The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recently released their closely watched annual report on religious freedom, and while the report does a thorough job of chronicling religious freedom abuses against religious minorities and nontheists, it fails to appropriately assess the worsening religious freedom situation in Bangladesh.
USCIRF was created in the late 1990s as an independent body that advises the US government, the State Department and the president in particular, on international religious freedom issues. USCIRF has commissioners affiliated with both political parties and many religious traditions (although the commission has no open nontheistic commissioner and the commission itself largely consists of adherents to Abrahamic faiths) and generally does a very good job of producing a politically and religiously neutral document that shows equal concern for all theistic and nontheistic communities.
In their annual report on international religious freedom, USCIRF designates the worst offenders of religious freedom protections as either Tier 1 or Tier 2 countries, which can eventually result in the State Department issuing visa denials or the Treasury Department freezing the assets of high-ranking officials who promote policies that stifle religious freedom. In this year’s report, twenty-eight countries were designated either as Tier 1 or Tier 2 countries, including Saudi Arabia, which is explicitly criticized in the report for its horrific treatment of atheists. Egypt, which is currently designated as a Tier 2 country, could easily find itself designated Tier 1 if it pushes forward with a proposed law that would make atheism illegal.
But while the report expertly chronicles abuses in many countries around the world, nontheists were confused by the continuing absence of Bangladesh from the report.
Bangladesh has become infamous in recent years for its horrific treatment of atheists and its permissive attitude towards those who attack them. Numerous atheist bloggers and activists have been publicly murdered by religious extremists in Bangladesh, and the government has either been slow to prosecute the killers or has failed to undertake any legal action against them. With such a destructive history, advocates for religious freedom should be surprised that Bangladesh isn’t a Tier 1 or Tier 2 country.
Unfortunately, another Bangladeshi atheist was murdered just this week. Atheist poet and publisher Shahzahan Bachchu was shot to death Monday in the town of Kakaldi. According to the report, “Shahzahan had gone to meet friends at a pharmacy near his home before iftar [the evening meal that ends the daily Ramada fast], when the assailants came into the area. They blasted a crude bomb outside the pharmacy, creating panic. They then dragged Shahzahan out and shot him.”
Incidents such as this are likely to continue to occur until US policymakers apply significant pressure on the Bangladeshi government and insist that it protects the religious freedom rights of Bangladeshi nontheists. The first step in that important process is for USCIRF to properly designate Bangladesh as a Tier 1 or Tier 2 country. Failure to do so will only put more nontheistic lives at risk, and send Bangladesh further down the path of sectarian strife.