By Ruth Bradley-St-Cyr
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak out.
On 23 April 2016, a professor of English literature at Rajshahi University in Bangladesh was hacked to death by four men as he was on his way to work. Professor Rezaul Karim Siddique, age 58, was a “very quiet and simple man” who loved poetry, not an atheist or a radical.
Reportedly, he “was an observant believer who regularly attended prayers and even paid for the renovation of the mosque in his ancestral village.” He edited a literary magazine and wrote poems and short stories. He also played the tanpura and founded a school of music in Bagmara, a former bastion of an outlawed Islamist group. “Hardline Islamist groups dislike anyone involved in the cultural field,” according to Akbar Hossain, the BBC’s Dhaka correspondent.
In simply teaching literature, Siddique was seen by extremists to be “calling to atheism.” One of his own students may have been in the gang of his murderers. The suspected student was known for haranguing him in class for the “immorality” of the literature he was teaching.
Siddique was the fourth professor from Rajshahi University to be killed by Islamic extremists in the past few years. Numerous murders have targeted bloggers, publishers, writers, professors, and others seen to be promoting secularism, leading some to flee the country and at least one to end up in Canada. As well, attacks on members of religious minorities — including Christians and Hindus, as well as Shia, Sufi, and Ahmadi Muslims — have taken place.
The government of Bangladesh has been widely criticized for insisting that there are no Islamic extremists operating within its borders. While officially secular, the country has a strong Muslim majority; perhaps the government itself fears backlash — or loss of votes — if it moves too decisively against the violence.
This is certainly not the first time that professors and writers have been targeted by violence in Bangladesh. In 1971, when Bangladesh was known as East Pakistan, a massacre was ordered by West Pakistan in order to subdue calls for Bengali self-determination. Joan Baez’s “Song of Bangladesh” describes what happened at the university then:
And the students at the university
Asleep at night quite peacefully
The soldiers came and shot them in their beds
And terror took the dorm, awakening shrieks of dread
And the silent frozen forms and pillows drenched in red.
The death toll of the genocide is estimated between 300,000 and 500,000, with another 200,000 to 400,000 women raped and 8 to 10 million refugees fleeing the country. In his “defense,” Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, president of Pakistan at the time and the father of Benazir Bhutto, reportedly said, “To build a country, Stalin was obliged to use force and kill. Mao Tse-tung was obliged to use force and kill. […] Yes, there are circumstances where a bloody suppression is justifiable and justified.” Ironically, the country he ended up building was the new country of Bangladesh, not the old one of East Pakistan. Many still refer to the massacre as the Holocaust of 1971. Bhutto was executed in 1979, but not for the genocide.
As for the recent spate of killings and the murder of Professor Siddique in particular, “What he was, we all are. If a person like him who loves to read, recite literature and play music at home can be killed, all of us are liable to be next,” according to one colleague at the university.
While those of us in North America mourn the decline of the humanities as students and funding stampede towards STEM and business, we forget how radical the fields of literature, languages, art, and music actually are. While we rage against Islamic extremists “attacking our way of life,” we forget that in this respect at least, we are attacking it ourselves. We have failed to protect our own cultural treasures, failed to believe strenuously enough in their centrality, failed to invest in the creativity that has defined our culture up until our neo-liberal age.
Meanwhile in Bangladesh, Islamic extremists continue to reshape the country according to their own version of culture and morality, and the government does nothing to stop them.
Ruth Bradley-St-Cyr is CIPS’s Senior Editor. With Master’s degree in hand in 1988, her first move was to join a coffee picking brigade in Nicaragua. She then built her career in book publishing, working at Prentice-Hall, McGraw-Hill Ryerson, the United Church Publishing House, Between the Lines, Canadian Scholars’ Press, Stoddart, Stewart House, and the University of Ottawa Press, where she was Director. She did her PhD at the University of Ottawa, graduating in 2014, and is currently a part-time professor in the English Department and a freelance writer and editor with several long-term clients, including two academic journals.