English Professor, LGBT Activists Dead in Attacks in Bangladesh

Just weeks after the deadly attack on a law student in Bangladesh, there have been another two deadly attacks in just two days in the country.

On Saturday of this past weekend, Rezaul Karim Siddique, a 58-year-old university professor of English, was hacked to death in an attack similar to murders of other secular and atheist activists. Daesh has since claimed responsibility.

And, just this evening in Dhaka, the senior editor of Bangladesh’s first LGBT magazine,  Xulhaz Mannan, was murdered alongside his friend, a fellow LGBT rights activist.

We will have more on these stories as they develop.

CFI Leads Coalition Effort to Urge State Department Engagement With Bangladesh Government

The Center for Inquiry has led a coalition effort to urge the State Department to strengthen its engagement with the Bangladesh government to ensure that the rights to freedom of religion, belief, and expression are fully protected within the country.

Signatories to this letter incude Freedom House, PEN America, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, the Hindu American Foundation, and the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative.

The letter, which was sent to Secretary of State John Kerry and Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom David Saperstein, stated in part:

As you might recall, we wrote to you exactly you one year ago (April 22, 2015) with serious concerns regarding deadly attacks on religious minorities, atheists, and secularists in Bangladesh. In particular, on February 26, 2015, Islamic extremists armed with machetes attacked writer and activist Avijit Roy while Roy was leaving a book fair in Dhaka, which he was visiting with his wife, Rafida Bonya Ahmed. Roy, a naturalized U.S. citizen well known in Bangladesh for authoring numerous books and founding the freethought forum Mukto-Mona (Free-mind), was killed; Ahmed, also a naturalized U.S. citizen who wrote prominently on evolutionary biology, was critically injured, but survived. Just one month later, on March 30, 2015, Washiqur Rahman — a 27-year-old atheist who expressed criticisms of religious fundamentalism on social media — was, like Roy, brutally murdered in the same fashion by machete-wielding Islamic extremists.

Disturbingly, what we had hoped would be tragic anomalies have become almost normal in Bangladesh. On May 12, 2015, Ananta Bijoy Das was killed by a group of men armed with machetes in Sylhet; on August 7, 2015, Niloy Neel was killed by a group of six men armed with machetes who tricked their way into Niloy’s home in Dhaka, locked his partner in a room, and proceeded to hack Niloy to death; and on October 31, 2015, Faisal Arefin Deepan, a Muslim publisher of secularist books, including those of Avijit Roy, was killed by machete-wielding assailants at his Jagriti Prokashoni publishing house. The same day, three others — Ahmedur Rashid Tutul, Tariq Rahim, and Ranadipam Basu — were seriously injured in a similar attack at the Shudhdhoswar publishing house.

And, just days ago, on April 6, 2016, the pattern continued as Nazimuddin Samad, a student at Jagannath University, was attacked and killed by several suspected Islamic extremists while returning home from class. Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) claimed this attack, as they have several others on atheists in the country.

But perhaps more disturbing than the attacks themselves has been the responses by the Bangladesh government. The government has not issued any formal statements of support for murdered or threatened religious minorities, atheists, or secularists. Few arrests have been made in the recent murders, and no charges have been filed. Several of the attacks occurred in public areas with witnesses, raising serious questions as to how and why suspects have not been identified or charged. And threatened secularist writers and publishers who remain in the country and have requested assistance from law enforcement have been told to self-censor or else leave the country if they desire safety.

The crisis also impacts U.S. foreign interests. While it is true that homegrown extremists have been responsible for most of the violent attacks in Bangladesh, there is no doubt that their activity — and the government’s actions, which have fueled extremism or else let it go unimpeded — has created a perfect breeding ground for foreign terrorist groups such as Daesh and AQIS. Indeed, there are now credible reports that these groups have sympathizers operating in the country.

