The awful terrorist attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo last month led to an outpouring of support for free expression on the Internet and across the West. But a murder in Bangladesh yesterday was a reminder of what an outlier the Hebdo attack was for Europe, and how common attacks on free expression are in other parts of the world.
Bangladeshi-American Avijit Roy, an author, blogger, and activist described as a secular humanist by his father, was hacked to death by two men wielding machetes on Dhaka University's campus as he and his wife returned home from a book fair. She survived the attack with serious head injuries and the loss of a finger.
Dhaka police have avoided saying if Islamist militants were behind the attack, but it seems most likely. Mr. Roy's father told Agence France Presse that his son had been repeatedly threatened by Islamist groups for his atheist views – his best known book is titled "Virus of Faith." It was a view shared by many of Roy's friends and collaborators. AFP reports:
Roy's killing also triggered strong condemnation from his fellow writers and publishers, who lamented the growing religious conservatism and intolerance in Bangladesh.
"The attack on Roy and his wife Rafida Ahmed is outrageous. We strongly protest this attack and are deeply concerned about the safety of writers," Imran H. Sarker, head of an association for bloggers in Bangladesh, said.
Pinaki Bhattacharya, a fellow blogger and friend of Roy, claimed one of the country's largest online book retailers was being openly threatened for selling Roy's books. "In Bangladesh the easiest target is an atheist. An atheist can be attacked and murdered," he wrote on Facebook.
Article 19, a group that advocates for free expression, recorded 258 attacks against the freedoms of journalists and activists in Bangladesh in 2013, with four killed.
In some parts of the world, attacks on free expression are a part of daily life. Earlier this week, Saudi Arabia – a close ally of the United States and other Western governments that were incensed by the Charlie Hebdo murders – sentenced a man to beheading for the crime of tearing up a copy of the Koran and renouncing Islam.
Free expression and dissent of all kinds is ruthlessly suppressed in Saudi Arabia, which enforces the Wahabbi brand of Islam that provides the intellectual roots for militant groups like the Islamic State. Last year the country sentenced blogger Raif Badawi to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for the crime of creating a website called "Saudi Arabian Liberals." Amnesty International writes:
The charges against Raif are related to articles he wrote criticizing religious authorities in Saudi Arabia, and pieces penned by others that Raif published on the Saudi Arabian Liberals' site. The prosecution had called for him to be tried for 'apostasy' or abandoning his religion, which carries the death penalty.
Raif is one of many activists in Saudi Arabia persecuted for openly expressing their views online. Facebook and Twitter are incredibly popular in a country where people can't openly voice their opinions in public. The authorities have responded to this increase in online debate by monitoring social media sites and even trying to ban applications such as Skype and WhatsApp, further stifling free expression.
It's not just Saudi Arabia of course. Official and unofficial shackles on free expression are being embraced across much of the Arab world. Just last month, Egypt, governed by close US ally Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, sentenced university student Sherif Gaber to one year in jail for "promoting atheism" on his Facebook page.
Roy is the second Bangladeshi blogger to have been murdered in two years and the fourth writer to have been attacked since 2004, The Malaysian Insider reports.