Niladry Chattopadhya was in his apartment in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, around noon on Friday, Aug. 7, when there was an unexpected knock on his door. Chattopadhya was a blogger and general secretary of the Bangladesh Science and Rationalist Association (BSRA), a group of about a thousand like-minded young men and women who used a Dhaka shop as their office and library. Inside, members often met to read and discuss books by writers such as Richard Dawkins, the British evolutionary biologist and atheist, and Taslima Nasreen, the Bangladeshi physician turned author who was forced to flee the country in 1994 for her antireligious views. An atheist himself, Chattopadhya wrote against religious fundamentalism and was a staunch advocate for a secular Bangladesh, a small, riverine South Asian nation tucked in the far eastern corner of the Indian subcontinent. Established after a devastating 1971 independence war with Pakistan, Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, home to some 160 million people, over 90% of whom are Muslim.
That Friday, Chattopadhya, who wrote under the pseudonym Niloy Neel, was working in his bedroom, when his wife Asha Moni responded to the knock. “Without opening the door, I asked, ‘Who is it?’” says Moni. A man replied, saying their landlord had sent him to view their apartment, as he was thinking of renting a similar unit in the building that was locked. Moni let him in. As he walked around the small two-room apartment, he stared repeatedly at Chattopadhya. Then he stopped near the kitchen and began typing something on his mobile phone. “I said, ‘You’ve seen the apartment, now go,’” says Moni. But the man, who appeared to be in his 20s, ignored her.
Moni asked Chattopadhya to intervene. As the blogger asked the visitor to leave, three men barged into the apartment. Chattopadhya raised his right arm and exclaimed, “What is this?” Before he could say anything else, one of intruders charged at him with a machete, severing his fingers. He then struck Chattopadhya’s shoulders and neck, brutally hacking the 27-year-old blogger to death.
Chattopadhya’s was the fourth such murder this year, making the blogger the latest victim of an increasingly violent clash between radical Islamist forces and the embattled liberal nationalists who embody the founding ideals of Bangladesh—the hope for a secular nation with a Muslim majority united by the Bengali language and its syncretic culture. “In a sense, we won independence in 1971, but we are still fighting the long war for Bangladesh,” says writer K. Anis Ahmed, publisher of the English-language Dhaka Tribune newspaper.
The story begins in 1947, as the colonial British departed India. From the hurried strokes of a British lawyer’s pen emerged the newly independent nations of India and Pakistan, the latter comprising two Muslim-majority parts divided by a thousand miles of Indian territory. East Pakistan was home to ethnic Bengalis, and West Pakistan was the seat of a federal government dominated by Punjabis. That link was severed in one of the bloodiest conflicts of the past century, when Bengali nationalists in the East—resentful of being treated as second-class citizens whose economic interests, culture and cherished Bengali language were repeatedly sidelined by the West—rose up against the Pakistani leadership on the other side of the subcontinent. With India’s aid, they repelled a brutal crackdown by the forces of the West to establish Bangladesh—the land of the Bengalis.
But some factions in the East opposed the split. For them, religion came first. “These people who killed these bloggers, and who are preparing to kill more bloggers, are against 1971, they are against secular Bangladesh,” says Nasreen, who remains in exile. “They are like those Pakistani collaborators who wanted to be with Pakistan and have a theocratic state.”
Four and a half decades on, and against the backdrop of rising Islamist violence worldwide, that unresolved tension between secular and fundamentalist religious forces continues to roil Bangladesh. Hours after Chattopadhya’s murder, a shadowy fundamentalist outfit called Ansar al-Islam took credit for the attack in messages posted on social media. The group claimed to be the Bangladesh branch of al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent. “If your ‘Freedom of Speech’ maintains no limits, then widen your chests for ‘Freedom of our Machetes,’” it threatened Facebook and Twitter, according to SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks fundamentalist activity online.
In late September, a social-media account with suspected ties to the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) claimed credit for the murder of Cesare Tavella, a 50-year-old Italian aid worker, in Dhaka’s diplomatic quarter. Days later, Kunio Hoshi, a 66-year-old Japanese man, was shot and killed while riding in a rickshaw in northern Bangladesh. (In a recent attack in early October, the Rev. Luke Sarkar, a 52-year-old Bangladeshi Christian pastor, survived an attempt on his life when three men tried to slit his throat.) As with Tavella’s murder, an ISIS-linked social-media account sought to take credit for Hoshi’s killing—something the government disputes, saying the group is not active on Bangladeshi soil.
