American-Bangladeshi writer and blogger, Avijit Roy, and his wife, were attacked after leaving a book fair during the evening hours of February 26 near TSC intersection at Dhaka University in Dhaka. The assailants were said to have used cold weapons, possibly machetes. Avijit later died at Dhaka Medical College Hospital, where his wife remains in critical condition. Reports indicate that the couple arrived in the country about a week ago to showcase two of Avijit’s latest books. Avijit, the author of the Mukto-mona blog, was well known as a perceived defender of free thought in Bangladesh. He was reportedly an advocate for atheism, human rights, science, and metaphysical naturalism. On February 28, reports indicated that a previously unknown Islamist group claimed responsibility for the killing.
After their admittance to the hospital, reports indicated that two crude explosive devices detonated outside the hospital. Also, a protest against the killing took place outside the hospital as well. Furthermore, reports indicate that Abijit was receiving death threats from Islamist militants due to his views. An online bookstore in 2014 stopped selling his works, due to reported threats by Islamists linked to Jamaat-e-Islami.
Almost immediately after the attack, suspicion from the couples’ family and friends focused on Islamist militants. This was largely due to their opposition to his Avijit’s work, recent threats, along with their implication in previous murders targeting like-minded thinkers in Bangladesh. At least two atheist activists have been killed in the past two years, and four since 2004. Overall, the killings highlight continued volatility in Bangladesh, along with the persistent threat of Islamist militancy. Likewise, the attack could exacerbate secular-Islamist tensions in Bangladesh, and further complicate stability at a time of heightened political tensions and persistent violence relating to the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-led hartal campaign. Moreover, there are concerns that increased tensions between the two main secular parties, the BNP and the ruling Awami League, along with the subsequent state of political paralysis, will drive more Bangladeshis towards the Islamist camp.
In that context, while such attacks have happened in the past, militants may be aiming intensify attacks against their rivals to take advantage of instability caused by the hartal campaign. Jamaat-e-Islami is also supporting this campaign. As has happened in the past, the latest killings could prompt mass protests or new hartals in Dhaka and elsewhere over the coming days. Secular activists would rally to demand that more be done to curb Islamist influence. Islamists, on the other hand, could hold their own protests demanding harsh punishment for atheist activists and for the government to shut down websites promoting secularism in Bangladesh. To that point, it is also possible that the government will respond with measures to ease tensions by placating to one side.