We therefore urge you to continue your engagement with government and law enforcement officials in Bangladesh to ensure they recognize the value of strongly defending democratic values and the fundamental human rights. In particular, we urge you to pressure the Bangladesh government to speak publicly in defense of the rights to exercise freedom of religion, belief, and expression, and to work with law enforcement officials on the ground to ensure threatened individuals and groups are protected, and extremists who are responsible for the murders of minorities are rooted out and brought to justice.

You can read the full letter here.

Blasphemy Laws as a Challenge to Religious Freedom

The Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University and the Center for Islam and Religious Freedom are co-sponsoring a half-day conference in Washington, D.C. on blasphemy laws:

Blasphemy laws designed to protect religious communities from criticism also constitute an important barrier to religious freedom. Penalties for blasphemy, ranging from public censure and fines to imprisonment and even death, can intimidate people with beliefs that diverge from established versions of orthodoxy.

How do blasphemy laws impact religious freedom in practice? Under what conditions does the suppression of religious (and non-religious) expression encourage violent religious extremism? Has the abolition of blasphemy laws promoted greater religious freedom and peaceful religious pluralism? How can the international community most effectively mobilize against such laws in practice?

The Religious Freedom Project is gathering a distinguished group of scholars, policymakers, and activists to debate these important questions. While the focus will be on Muslim-majority states like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, the symposium will also explore the historical and contemporary experience of other countries, including India and the United Kingdom.

You can find more information and register here.

Germany Fines Man for ‘Blasphemous’ Car Bumper Stickers

The Telegraph reports on a disturbing case out of Germany that serves as a reminder there are some western nations with blasphemy laws:

A retired teacher in Germany has been fined €500 (£400) for defaming Christianity under the country’s rarely enforced blasphemy laws.

Albert Voss, a former physics teacher and avowed atheist, was convicted of blasphemy after he daubed the rear window of his car with anti-Christian slogans.

The 66-year-old drove around his home city of Münster, in western Germany, with the slogans clearly displayed.

“The church is looking for modern advertising ideas. I can help,” one read. “Jesus, our favorite artist: hanging for 2,000 years and he still hasn’t got cramp,” it went on to suggest, in an apparent reference to the crucifixion.

Another slogan was targetted at the Catholic church.

“Let’s make a piligrimage with Martin Luther to Rome!” it read. “Kill Pope Francis. The Reformation is cool.”

Münster is a heavily Catholic city, and an unnamed local filed a complaint with the police, who seized Mr Voss’ car and suspended his driving license.

The former teacher argued the anti-Christian messages were protected by his right to free expression.

But the court ruled the slogans amounted to defamation of religion and had broken Germany’s blasphemy laws.

You can read the full article here.

Why I Despair Over Pakistan’s Intractable Blasphemy Laws

Kimberly Winston of Religion News Service provides commentary on Pakistan’s blasphemy laws based on her recent trip to the  country:

Before leaving for Pakistan, I thought countries that enforce blasphemy laws — Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Indonesia, among others — would eventually catch up to the rest of the world. Surely, it was a matter of time until they realized free speech must trump religious sensitivities.

My week in Lahore and Islamabad — also the scene of Easter violence over blasphemy laws — changed that. After visiting Christian churches and minority Muslim sects — each time passing barricaded metal gates, gun turrets and skeins of razor wire  — we met with an attorney who represents blasphemy defendants, sometimes all the way to Pakistan’s Supreme Court.

This attorney recited case after case he had personally handled in which people, usually Christians, were charged with tearing a page from the Quran or insulting the Prophet Muhammad and were sentenced to death.

Usually, he said, the accusers were looking to settle a personal score with the defendant or steal their wealth. The most notorious case is of Asia Bibi, a Christian mother and field worker facing execution for allegedly making derogatory remarks about the prophet.

But even this attorney — educated at an elite British university, wearing an expensive western suit and speaking English as well as I do — defended the laws.

You can read the full article here.

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The Campaign for Free Expression is an initiative of the Center for Inquiry (CFI) to focus the public's attention and efforts on one of the most basic and foundational human rights: the freedom to express yourself. We hope you join us.