Arnab Goswami is an atheist blogger who didn’t want to stay in Bangladesh and play a lifelong game of hide-and-seek with the terrorists. He recently fled to Germany with the help of the Center For Inquiry’s Secular Rescue program and was kind enough to answer my questions about his situation. Our interview has been edited for clarity.
When did you begin blogging as an atheist? Did you always speak out openly, using your real name?
I started my journey as a blogger in 2008, and my very first post was a translation of [poet Percy Bysshe] Shelly’s “Necessity of Atheism.” However, I guess my writings were more “minority right” centric rather than only atheism-based. In countries like Bangladesh, it is like a curse to be a member of the minority background, and atheists are the minority among the minorities.
In school, a friend of mine was actually beaten heavily by the teachers in front of the class because he openly declared himself to be an atheist. I suppose that experience turned me into a closeted person. Yet, a few of my close friends and family knew about my view on the globally outrageous disorder known as God.
When I started blogging, I took the pen name of Dhrubo Tara and Aranya Shouvik.
When did you realize your fellow bloggers were in danger? Was it only after they began getting slaughtered?
We knew the Islamists were almost diabolic when it comes to the religion. Still, we never thought these people could actually kill somebody just for criticizing religious boohoos.
I was worried about the criminalization of writing when I saw blasphemy laws being considered. In 2015, the government passed the infamous Article 57, which stated, “If any person deliberately publishes any material in electronic form that causes to deteriorate law and order, prejudice the image of the state or person or causes to hurt religious belief, the offender will be punished for maximum 14 years and minimum 7 years imprisonment.”
It also suggested that the punishment would not be subject to bail. Still, getting killed by the Islamists was definitely out of the equation.
Obviously, the murder of Rajib Haider made the secular bloggers realize that it was not just a verbal war anymore. When the Prime Minister said she also believed in religion and her feelings were also hurt by religious criticism, we understood the government wouldn’t protect us. Furthermore, law enforcement authorities actually published a list of 84 bloggers whom they thought to be hurting religious feelings.
What was your connection to some of the bloggers who have been murdered?
I knew most of the murdered bloggers, though not always personally. We used to blog on the same platforms and recognized each other through our writings. I met Rajib Haider, Niloy Neel and Ananta Bijoy while taking part in different protests. I was a big fan of Dr. Avijit Roy, though we never met in person.Did you believe your life was in danger? How did you know?
My life in Bangladesh was in grave danger. I was getting regular threats on Facebook and through mobile phones. I often noticed people following me to and from my office. Even my mother received calls from time to time asking her to make me stop writing.
I heard from the security guard of my building that, once, some people came with my picture asking whether I live there or not. Actually I am still getting threats from people even after coming to Germany. Last week when I criticized the Qur’an on my Facebook page, there were around 600 comments. All but two of them wanted to kill me and rape my mother. They also tried to hack into my Facebook page. They failed there but managed to hack into my personal website. (It’s fine now.)
You moved to Germany last October. Who did you leave behind?
When I came to Germany, I had to leave my wife, my son, and my old parents in Bangladesh. Fortunately, the German Embassy has provided a visa for my wife and son. Hence, they are living with me there. My parents are all alone in Bangladesh. Some local goons are trying to take over our properties forcefully. As my parents are from the minority Hindu background, the police do not help much.
I always thought that the situation might change and I would be able to go back to my country. However, things are worse than ever. A couple of weeks ago, there was a bomb attack in Sylhet which took seven lives. The government said it was not an attack, saying the bomb was there from before.
Seeing no other alternative, I hope to apply for asylum soon.
Have you had contact with your family since the movie? How do you stay in touch with them?
Obviously, I do have contact with my parents. Though I don’t talk for a long period of time and ask only general questions since I worry that their phones might be tapped. My wife said, when she and my son were coming to Germany, she had to face an extra interview with the immigration authority which the other passengers never faced. She also added that they wrote down her and my son’s passport numbers in a file, which is not very common.
What was the role of the Secular Rescue program in helping you move?
When I communicated with the German Embassy in Bangladesh, they had asked me to provide reference letters and a source of funding. That’s when I contacted Michael De Dora from the Center For Inquiry. The Secular Rescue program not only provided me with the funding to help me get afloat once I reached Germany, but it also worked as a reference for the authenticity of my application. Organizations like these generally build up their own verification process. As a result, when I had secured funding from Secular Rescue, the embassy was more assured about the credibility of my case.
What can those of us in the U.S. do to help atheists in Bangladesh?
USA and Bangladesh have good diplomatic and business relationships. Obviously, the U.S. is the dominating country in such relationships. Unfortunately, the statements from U.S. officials about Bangladesh are not only false but ludicrous. In 2015, the State Department praised the Bangladeshi government for fighting terrorism. In reality, the government is supporting several ultra-right Islamic fundamentalist groups.
If you want to help the atheists of Bangladesh, then please ask your government to refrain from giving such false statements. Ask your media to write about these issues without pretending Bangladesh is a progressive and secular country. Yes, there are some progressive people living there, but religious fundamentalism is at its core.
You can donate to the Secular Rescue program right here in order to help other authors, bloggers, and activists whose lives are in danger.