massive protests by Islamists demanding her death after she made some critical comments about Islam.
Until 2013, these two people were the only writers to be singled out by religious fundamentalists. However, after the 2013 Shahbag protests, a movement that came out against the continuing influence of Islamists who opposed the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, bloggers called upon the government to guarantee the secular nature of society. A few of their number were atheists. This is turn led to Islamist fundamentalists targeting 'some new enemies' of Islam.
They took to the streets to demand capital punishment for atheist bloggers, who - from their perspective - were writing blogs with the aim of defaming Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. On the Internet, they even published a hit list of 84 bloggers whom they intended to kill. Four bloggers on the list have been murdered this year. Several others had been attacked and killed earlier.
Vile propaganda or hate speech?
While Bangladesh is generally considered to be a liberal-minded Muslim country, few protested against the murder of the atheist bloggers. Arifur Rahman, an atheist blogger based in London, believes that atheism remains a taboo subject because of the propaganda spread by some politicians and the Islamic clergy. The situation is compounded by a general lack of reason-based education in the country, he argues.
"Atheism is merely a stepping stone towards humanism, which challenges religious power and threatens the current political system, which in turn is heavily dependent on people's religious fervor," he says.
However, Trivuz Alam, a conservative blogger based in Dhaka, dismisses Rahman's views. He places the responsibility for the predominantly negative view of atheism in the country firmly at the door of atheist bloggers: "In Bangladesh a trend of attacking Islam and its Prophet with indecent and very offensive words in the name of atheism is gaining popularity. It offends not only religious people but also ordinary Muslims," says Alam.
No room for a healthy debate
Ali Riaz, a Professor of politics and government at Illinois State University, believes there is a widely held but mistaken perception in Bangladeshi society that atheists are 'anti-religious.' He criticizes the lack of an environment in which informed debate on issues like atheism in the country can take place.
"The political environment has been unconducive for an informed debate on the role of religion and personal faith in the public sphere. Intellectuals and theologians in Bangladesh have failed to step up to initiate a conversation on this issue," says Riaz.
Imran H Sarker, a secular blogger based in Dhaka, also blames people's ignorance for misconceptions about atheism in his country. He told DW that fundamentalists always project atheists as 'anti-religious.' Sarker believes that a very few anti-religious writers are providing religious fanatics with the excuse they need to claim that atheists are guilty of defaming Islam.
"Most people in our country are against of both blasphemy and religious fundamentalism. They don’t support any form of extremism," he continues.
Government plays a cautious role
After the fourth murder of an atheist blogger this year, the country's security forces responded by making some arrests, initially in August. Three suspects taken into custody on September 10 include the chief of Ansarullah Bangla Team, an outlawed militant group which claimed responsibility for the recent killings of bloggers.
The arrests came after intense pressure on the Dhaka government by the international community. After the murder of Dr. Avijit Roy in February, the first blogger to be murdered in 2015, the government did nothing, apparently because it feared massive demonstrations on the streets of the capital by Islamists. Six months passed before the government moved to stop the killing spree, but by then three more atheist bloggers - Washiqur Rahman Babu, Ananta Bijoy Das and Niloy Neel - had been hacked to death.
Meanwhile, the government is trying to create the impression that it is serious about bringing the murderers of the bloggers to justice. But as long as proceedings at the so-called International War Crimes Tribunals continue - with leading Islamists facing the death penalty for crimes committed in 1971, an effective clampdown on Islamist fundamentalists appears unlikely.
Information Minister Hasanul Haq Inu recently emphasized that "the investigations of the killing of bloggers are proceeding at full pace. The police have arrested some suspected killers, and a Dhaka court has already started trial of one of the murder cases." However, the minister also issued a thinly veiled warning that his government is willing to clamp down on freedom of speech in order to prevent blasphemy: While "no one can harass an atheist for his beliefs, writing or doing something to defame a religion is a punishable crime in our country. We won’t allow any such act."