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Bloggers beware

  • Published at 06:30 pm February 6th, 2017
Bloggers beware

Donald Trump is making it very difficult for me to carry out the resolution I made not to write about him and his administration for a few weeks -- to give him a break-in period. But his actions in the first week of his tenure have, for many Americans, erased whatever fragile moral authority and legitimacy he might have come to office with.

Despite the fact he won the electoral college vote fair and square (at least that is the presumption I am going on), he clearly was not the choice of most Americans, having lost the popular vote by about 3 million. But his actions in this first week have squashed any hope that he would pay any attention to the sensitivities of the majority that voted against him.

It is interesting that the sales of two books, published over 65 years ago, boomed in the week after Trump’s inauguration. George Orwell’s 1984, published in 1948 -- the book that described how future totalitarian states would operate -- sailed to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list just after one of the president’s close advisors described the lies that had come from the Oval office about the crowd size at the inauguration as “alternative facts.”

In the world of 1984, to use the words of Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times book reviewer, “Big Brother is always listening in… fear and hate are drummed up against foreigners … and the government insists that reality is not ‘something objective, external, existing in its own right’ -- but rather, ‘whatever the party holds to be truth is truth.’”

The second book to enjoy a sudden spike in sales and join Amazon’s bestseller list is Hannah Arendt’s 1951 monumental work, The Origins of Totalitarianism. It describes the inner workings and the great perversities of both the Nazi and the Soviet regimes -- how and why they came about. Arendt suggested that “Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such.”

When I hear the words bloggers and blasphemy used together I cannot help but think of the sad fate of a number of bloggers in Bangladesh who also faced allegations of blasphemy

I want to stick to the good news, which comes these last few days from Pakistan. As this is written, four of the five disappeared bloggers (Salman Haider, Waqas Goraya, Asim Saeed, Ahmed Raza Naseer, Samar Abbas) are back with their families, and the fifth is expected to be “undisappeared” soon.

The government appears to have heard the public outcry and sent four home, with the fifth to follow as soon as they check whether he had financing from India.

This seems a fanciful reason to keep him back, as starting and writing a blog costs next to nothing, except for the implied cost of the labour of the blogger, which is, of course, paid by the blogger.

Yes, this release is good news, but every action has a consequence of some kind, and I worry about the unintended consequences of picking up these bloggers. I assume they were picked up out of security concerns, probably connections with India. This raises serious questions, in itself of course, about freedom of speech.

But the concern here is that some, if not all, of the bloggers also raised questions about the actions and behaviour of religious parties and religious leaders.

I admit that I have not read their blogs, and am writing this on hearsay, but I have been told that their remarks have antagonised religious leaders, and there has been some talk in the indigenous press about them being charged with, or committing, blasphemy.

The case of Bangladesh

When I hear the words bloggers and blasphemy used together I cannot help but think of the sad fate of a number of bloggers in Bangladesh who also faced allegations of blasphemy. Many readers will remember the campaign of murder against Bangladeshi bloggers which seems to have ended after the mass slaughter of foreigners by an IS-inspired group of local extremists in July of 2016.

Whether the murders of the bloggers and the mass killing were connected is a matter of conjecture but both were perpetrated by extremists, and both seemed to have a connection to transnational extremist organisations.

We cannot really draw any comparisons between the arrest of the bloggers in Pakistan and the murder of the bloggers in Bangladesh. Let us hope we never get to that point. But it is interesting to review what happened in Bangladesh to be sure we never have to draw such a comparison.

One great difference is that the Bangladesh bloggers were primarily interested in social and religious issues, and as far as I know, rarely touched on politics. For the most part, they were avowed secularists and atheists, and quite assertive about the virtues of atheism and secularism. At least one of them was gay.

The series of blogger murders began, really, in 2013, when a secularist blogger was killed by unknown assailants with a machete. Another was killed in the same way a year later, and a second, wounded and chased out of the country.

The killings multiplied in 2015, beginning early that year when Avjit Roy, a well-known secularist blogger and American citizen, was killed, again by extremists wielding machetes, in public at the annual book fair in Dhaka.

This brought international concern that Bangladesh was retreating from the secularism that is (or was) so proudly proclaimed as a foundational principle of the constitution.

But constitutional principle or not, there followed in quick succession that spring a series of murders of secularist bloggers, all by the same method and all leaving the police seemingly clueless.

These murders began to be claimed by transnational extremist organisations, AQIS or IS.

Since the middle of 2015, the target list widened well beyond secularist bloggers to almost anyone who, from a fundamentalist Islamic perspective, had unorthodox views -- thus foreigners, Shias, Sufis, an LGBT activist, a professor of English, a Hindu tailor who was accused of blasphemy were all victims.

35 attacks in all, 24 deaths, and 11 survivors of such attacks. 15 were claimed by IS, seven by AQIS, and one by a local extremist group, JMB.

The suspicion among counter-terrorism experts was that they were the work of local extremist groups, of which there are a number, seeking franchise rights from the transnational groups and the resources that these might bring, inspired by their online communications with these groups.

I agreed with this, but believed that the government’s all-out campaign of violence and repression against its opposition had emboldened these elements and also tied up the police (whose resources are limited) and prevented them from expending adequate effort to stop the killings and bring the culprits to justice.

The real culprit in this recapitulation of horrific events is the pernicious misuse of blasphemy laws. Bangladesh’s blasphemy law dates from 1860 and is mild by comparison with Pakistan’s.

It says, “Any person who has a ‘deliberate’ or ‘malicious’ intention of ‘hurting religious sentiments’ is liable to imprisonment.”

Attempts by Islamist parties to make it similar to Pakistan’s have so far failed.

So in Bangladesh, extremists interpreted the law in their own way and took it into their own hands to deal with alleged “blasphemers.”

As we know, that is much easier to do in Pakistan. So the state, which took these Pakistani bloggers into custody, which incited the talk of blasphemy, is now responsible for their safety.

William Milam is a Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC, and a former US diplomat who was Ambassador to Pakistan and Bangladesh. This article was first published in The Friday Times.