News and Notes: May 2013

Published by MNA on

By George Kane

Head shot of George, smiling in jacket and tie.

As was the case with the Cartoon Intifada in 2006, extremists are inciting street mobs to violence with cries of “Blasphemy!” to bring about a political crisis. This time the scene is Bangladesh, and the objects of religious fury are atheist bloggers who campaigned for secular government.

The background to the current uprising is the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. The Pakistan Army and collaborators targeted Hindu communities, intellectuals and members of the political opposition for attacks. According to official estimates as many as 400,000 women were raped, leading to an estimated 25,000 war babies. As many as 3,000,000 people were massacred. An estimated 30,000,000 people were displaced, including 10,000,000 refugees who fled to India.

In 2009 the government, controlled by the majority Awami League, announced that trials for war crimes would be organized under the International Crimes Tribunal Act of 1973. This act authorized prosecution only of people living within Bangladesh who were members of the armed forces or paramilitary groups.

The first dozen men indicted included nine leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, the largest Islamist party in Bangladesh. Two leaders of the opposition Bangladesh National Party were also indicted.

Early this year, the first verdicts were issued. Abul Kalam Azad, a prominent Muslim cleric and former member of Jamaat, was found guilty in absentia of seven of eight charges and sentenced to death by hanging. Abdul Quader Mollah, assistant secretary of Jamaat, was convicted on five of six counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes, and sentenced to life imprisonment. Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, the deputy of Jamaat, was found guilty of genocide, rape and religious persecution, and sentenced to death by hanging.

The continuing trials threaten to destroy Jamaat-e-Islami and the other Islamist parties that in coalition constitute the principle opposition to the Awami League government. Jamaat decided that their only salvation would be to bring the nation to its knees with violent demonstrations.

So how could they set about doing that? The proven method is to demand retribution for insults to Islam and the Prophet; then rioters would surely pour into the streets. Islamist political parties submitted a list of 84 “atheist bloggers” and demanded the death penalty for “insulting religion”. Several bloggers have since been arrested, and a government official promised to pursue everyone on the list. Public rage against the bloggers first erupted in February, when one of them was murdered in his home in a machete attack.

In early April, Muslim protesters flooded from the countryside into the capital city of Dhaka. Police reported about 100,000 protesters, who marched through the streets chanting “God is great, hang the atheist bloggers.” This cowed the government into arresting four of the bloggers, blocking about a dozen websites and blogs hoping to stem the unrest, and creating a panel to monitor blasphemy on social media.

President Eric Jayne, representing Minnesota Atheists, signed a declaration condemning the attacks and calling on the government of Bangladesh to guarantee the bloggers’ safety. The declaration, initiated by the International Humanist Ethical Union, designates April 25 as a day to demonstrate international support for Bangladesh’s atheist bloggers and activists.

The Republican-controlled legislature of North Carolina is considering Joint Resolution HB494, which asserts that the U. S. Constitution prohibits only Congress to make laws respecting an establishment of religion, but not the states. It goes on to declare that North Carolina “does not recognize federal court rulings which prohibit and otherwise regulate the State of North Carolina, its public schools, or any political subdivisions of the State from making laws respecting an establishment of religion.” The authors of the bill have stated that their intent is to declare Christianity the established religion of North Carolina. The bill has been assigned to committee.

Nationally there is considerable support for such laws trashing the Establishment Clause. An Omnibus Poll of 1000 adults conducted in April shows that 34% of Americans favor establishing Christianity as the official religion in their state, and 32% favor establishing Christianity as the official religion of the nation.

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