Bangladesh: A study on its radical Islamism and plight of free-thinkers

By Priya Chetty on May 28, 2015

Bangladesh emerged as an outcome of “Bengali Nationalism”, formed to overthrow the hegemony of West Pakistan and to end the latter’s attempt of economic exploitation, religious regression and dominance over the “Political Voice” of the former. The crux of the national movement leading to its separation from Pakistan was the restoration of their lost glory and implementation of secularism, socialism and democracy as the state’s ideology, restricting religion to private sphere. Also one of the aims of liberation struggle was the revival of the cultural and linguistic heritage, which was lost somewhere, under their western wing’s (present day Pakistan) rule. However, after the murder of its first-elected Prime Minister, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman and overthrow of his government, the state saw the entrance of Islam based ideology, adopted by the new military government, snubbing out the ideas of socialism, secularism and free-thinking, questioning customs and practices, in and out of religion.

The ideology of setting up a government and society based on the religious ideas of its former western wing gradually led to the rise of radical Islamization, where various radical groups came into existence, identifying themselves as the extension of the radical and terrorist outfits of Pakistan, Afghanistan and other middle-eastern Islamic states. These radical groups are leading the state towards ‘intolerance’ and ‘bigotry’, attacking the ideas of secularism and the practice of free-thinking and striking persons, who they consider as committing ‘blasphemy’ towards Islam (Habib, 2015).

This article deals with the current scenario of liberal free-thinkers and the role of radical Islamist groups in silencing them.

Jamaat-e-Islami and its ideology

Jamaat-e-Islami, (JEI) is the most popular radical group of Bangladesh and a former political party which was barred by the Sheikh Hasina government from contesting in elections in 2013. The institution plays a crucial role (assisted by Pakistan) in posing extremist ideas in the state. During the liberation war of 1971, the Jamaat-e-Islami formed various factions under its assistance, which created havoc and extreme violence in the state and also attacked numerous free thinking intellectuals (Hossain, 1989). The government of Ziaur Rehman, establishing military rule, encouraged the jamaat group to exercise its radical Islamism ideology freely, putting them on political center-stage and showing compassion towards its leaders. Since then, the JEI have operated actively on the soil of Bangladesh from entering politics to opening its students’ wing (Islamic Chhatra Shibir), which includes various academic personalities (Banu, 1994). Most of its members come from madrassas, universities and colleges who have connections with radical outfits of other inner-state (harkat ul-jihad Bangladesh, Jagrata Muslim Janata, etc.) and from other countries (Pakistan, Malaysia, Middle-east, etc.). This ideology of Islamic Chhatra Shibir (ICS) resulted in silencing the free-thinkers in Bangladesh for their liberal views and questioning some of the facets of Islam.

Plight of liberal thinkers

Bangladesh as a nation sought to establish its lost glory of culture and language, which is why it struggled to become an independent nation, shedding its connection with its western wing. Though it was considered and partitioned as a part of Pakistan, yet there was no boundary or language or cultural similarity between the two, except the religion i.e. Islam. Bangladesh was more connected to Bengali language and culture than to Urdu or cultures existing in its western counterpart, which was influenced by the Arab and Middle Eastern world (Islam, 1987; Ziring, 1992). Also, the existence of various religious cults such as Buddhism and Sufism since the advent of Islam in the 13th century contributed in the rise and establishment of liberal and pluralistic society (Rahim, 2007). These ideas of liberalism, pluralistic co-existence, and connection and fondness towards Bengali culture and language led to the formation of a secular thinking among people. It also distanced them from following radical Islam and thus criticizing the blind faiths and customs of the religion.

But this rise of secular individuals, who mostly practice atheism or liberal form of Islam, posed a threat to the radical Islamist groups such as JEI that desired to build an Islamic society based on Sharia Law. This resulted in killing of freethinkers by the militants. The attack on Humayun Azad in 2004, murder of Ahmed Rajib Humayun in 2013, Prof. A. K. M. Shafiul Islam in 2014 and the most recent killing of US based blogger Avijit Roy and Md. Oyasiqur Rahman Babu  this year, depicts the bigotry and intolerant nature of the radical militants (Habib, 2015).

Casualties in Bangalesh

Humayun Azad, a well-known poet, free thinker and essayist was attacked in February 2004 for his exposure of the Islamic fundamentalists’ politics and ideology in Bangladesh in his novel Pak Sar Jamin Saad Baad while he was coming back from Bangla Academy Book Fair. Ahmed Rajib Humayun, was a blogger and he was targeted for criticizing the religion. Another free thinker, Prof. Shafiul Islam, a sociology teacher of Rajshahi University was hacked to death as the militant group ‘Ansar al Islam Bangladesh-2’ viewed the professor to be defiant of following the tenants of hijab, mentioned in the Quran and ‘for following the sect of Baul’ (Habib, 2015, p. 52). This year saw the murder of two intellectuals within a month, first was Avijit Roy a US based writer and founder of Mukhto-mona (Free-minded), where he discussed issues of critical concern in the society. He was attacked along with his wife when they were returning from a book fair, killing him and leaving his wife seriously wounded. They also attacked Md. Oyasiqur for writing various blogs criticizing the evils of radical Islam.

These attacks on people, questioning the facets of religion, pose a threat to the free-thinking of individuals, establishing a situation of fear in the society, attacking the ‘secularism and freedom of thought, values’  that was the core ideology behind regaining its independence from Pakistan (Habib, 2015, p. 52). The government under Sheikh Hasina is trying hard to eradicate radical Islamism from the country by punishing various leaders and members of JEI, for committing various crimes against humanity, but the delay in solving and punishing the murderers of these intellectuals, pose as an encouragement towards committing these attacks on freedom of expression.


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  • Islam, M. R. (1987). The Bangladesh Liberation Movement. Dhaka: The University Press, Dhaka.
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Priya is the co-founder and Managing Partner of Project Guru, a research and analytics firm based in Gurgaon. She is responsible for the human resource planning and operations functions. Her expertise in analytics has been used in a number of service-based industries like education and financial services.

Her foundational educational is from St. Xaviers High School (Mumbai). She also holds MBA degree in Marketing and Finance from the Indian Institute of Planning and Management, Delhi (2008).

Some of the notable projects she has worked on include:

  • Using systems thinking to improve sustainability in operations: A study carried out in Malaysia in partnership with Universiti Kuala Lumpur.
  • Assessing customer satisfaction with in-house doctors of Jiva Ayurveda (a project executed for the company)
  • Predicting the potential impact of green hydrogen microgirds (A project executed for the Government of South Africa)

She is a key contributor to the in-house research platform Knowledge Tank.

She currently holds over 300 citations from her contributions to the platform.

She has also been a guest speaker at various institutes such as JIMS (Delhi), BPIT (Delhi), and SVU (Tirupati).