The tragic tale of an atheist blogger seeking asylum in Germany
By Esther Felden
The single-room apartment in which Goswami and his family, including his wife Juthi and their 16-month-old son Adrij, currently reside is still mostly empty.
There’s hardly any furniture in the flat; only a few suitcases at a corner, a mattress on the floor, some toys and a laptop can be found in it. The family has been living in this tiny apartment in the western German city of Aachen for the past several months.
They were forced to flee Bangladesh last year as a result of increased threats from Islamists as well as government officials. Goswami found himself in their crosshairs due to his criticism of religious radicalism and advocacy for protection of minority rights.
The 29-year-old has been blogging since 2008, focusing initially on writing short stories and poems on “somewhereinblog.net,” the South Asian country’s largest community blog platform.
Gradually, the topics he wrote about shifted to more sensitive subjects, putting him on the radar of Islamists.
After becoming an atheist a few years ago, he began criticizing religious radicalism on the internet. His blog posts on contentious issues have been read by many Bangladeshis. Even though he used pseudonyms to publish his articles, extremists managed to discover his real identity and even government officials started monitoring his online activities.
“The authorities never summoned me, but I found some of them on my Facebook and Twitter followers’ lists. I was warned several times to think about what I write online.”
Threats on Facebook
It was in 2013 when Goswami started receiving threats on his life from religious extremists.
The enormous power wielded by bloggers in the Muslim-majority country became evident that year as thousands of ordinary citizens poured on to the streets of the capital Dhaka, demanding capital punishment for the Islamist leaders who were involved in war crimes during the country’s War of Liberation against Pakistan in 1971.
Some bloggers organized the protests via a Facebook event. Islamists were alarmed, and countered the protests by leveling blasphemy allegations against some atheist bloggers.
Atheism has long been seen as a crime in Bangladesh’s conservative Islamic society. Self-proclaimed atheist bloggers like Goswami thus became a target of attacks by radicals.
At first, Goswami didn’t take the threats seriously. But when Avijit Roy, a famous Bangladeshi-American blogger, was hacked to death in February 2015, Goswami began to worry. Shortly after Roy’s murder, Goswami noticed a surge in web traffic to his blog posts. Petrified, he pulled down his blog from the internet. Yet, he got a message on Facebook: “You may think that we might have forgotten you just because you took your website off the internet. But no, we will remember you and your time will come.”
The frightened blogger turned to the police for help. “But they told me to leave the country as they couldn’t give me protection,” he told DW.
Despite the growing insecurity, Goswami remained in Dhaka, even though he reduced his regular outdoor activities. By the summer of 2015, three other secular bloggers had been killed, including Niloy Neel, a friend of Goswami.
The murders heightened the anxiety of Goswami, who was spending many sleepless nights. His wife was also worried about their increasingly precarious state. The two were also concerned about the future of their three-year-old son.
In April 2016, the risk to Goswami’s life became so great that he decided to leave his country. With the help of an international organization, he first flew to Nepal, a country where a number of Bangladeshi bloggers sought temporary shelter after the series of ghastly blogger murders.
Goswami thought that his wife and son would be safe without him in Dhaka. But he was wrong.
“When I was in Nepal, I received threatening emails and Facebook posts saying that my family would be attacked as I was not in the country. My family is the most important thing for me,” Goswami said.
The blogger later contacted the German embassy in Dhaka, which issued him a visa at the end of September 2016. He then arrived in Germany on October 9. Three months later, his wife and child followed, and the family reunited in Aachen.
Goswami is lucky – Three international organizations supported him in bringing his family to Germany.
“Leaving my country was not an easy decision. Everyone loves their country,” he said. “But the influence of extremists and militants has become so high in Bangladesh that ordinary citizens think it’s no longer safe to practice freedom of expression.“
Forget everything – at least for a moment
Arnab Goswami showed us his blog and Facebook page while sitting on the mattress in his living room in Aachen. His blog was hacked just a few days ago.
He said he doesn’t know who the culprit was, but suspects that it could be a professional hacker. When his son crawled into the room, Arnab shined. He cuddled with him, made him laugh. At that moment, he seemed to have forgotten all his worries. When his wife took the child to the kitchen, his face once again turned serious.
“My family has been going through a tough time, maybe I’m safe here, but my future is still uncertain. The fact that I have been suffering for my writing hurts me,” he said.
The couple also misses their parents, whom they left behind in Bangladesh.
But Goswami stresses that he does not regret his writing. “It was not possible for me to stop writing in exchange for a secure life in Bangladesh.”
A gloomy situation
“Of course, it’s alarming to see that liberal writers have been killed for writing blogs, but shall we stop expressing our opinion to save our lives?” The answer to this question, he said, is a clear no.
“Someone has to come forward to write on those issues. Otherwise, our country will enter into a dark age,” he warned.
Goswami criticizes Bangladesh’s government for not doing enough to protect secular voices. “It’s clear that they have been supporting Islamists to stay in power,” he underlined. “If they continue doing so, Islamic Shariah laws will be introduced at some point. We don’t want that. That’s why we have to continue writing, even though there’s a risk of being killed.”
Goswami’s wife Juthi backs her husband. “I support my husband’s scripts. Sometimes he discusses a topic with me before writing on it as a blog. Nothing is perfect in our life. No religion is perfect. No society is perfect. Some problems are there. And It’s important to write about those problems,” she stressed.
When Goswami is busy updating his blog site, 27-year-old Juthi takes care of their son and does the household activities. She holds a master’s degree in business administration and wants to learn the German language to explore job opportunities in Germany. But their future in the European country remains uncertain.
Aachen – and then?
Arnab Goswami’s immigration lawyer, Volker Simon, has been supporting the family since February. In the meantime, the three family members have received a residence permit that expires at the end of 2017.
Simon wants to submit an application for asylum and he is optimistic regarding the family’s chances – even if Bangladesh is not considered a priority country by the German Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF). According to BAMF statistics obtained by DW, there were 2,657 asylum applications from Bangladeshi nationals received in Germany in 2016.
The quota for accepted Bangladeshi asylum seekers during this time was 10.9 percent. This includes the number of accepted asylum applications, protection from deportation and granting of refugee status.
Help from the embassy
Arnab Goswami’s case for asylum is a special circumstance. “I see good chances for a successful asylum application,” said Simon. “The German Embassy in Dhaka has emphasized that as a critic of religion, a free thinker and a blogger, Goswami is in considerable danger in his country of origin. A few of his colleagues have already been murdered.”
A tragic incident involving another Bangladeshi blogger adds to the legitimacy of Goswami’s case.
“This person applied for asylum at the Swedish embassy and in the time it took to process the application he was shot in the streets,” said Simon. At the time, this helped give Goswami a reason to get out of the country quickly. Now, his future in Germany remains uncertain.