In support of secular bloggers and freethinkers in Bangladesh

bangladesh

The Nordic and Estonian PEN centres condemn the acts of violence and demand protection for those in danger.

28 April 2016

Freedom of expression is under a serious threat once again in Bangladesh, where four freethinkers have been brutally murdered within a month:

  • On April 25th Xulhaz Mannan, a gay rights activist and an editor at LGBT magazine, Roopbaan, and a fellow activist and USAID employee Tanay Mojumdar were killed in Mannan’s apartment.
  • On April 23rd Professor Rezaul Karim Siddique, an academic and cultural activist, was hacked to death by machete men in Rajshahi.
  • Nazimuddin Samad, a law student, wrote critically on Islam on his Facebook page and was brutally murdered in Dhaka on April 7th.

In 2015, five secular bloggers, online activists, writers and publishers were killed in attacks. Among them was Avjit Roy, a founder of Bangladesh’s leading secular blog, Mukto-Mona.

These savage acts send a loud message of intimidation. There is a climate of silence, fear and extreme danger prevailing for secular people of Bangladesh. The recent trend of spiralling terror of radical Islamists against secular freethinkers and religious and sexual minority groups is highly alarming. It’s also unexpected from a secular country, which has a composite national identity and a long history of tolerance.

Since 1975, Bangladesh has gone through a religious transformation under two military rulers. After the student-led mass uprising in December 1990, Bangladesh entered into a new era of parliamentary democracy in 1991. But the democratic leaders made dangerous liaison with Islamist parties keeping in mind the electoral politics. As a result, Islamist narrative has gained leeway in democratic policy. The current government of Awami League came to power through a flawed election in 2014 that did not bear international standards. The election was conducted amidst the boycott of the main opposition party demanding installation of a credible election commission. The opposition was emboldened by tacit support of the Islamist groups. In the absence of a credible democratic environment and divisive politics, Islamists are flexing their muscles now. So far the country’s government has shown an utter failure in protecting secular voices who exercise their lawful right of free expression.

“The [Bangladeshi] government response has been shocking – at a speech to mark the Bangla New Year, while calling for tolerance, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed chose to criticise the vulnerable bloggers, saying it was not acceptable to write against religion, instead of warning the emboldened killers, who continue to act with impunity”, said Salil Tripathi, Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee.

A secular government in a democratic state can’t dictate its citizens what to write – it’s against the main principle of free speech, the fundamental cornerstone of a democratic society. What makes it particularly appalling is that the government is turning its back and showing clear unwillingness in protecting its own citizens, who represent the country’s brightest thinkers – those, who stand for education, equality, human rights and worry about the future of their country. This is unacceptable.

The current crisis in Bangladesh reflects the fight for the soul of the country. To be able to retain its secular identity and save its representative democratic institutions from falling in the hand of political Islamists the top Bangladeshi politicians must make a choice.  It can only be possible through honest and open dialogue among major political parties of the country. Questions remain: can political leaders rise over their partisan and parochial interests? This requires courage and vision.

 What the Nordic and Estonian PEN centres see is a crisis of a democracy and a country falling into a chaos. What we receive is desperate cries for help from the bloggers and freethinkers dreading for their lives. It is a heart aching, critical situation in which the Nordic and Estonian democracies and the international community must act together with Bangladesh’s government.

Unesco’s World Press Freedom Day is being celebrated in Helsinki, Finland, on May 3–4 2016. This is the time and place for the international community to reaffirm their commitment in defence of the right to freedom of expression, show support for the Bangladeshi freethinkers and discuss the ways of cooperation.

 We, the Nordic and Estonian PEN centres, stand with secular freethinkers of Bangladesh in their right to freedom of expression as enshrined in our own charter and various global conventions including that of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

We urge Bangladesh government to:

  1. Protect secular bloggers, writers, publishers, academics and human rights activists from violent campaign of radical Islamist groups.
  2. Bring perpetrators of violence to justice and put end to the culture of impunity.
  3. Protect the space for freedom of expression in the country.
  4. Protect minority groups including religious and sexual minority groups and others.
  5. Take steps to arrange a credible national election in cooperation with all major political parties because in the absence of a proper democracy, undemocratic forces flourish.

 We urge our own governments in Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden to:

  1. Find ways to protect freethinkers in Bangladesh.
  2. Offer more safe havens in our countries to those who are in a critical state.
  3. Support and ensure the democratic development in Bangladesh, and to build stronger diplomatic ties with the country.

