Bangladesh: Why was science fiction writer Zafar Iqbal attacked?

The stabbing has brought back memories of a series of fatal attacks against secular bloggers that occurred in 2015.

Zafar Iqbal at a program in Sylhet [Mahmud Hossain Opu/Al Jazeera]
Iqbal, who survived the attack, has authored more than 200 books [Mahmud Hossain Opu/Al Jazeera]

Muhammad Zafar Iqbal, a celebrated Bangladeshi author and academic, was stabbed in the back on March 3, while attending a programme at a university in the northeastern district of Sylhet.

The lone attacker, Foyzur Rahman, was caught before he could continue stabbing Iqbal from behind. The 24-year-old attacker later said he wanted to kill Iqbal because he believed the academic was an “an enemy of Islam”.

Iqbal, who has authored more than 200 books, is now out of danger and is recuperating at the Combined Military Hospital (CMH) in the capital, Dhaka, according to his wife, Yasmin Haque.

The stabbing has brought back memories of a series of fatal attacks against secular bloggers in Bangladesh nearly three years ago.

Investigators have made progress in probing the knife attack in which Iqbal sustained injuries to his head, back and left hand.

The Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime Unit (CTTC), a special unit of the Bangladesh Police who took charge of the investigation, have found some evidence that links Rahman with a right-wing forum named Dawah Ilallah.

Dawah Ilallah is an internet forum run by the banned Bangladeshi outfit Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) and Ansar al-Islam, which were blamed for the spate of deadly attacks against secular bloggers. 


Terming the matter “an ongoing investigation”, an official of the CTTC, who preferred anonymity, told Al Jazeera that the forum labelled Iqbal an atheist, and held frequent discussions on possible ways to kill him.

After Rahman volunteered, “some users” of the forum, which one can join by invitation only, guided Rahman to carry out the attack, the CTTC official said. 

Abdul Mannan, Additional Deputy Commissioner of CTTC, told Al Jazeera that, at this point, they are not making any “conclusive decision” about Rahman’s affiliation with any armed outfit.

“The style of the attack, however, indicated a link with ABT, as this outfit attacks people whom it believes to be an enemy of Islam,” he said, adding that Iqbal had long been on the hit-list of ABT.

“We are not yet sure whether Rahman acted alone or as a part of the group,” said Mannan.

The case of Zafar Iqbal

On March 5, at a protest meeting in Dhaka’s Shahbagh, Haque said her husband wrote more than 200 books and none of those has “anything that goes against the Islamic sentiment”.

“Had he [Rahman] read any of his books, he wouldn’t have done anything like that,” Haque said at the rally.

While Iqbal has never styled himself as an atheist or was believed to have said anything that goes against Islam, he has been a staunch critic of Islamist politics and growing intolerance in Bangladeshi society.

Students where Iqbal teaches rallied in support of the academic after the attack. [Nafis Tiham/Al Jazeera]
Students where Iqbal teaches rallied in support of the academic after the attack. [Nafis Tiham/Al Jazeera]

His father, who worked as a police officer in what was then Eastern Pakistan, was killed during the 1971 liberation war.

He comes from a family of writers. His elder brother, late Humayun Ahmed, is the most popular and highest-selling Bangladeshi writer of all time. His younger brother Ahsan Habib is a satire writer and the editor of Bangladesh’s only monthly satire magazine, Unmad, which means “madman”.

After his PhD from the University of Washington, he went on to work as a scientist at the renowned Bell Laboratory in California.

In the early 2000s, he came back to Bangladesh to join Shahjalal University of Science and Technology in the northeastern Sylhet district as a professor of electrical and electronics engineering.

“Zafar Iqbal left a high-salaried job at a very prestigious research lab in the US and got back to his homeland to work for it,” said Mohammad Kaykobad, a friend of Iqbal.

Kaykobad, a professor of computer science and engineering at Bangladesh University of Engineering Technology (BUET), has co-authored several popular science books with Iqbal.

As advocates of popularising science education, both Iqbal and Kaykobad helped launch the national level Mathematics Olympiad and Computer Programming contest in the South Asian country of 150 million.

“Prof Iqbal has contributed a lot to the education sector of Bangladesh. He genuinely cares and has tremendous belief in the talent and power of Bangladeshi people,” Kaykobad told Al Jazeera.

“Many of us don’t talk … as we fear repercussions. But he didn’t,” said the BUET Professor, alluding to Iqbal’s outspoken nature.

Why was he attacked?

Since Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League party became prime minister in 2009, Iqbal has been an active advocate of the War Crime Tribunal, which was set up to punish those accused of committing atrocities during the 1971 liberation war from Pakistan.

The Tribunal has handed out capital punishments to a number of senior leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami – the largest Islamist party – and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) of former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia.

The Jamaat, which has since been banned from contesting elections, has accused the Hasina government of politicising the Tribunal, while the International Commission of Jurists has stated that the tribunal does “not adhere to international standards of a fair trial and due process”. 


The author became a household name through his books that included science fiction, children’s stories, and other fiction and non-fiction, but in recent years he has received criticism, particularly on social media, for his stand against Islamist politics.

Bangladeshi political analyst Zia Hassan says he “personally in many ways opposes the rhetoric of Professor Iqbal, which looks at the country through the simplistic narrative of pro versus against Liberation War”.

This perspective has now been used as a shield to protect the incumbent government’s numerous misdeeds, Hassan said, adding that he, however, would like to condemn the attack on him [Iqbal] “strongly”.

Hassan said a lot of people have genuine concerns about the state of the nation and how the ruling party has suppressed dissent.

“Since [Zafar] Iqbal is sympathetic with the ruling party and blind to its misdeeds, he has now become a foremost target and there has been a concerted effort to vilify him for the things he is not responsible for.”

Every person is entitled to have his political view and “those who oppose Iqbal can oppose him through debates – which we have done. The government must take efforts to protect him”, Hassan said.

The Bangladeshi author’s perception as “anti-Islamist” is also due to his writings, says Asif Shibgat Bhuiyah, a popular Bangladeshi blogger known for his advocacy on Islamic scholarship.

“A lot of Iqbal’s writings, especially the ones written for children, are of propagandist nature,” Bhuiyah told Al Jazeera. 


In many of his books, a bearded or pious man is ultimately represented as a bad person or a villain, he said.

Such action from Iqbal has earned criticism because people “expected a rational and impartial attitude from a person of such intellect and capacity as Iqbal,” said Bhuiyah

The blogger says the attack on Iqbal is an outcome of blind and blatant hatred that some people acquire in a highly divisive society like Bangladesh.

“I fear, this will harm the Bangladeshi society in a severe way.”

Source: Al Jazeera