Analysts are also skeptical. Links between Bangladesh’s homegrown radical groups and transnational terrorist outfits like al-Qaeda and ISIS remain unclear, even if the local outfits would like to represent otherwise, says Ali Riaz, a Bangladeshi-American political scientist who chairs the politics and government department at Illinois State University. But while an increasingly unstable Middle East remains the focus for international concern about Islamist terrorism, “the series of killings of bloggers followed by foreigners being gunned down are ominous signs,” adds Riaz. “As of now, there are no organizational connections between local militant groups and international terrorist organizations, but that does not mean local militants won’t seize the opportunity if it appears. The concern at [the] international level is that it might be too late next time around.”
As ISIS looks to range beyond its home ground in the Middle East and al-Qaeda seeks to regroup in South Asia, Bangladesh could be fertile ground for the growth of radical forces. Police in Bangladesh have arrested as many as 15 people over the past year for suspected ties with ISIS, report local media. Says Arif Jebtik, a secular-minded blogger and friend of Chattopadhya’s: “We are the last defense line between the progressive Bangladesh and the Islamist, terrorist Bangladesh.”
The trail of blood on the floor of Chattopadhya’s apartment goes back to 2013 and the congested streets of northern Dhaka, where the mutilated body of the blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider was discovered in February that year. Like Chattopadhya, Haider had written against religious fundamentalism. Then, in February this year, machete-wielding assailants murdered Avijit Roy, a prominent Bangladeshi-American writer and blogger, as he walked back from a Dhaka book fair with his wife, who was also wounded in the assault.
Roy was a well-known critic of religion. In the article “The Virus of Faith,” published posthumously by the U.S.-based Center for Inquiry, he wrote: “Faith-based terrorisms are nothing but viruses—if allowed to spread, they will wreak havoc on society in epidemic proportions.” Referring to the attacks on the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, he added, “It was, of course, the virus of religion that had persuaded Mohamed Atta and eighteen others that perpetrating this bloodbath was not just a moral act but also a sacred duty.” The following month, Washiqur Rahman, another blogger, was hacked to death in Dhaka. And in May, masked assailants armed with machetes murdered blogger Ananta Bijoy Das in the northeastern city of Sylhet. “I was afraid, but I never thought he would be killed so brutally,” says Avijit’s father Ajoy Roy, a former University of Dhaka physics professor.
Haider’s murder occurred against the backdrop of massive street protests that convulsed Bangladesh in early 2013. Congregating around Shahbag Square, a major intersection in the heart of Dhaka, the protesters demanded capital sentences for Islamist leaders found guilty by a special tribunal of war crimes during the 1971 fight for independence. Bloggers had helped organize the protests, using social media to mobilize masses of overwhelmingly young people.
All of the bloggers killed so far were involved in what became known as the Shahbag movement. “We were all part of it,” says Deb, one of Chattopadhya’s closest friends who became general secretary of the BSRA after his death. (TIME is not publishing Deb’s real name, as that could expose him to danger.) “We believed in the liberators [of 1971].” He repeats the point made by others involved in the movement, many of whom are devout Muslims but who sought to push back against the influence of fundamentalists: “We wanted a secular Bangladesh.”
Bloggers, journalists and analysts say that in response, the Islamists mounted a concerted campaign to portray all of those connected with the movement as atheists and anti-Islamic. The idea was to portray them as standing in opposition to the religious beliefs of the vast majority of Bangladeshis, not just the fundamentalists. “In the Shahbag [movement], we never asked anyone’s religion,” says Jebtik, a practicing Muslim who says he was portrayed as anti-Islamic in blog posts attributed to him that appeared online in 2013 and 2014. “I never wrote them.”
