The rise of an online atheist straw man has hijacked the debate over the true cause behind the protests that have rocked Bangladesh over the last two weeks.

Much like New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar and Cairo’s Tahrir Square, millions of Bangladeshis are hoping that over the course of the next few months, something good and lasting will come out of Shahbag square— a protest site that has been marked by blood, tear gas and rubber bullets over the last two weeks.

It is saddening, therefore, to see the constitution of a problematic ‘Other’, propagated throughout the Internet and finally converging at Shahbag square, managing to destroy a true groundswell of protest.

A little history first. On February 5, the International Crimes Tribunal (Bangladesh) gave the punishment of life sentence to Abdul Quader Mollah, who had been charged with actively participating in the 1971 atrocities in Bangladesh.

This was a man who had been found guilty on at least 300+ counts of murder, rape and so on. He had also aided the Pakistani Army during the 1971 war. After receiving the sentence – he was caught on several cameras flashing the ‘V is for Victory sign’ as he was leaving the Court. Bear in mind at this point, the highest punishment in Bangladesh is capital punishment.

Enter, Shahbag Square

This served as a trigger for thousands of youth, who converged upon the Shahbag intersection in Central Dhaka, demanding that Abdul Quader Mollah be hanged and thus sparking the Shahbag movement. What followed, as has been the case over the last few years, was a huge amount of support from the online community and bloggers alike for the protest.

At this point, the stage was set for what followed. Many of the country’s 12 religious parties were against the protest—in specific the Jaamet-e-Islami party was— as many of the accused war criminals on trial were their active political leaders. The turning point was the murder of a protestor and blogger named Ahmed Rajib Haider, a.k.a Thaba Baba (in the online world), on February 15.

Here are where the tables turned – it was no longer about the persecution of war criminals. Clashes started breaking out in the protest between young people and fundamental Islamists, where the latter protested against the filthy atheist writings that circulated rampantly on the Internet. Out of the 300,000-500,000 protestors, there was just one atheist blogger.

Yet the tone of the debate quickly shifted with many conservationaists and Islamists calling out for the execution of all the atheist bloggers. After a point, the police stepped in, rendering any debate on the persecution of war criminals impossible. It became a free-for-all, with the original protest at Shahbag square left forgotten. It is strikingly similar to how the Lokpal bill debate began about corruption and ended with the mud-slinging between Arvind Kejriwal and Anna Hazare.

“Behead the atheist blogger!”, the call went out – which is what they did to Rajib Haider on a cold Friday morning.

The easier enemy

From then, the perception of Shahbag square became that of an anti-Islamist movement that nobody could support. After all, how could atheism be supported? But did it really become an anti-Islamist movement, or was the tone hijacked to a predictable enemy, one that could be more easily fought?

In the days after Rajib Haider’s death, a number of links were circulated virally across the Internet and social media networks- claiming that it was proof of his anti-Islamist writing. Most of these led back to single link called ‘nuranichapa.wordpress.com’. This website no longer exists, it has been removed.

However, if one runs it through Quantcast (an Internet-hit analyzing company, it shows how many views a page receives in a day), the report shows that the website had 57,783 visitors on February 15th (the day Rajib Haider was killed) but zero activity before that. February 15th was the first activity the website ever had. How does a dead man write blog posts? And if that was one of Rajib Haider’s blogs – were there ghost readers as well?

What is worse is that it shows that somebody (not Rajib Haider) propped that website up on February 15 and loaded it with inflamatory content - perhaps in an attempt to justify the killing?

Other similar tactics were used with screenshots of bogus Facebook accounts and posts – all which vanish are or closed down on closer inspection.

While there is no doubt that Rajib Haider did write against the activities of the Jaamet-e-Islami, and indeed may have been an atheist, the material that proved to be the offensive spark is most certainly not his.

Spread like a dirty meme

What is even more interesting, from a clinical point of view, is the careful construction of a ‘standalone complex’ in Bangladesh. Instances of this complex have been replicated throughout the Indian subcontinent, mainly through the Internet, and almost always appear when there are political and religious sentiments at stake.

The standalone complex plays out very simply. If a gas explosion due to a leak takes place, no matter the number of deaths, it becomes a mere tragedy in the eyes of the public. However, if the right type of people believe that it was a terrorist attack, caused by deliberate action, the threat that more such incidents will be committed increases dramatically. The complex appears when copycat behaviour starts appearing not after the actual incident takes place, but on a mere rumour or illusion that someone has supposedly performed the actual incident.

In the case of the Bangladeshi blogger, all the Islamists needed was the original anti-Islam blog to have occurred. The potential copycats (other Islamists) just had to believe that the incident started from Rajib Haider—even though it really did not. The result is the hundreds of different blogs, screenshots and Facebook posts all claiming to be anti-Islamist were mere copycats that caused mass hysteria over nothing – yet still managing to cause an overall change in mood of the protests. Tragedy strikes, at the speed of Bangladeshi Internet.

In all this retrospection, it would be remiss if I did not write of Rajib Haider. Rest in peace Rajib. Others will carry on your battle for freedom of speech, change and justice – whatever that fancy notion may mean.