Kätlin Kaldmaa, Eesti PEN – Estonian PEN
Sirpa Kähkönen, Suomen PEN – Finnish PEN
Ola Larsmo, Svenska P.E.N. – Swedish PEN
William Nygaard, Norsk P.E.N. – Norwegian PEN
Sjón, PEN á Íslandi – Icelandic PEN
Per Øhrgaard, Dansk PEN – Danish PEN

PEN, the worldwide association of writers, defends freedom of expression according to its charter everywhere in the world.

Remembering Hrant Dink – A Landmark in History

hrant dink

Hrant, as a landmark in history | Ece Temelkuran

This country doesn’t know how to deal with the shame that will come out of honesty. This country doesn’t know how to deal with shame.

There is a history of oblivion, weird as it is. We never forget what we have forgotten. Or what we should be forgetting. There is a history of forgetting as a deed. This is not the linear past of the concept of “oblivion”.  It is more like layer after layer of shame, layer after layer of ignoring the shame, then layers of remembering it, blaming those who remember, wiping off those who remind it from the face of the earth, to make them vanish in the history of oblivion… The History of Oblivion is such a voluminous, convoluted subject.

Hrant Dink, oh Hrant Dink, he stands in this layered history, right at the spot where the circle is completed. Trying to remind us of a scar of 100 years ago, he became a target to become a scar himself buried deep in the history of oblivion. And we are trying not to let this happen.

I sometimes think of us as people who try to prevent the burial of the deceased. How strange… Yet other times we are trying to hold an honourable funeral for our dead, struggling to bury them properly in spite of the vicious king. This is even weirder. Even more Antigone.

Hrant was killed because he was trying to remind us of a history of oddness without shaming us. He was trying to speak without blaming. His was an act of “revolutionary embarrassment”*. Had he shouted aloud, blaming us, finger pointing us out as “murderers”, he wouldn’t have been killed. For our history is one where those who try to mediate are shot. No danger for those who wait on both sides, in trenches of the battleground. Whoever dares to stand in the middle, saying, “Listen for a minute!” is shot in the back of the head. A horrifying signature of murder.

History doesn’t bring to account the deeds that people have done. It is us who do that. If people don’t question, history forgets. Nobody accounts for their deeds in the face of history. If they are asked to do that, it will be the people they will have to face. For that reason, I don’t believe Hrant’s murderers will ever be interrogated in front of history. Who cares if they accounted for what they have done after everybody, especially the murderers, are dead anyway? I, for one, don’t care.

Hrant will make history with his courage, most probably. I would like history to remember him this way. He was a compassionate reminder.

A person who hangs on to the joys of life in spite of the cruel tyrants.

A man who can think in fairness.

A “minority” member who tears his own flesh to be just and fair.

An elegant, yes, mostly this, graceful memory.

This is a country which kills out of shame. Not itself, though. The culture of this country doesn’t know self-punishment. It punishes others. Kills women. Kills children. Kills animals. Kills people. Kills all who don’t cooperate. The enemy is always considered an outside an outsider. This country thinks it’s standing strong on its feet by acting like this. It assumes this can go on. It considers standing as survival and survival as life itself. In this world of struggle for survival, there is no place for elegance or compassion. They invite us to be humans and stay as humans. They make things harder because they don’t want anything in return, their only demand is truly, sincerely, only humanity. They disturb the system because they don’t accept the laws of antagonism and their only claim is for humanity. If they had asked for something else, anything else, the results would have been different, for there is a way of “handling” every other requirement. However, they insist on demanding honesty, the most impossible of all. An unsolvable situation for this country as this country doesn’t know how to deal with the shame that will come out of honesty. This country doesn’t know how to deal with shame. It doesn’t know how to apologize just like it doesn’t know how to be thankful.

Still, Hrant is a sign. A sign that the circle of forgetfulness has come to an end, that there is no place left for those who want to forget. The circle is closing on a logic that is based on forgetfulness, the history of oblivion. Hrant is the point where remembering starts, where there is nowhere else to go.  His life was just that, so is his death.  Hrant is a sign to remember, a sign to look back for guidance for those who want to remember in the name of honour. For he proposed a way of reminding. He did it in a graceful, affectionate way. He told us all about how to carry the burden of shame, how that burden would feel lighter shouldering it with the likes of us. Actually, this is a very terrifying fact for those who insist that burden is unmoveable. Hrant told us that it was not all about shame but also about the future. This is the end of the history of oblivion. A breaking point. A possibility. A fissure.

He is right there. Not where he was  murdered. In the part of history where he used to live. Where he had his voice. It is a landmark. A place to turn back and look for guidance. A place to step on before a jump towards the future. Without  burden. First shouldering that burden then getting rid of it.

*: An expression used by the poet Haydar Ergülen for his fellow poet Gülten Akın.

Translated by Kader Cekerek.