Alongside the names of self-declared atheists such as Roy, Rahman, Das and Chattopadhya, Jebtik featured in a list of 84 Bangladeshi bloggers, at home and overseas, compiled by fundamentalist Islamist groups in 2013. In April that year, tens of thousands marched to chants of “God is great; hang the atheist bloggers!” (Other lists have emerged since, including one in late September published by Ansarullah Bangla Team, the local radical group suspected to be behind the blogger killings.) “Islamists tried to paint the movement as hostile to Islam, and succeeded to an extent,” says Ahmed, the Dhaka Tribune publisher. While many of the blogs in the crosshairs of the fundamentalists predate Shahbag, “the targeting of bloggers post-Shahbag is clearly coming as a response to that movement, and possibly even as a form of revenge killings,” says Ahmed. “I talk to a lot of writers and journalists, and I get the sense that there is a palpable fear like never before.”
Fanning those fears has been the checkered response of the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. The authorities have rounded up 20 suspects as they investigate the four blogger killings this year. Hasina’s government has also banned Ansarullah Bangla Team. “Our law-enforcement agencies are very active,” Hasina told TIME in an interview in September. “The government is not sitting idle.”
But the Prime Minister, while insisting on her government’s commitment to a secular Bangladesh with space for all faiths, sends out an uncompromising message to those like Roy, Chattopadhya and others who identify with no religion: “Personally, I don’t support it, I don’t accept it. Why not? You have to have your faith. If anybody thinks they have no religion, O.K., it’s their personal view … But they have no right to write or speak against any religion.” Bangladesh’s bloggers, she adds, “should not hurt anybody’s [religious] feeling. When you are living in a society, you have to honor the social values, you have to honor the others’ feelings.” Hasina’s stance plays into the hands of the Islamists, says Riaz: “You cannot compromise on the principle of secularism like this. It puts the country on a dangerous path.”
It’s a compromise heavy with irony. Hasina is the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the country’s first Prime Minister and President, popularly known as Bongobondhu, or Friend of Bengal. Mujibur Rahman and his Awami League party set out to build a secular republic after independence, but he was assassinated in a military coup in 1975. The army officers who attacked his home in Dhaka’s Dhanmondi neighborhood wiped out all but two members of his immediate family: Hasina and her younger sister Rehana, who were abroad at the time.
Mujibur Rahman’s killing was followed by a decade and a half of coups and counter-coups, along with a rehabilitation of religious political forces that had been sidelined at the founding of the nation. Elections since the early 1990s have seen Hasina and the Awami League alternate in government with Khaleda Zia, the widow of a former Bangladeshi dictator, and her Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). While the Awami League presents itself as the keeper of the secular flame, the BNP is allied with the Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s main Islamist political party. (After Chattopadhya’s killing, a Jamaat leader condemned the attack, telling the IANS news agency that the murder “proved that the government has totally failed to provide security to its citizens.”)
When Hasina returned to power with a sweeping electoral victory in 2008, she set up the special tribunals at the center of the Shahbag movement. Jamaat-e-Islami had opposed the country’s 1971 split from Pakistan, and a number of its leaders were implicated in war crimes. And yet, even as it prosecuted Islamists, the government also cracked down on bloggers and writers. The list of 84 bloggers compiled by Islamist groups in 2013 was handed in to the government, which had set up a panel to monitor blogs and social media for antireligious posts. Four bloggers accused of insulting religious sentiments were detained by the authorities. “Because these bloggers are called atheists, they are called critics of Islam, the government fears that if it protects them, it would be labeled as a protector of atheists,” says Nasreen. “They worry about losing the support of conservative voters.”
For bloggers like Jebtik, 37, that means a life on the edge. A week after Chattopadhya’s killing, he was at home in his fourth-floor apartment with his mother and two daughters when the intercom rang. It was the building security guard. Three men had come to the complex seeking donations for madrasahs—Islamic religious schools. The guard turned them away. But the men didn’t leave. “My mom took the intercom,” says Jebtik. “The guard was whispering on the phone, ‘Three madrasah people are here, and they don’t want to go, they’re not leaving.’”
Jebtik’s mother panicked—his name was second only to Chattopadhya’s on a recent blogger hit list. She locked the doors and told him to hide in the bathroom. Jebtik rang his wife, who was out buying groceries, telling her to stay away. Then he phoned a friend, also a blogger, who lives two blocks away, to come and check out the men downstairs.
By the time the friend arrived, the men had left. “Later we heard that it began raining when the men came and probably they were waiting for it to stop,” says Jebtik. “This is our life now in Bangladesh.” —With reporting by Farid Hossain/Dhaka