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In Bangladesh, A 3rd Atheist Blogger Is Hacked To Death


A man in Bangladesh was on his way to work Tuesday. He worked at a bank. He also worked as a blogger, and it's believed that second job, the blogging, is what drew the attention of the masked men who attacked him. They hacked him to death with machetes. It is the third fatal attack on a blogger in Bangladesh in the past few months. Syed Zain Al-Mahmood of The Wall Street Journal is covering this story in Dhaka, which is the capital of Bangladesh. He's on the line from there. Welcome to the program, sir.


INSKEEP: What did this man write - the man who was killed?

AL-MAHMOOD: He was known as a secular writer, a self-professed atheist who argued in favor of science over religion. And he was critical of the influence of Islam on Bangladeshi society. And that probably drew the ire of the conservative fringes.

INSKEEP: Now, I'm trying to figure out what's going on here because, of course, Bangladesh is overwhelmingly Muslim, but it has a reputation around the world as a relatively moderate place, practicing a relatively moderate form of Islam. Is that wrong?

AL-MAHMOOD: That's absolutely correct. Bangladesh prides itself on being a moderate Muslim country. Society here is, by and large, tolerant. We see none of the bloody sectarian and religious riots, and there have been no terrorist attacks in recent times of the kind that we see in other areas of South Asia, so most Bangladeshis here are appalled by this violence. They see it as a blight on Bangladeshi reputation.

INSKEEP: Is there something special about being an atheist as opposed to some other form of non-Muslim that would draw the attention of extremists?

AL-MAHMOOD: Well, what has happened is that, as Internet proliferated, blogging became a fashion for many young people, so there are bloggers who represent the whole spectrum - Islamist bloggers, secular bloggers, bloggers who write about atheism, and these bloggers have often clashed. In some way, this is a battle of the blogs. There is a lot of bitterness. And, in some ways, it's true to say that it has spilled over into real life because in February last year, we saw a demonstration organized by secular bloggers that drew a lot of people - tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands of people. And then a counter-protest was organized by religious students from the madrasahs of Bangladesh. So these demonstrations showed the depth of feeling on both sides.

INSKEEP: Are these killings seen as an extension of that?

AL-MAHMOOD: No one really knows. That's the problem. From what I've heard from speaking to the leaders of the madrasahs, they would like to see writing that is critical of their faith to be struck through a legal avenue, so they've called for a blasphemy law. But they have repeatedly denied that they would support violence.

INSKEEP: Bangladesh, I should mention for people, has a population of something over 165 million. It's about half the size of the United States in terms of population. Do you have a sense of how deeply the story of these killings has resonated in Bangladeshi society, whether this is the main thing everyone's talking about?

AL-MAHMOOD: Steve, this, in many ways, is Bangladesh's Charlie Hebdo moment. So on one side, there is this ultraconservative fringe, which sees these blogs as very offensive. And on the other side, there are these bloggers who clearly see their right to offend as part of their overall freedom of speech. The vast majority of Bangladeshis would be right in the middle. They clearly do not agree with the message in these blogs. They see them as offensive. But, this is the sense I get from talking to people in the street - that they do not support violence, and they do not think that people should be killed for their beliefs.

INSKEEP: Syed Zain Al-Mahmood in Dhaka. He writes for The Wall Street Journal. Thanks very much.

AL-MAHMOOD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.