Saturday was a dark, dark day for Bangladesh.
Muhammad Zafar Iqbal, one of the leading progressive intellectuals and educationists of the country, was stabbed multiple times by a bearded man while on stage at an event he was attending as chief guest in Shahjalal University of Science and Technology (Sust) campus, Sylhet.
The assailant, who is aged about 25 and identified as one Foyzur Rahman hailing from Jagannathpur upazila, Sunamganj, attacked Dr Iqbal from behind with a sharp weapon and can be seen lurking behind Dr Iqbal on the stage minutes earlier in a picture that was later released in the media.
During his interrogation, Rahman said: “Zafar Iqbal is an enemy of Islam. That is why he attacked him,” according to RAB-9 Commander Lieutenant Colonel Ali Haider Azad Ahmed. Rahman also stated that he was a student of Sylhet’s Alia Madrasa, but this has not yet been confirmed by the madrasa administration.
While official investigations are underway to confirm the precise affiliations of the assailant, certain facts may help contextualize the attack.
This has happened before
Dr Iqbal has been an open critic of outlawed Islamist group Jamat-e-Islami (members of which were allegedly involved in his father’s killing during the Liberation War). Additionally, he has been a staunch and outspoken opponent of the epidemics of militancy, extremism, and communalism, the sort of which are increasingly plaguing our country.
For these political stances, he has frequently received death threats in the past. For instance, in 2016, Dr Iqbal and his wife received death threats from an unidentified person claiming to be affiliated with banned militant outfit Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), which read: “Hi unbeliever, we will strangulate you soon.”
It is crucial to understand that this is not only an attack against our freedom of expression and thought, it is part of an ongoing and co-ordinated attempt to permanently cripple our free thinking intelligentsia -- attempts which continue to be done with complete impunity and go wholly unpunished.
When the machete-wielding murderers of Avijit Roy and his many counterparts walk scot-free, is anyone surprised by continuous attacks of this kind?
It is crucial to understand that this is not only an attack against our freedom of expression and thought, it is part of an ongoing and co-ordinated attempt to permanently cripple our free thinking intelligentsia
Every time the murder or attempted murder of a secularist goes unpunished, we essentially sow the seeds for similar attacks in the future. What kind of message does a series of unpunished murders give to potential extremists who know that all they have to do is ostensibly invoke the name of Islam to avail immunity?
How much longer are we, as a state and society, going to allow these self-appointed barbarians to use Islam as a cloak to legitimize their political violence?
At what point do we say “enough is enough,” and adequately penalise militant zealots driven by selfish and political interests so they are no longer able to bastardise religion to institute violence?
While it is a relief to hear that the doctors have declared injuries to Dr Iqbal as non-life threatening, it is incumbent upon us to ruminate as to how close we were to losing one of the brightest minds in our country and how we may not be so lucky the next time, unless we do our very best in eliminating the possibility of there ever being a next time.
In closing, it is pertinent to call out those insensitive news outlets that were shamelessly running the scene of a wounded and bloodied Dr Iqbal being rushed on a stretcher over and over again, showing him at his most vulnerable. To them, I ask: Where is your sense of proportion and integrity? They should know that they are doing the very thing the attackers want.
Taqbir Huda is currently working as a researcher at Bangladesh Institute of Law and International Affairs (BILIA) and volunteers at Bangladesh Society for the Enforcement of Human Rights (BSEHR).