In mid-September, the PEN America Centre hosted an event in Brooklyn commemorating four Bangladeshi bloggers who were slain by Islamic extremists for condemning fundamentalism. A week before the event, speakers Farah Mehreen Ahmed and Tanwi Nandini Islam began receiving friend requests on Facebook. They came from Bangladeshi men belonging to the Bangladesh Islami Chhatra Shibir, the student wing of the banned Islamic fundamental party, the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami. In the past, members of the student wing were convicted by the International Crimes Tribunal for killing Bengali intellectuals.
Ahmed and Islam, both independent Bangladeshi American writers, were rattled by the requests. “It’s surprising how they got to know of this event; it’s happening miles away from Bangladesh,” said Abeer Hoque, a writer, blogger and activist for free speech. Hoque was also a speaker at the event, but she didn’t receive any friend requests. “Maybe because most think Abeer is a man’s name. Though Farah and Tanwi participated in the event, they were totally shaken up,” she said.
Bangladesh is grappling with the issue of freedom of speech and expression. This year alone four bloggers were hacked to death in Bangladesh for speaking out against Islamic fundamentalism, and Oct. 31 attacks killed publisher Faysal Arefin and grievously injured writers Ranadeep Basu and Tariq Ahmed and publisher Ahmed Rahim Tutul. Among those killed by the Islamic militant organization Ansarullah Bangla Team was blogger Avijit Roy, a New Yorker and the founder of the website Mukto-Mona.
The Bangladeshi community in New York, one of the fastest-growing ethnic communities in the city, finds itself at a difficult juncture. Many educated and secular Bangladeshis are advocates of free speech and want the violence to end. Yet an eerie silence looms large in the community and the Bengali media.
“People in the community have a different view on freedom of speech,” Hoque explained. “Take for example my parents: My dad condemned the killings, but said that one shouldn’t write articles that ‘hurt the sentiments of people.’ I said ‘No, dad. You’re wrong. It’s about expressing your thoughts freely.’ That’s how a lot of people view this issue.”
Mithun Ahmed, a visual artist, activist and president of the Shommilito Shangskritik Jote Uttor America, or Combined Cultural Alliance of North America, has been working toward public awareness on freedom of speech and expression since 1998. “There is a lack of awareness in the community. Those educated are used by politicians to abuse religious sentiments. They instigate people and without knowing the contents, uneducated foot soldiers hack bloggers to death,” said Ahmed.
The situation in Bangladesh has not gone unnoticed in the U.S. Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard from Hawaii introduced a bipartisan resolution on July 29, 2015, asking the Bangladeshi government to increase human rights protection, strengthen democratic institutions and prevent growth of extremist groups in the country.
But for free speech advocates, what hurts most is the overall silence from the Bengali media in New York. Ahmed feels it’s the job of those living in New York to fight for free speech, especially since one of victims was from New York. “Most Bangla media in New York are funded by fundamentalists,” Ahmed said. “Take for example Mir Quasem, the war criminal convicted of abducting, torturing and killing Bengali intellectuals in cohorts with the Pakistani Army during the 1971 war of Independence. He is a media tycoon who owns Diganta Media Corporation that also funds a few newspapers in New York. Three to be precise,” alleges Ahmed. “They have misquoted me and tried to kill my credibility,” he said. “They never support our cause.”
Delving into the Bengali media in the USA reveals a highly divided community — split on the lines of finance and ethical conflict. “There are 14 Bengali newspapers and two TV channels in New York,” said Najmul Ahsan, editor of the Weekly Parichoy. “If you dig deeper, you’ll find that most of them have suspect financial backing.” Ahsan is also the president of the Bangladesh America Press Club (BAPC), which aims to bring together working Bengali journalists, writers, bloggers, free thinkers and artists. “Though most journalists are ethical, a few media houses have the money to do and say as they feel. But I won’t take names.”
The rival to BAPC is New York Bangladesh Press Club. The president of the club, Abu Taher, is critical of most Bengali newspapers in NYC. “Most of them don’t have an office or staff. They function out of their homes and aren’t journalists in the real sense. They just copy paste from Bangladeshi newspapers,” he said.
But Taher dismisses talk of media being fronts for fundamentalists. “It’s wrong to level such accusations. We use our own editorial discretion. These free speech advocates expect too much,” said Taher, who is CEO of Time Television and editor of the Weekly Bangla Patrika. When asked about his stand on free speech and expression, Taher said, “Bangladesh is a politically divided society. You have to consider the society you are talking about. Being irresponsible with your speech can cause unrest in the community.”
He then goes on to talk about the murdered bloggers: “What happened is uncivilized and barbaric. They have a right to express their opinion but it does not mean they can say anything. Self censorship is important. If you want to indulge in free speech and expression you alone are responsible for your acts and behavior.”
On Sept. 23, a week after the PEN event, the Ansarullah Bangla Team demanded the revocation of Bangladeshi citizenship for a list of writers, bloggers and activists who have criticized Islamic terrorism. The latest hit list includes names of those based in the U.S., U.K., Germany, Canada and Sweden. The demand in the statement ends with the note: “Otherwise they will be killed wherever they can be found in the Almighty’s name.”
Farah and Tanwi haven’t returned requests for comments.