Being an atheist in Bangladesh

The world was horrified again when third secular blogger – Ananta Bijoy Das – was murdered in a machete attack earlier this week. For the past month I have been corresponding with a courageous young atheist man in Bangladesh named Dean. He sent me his story and his appeal for tolerance and a return to the democratic ideals upon which his nation was founded. I and others are deeply concerned by what seems to be an organized “hit list” of secular bloggers. I am currently researching ways that the secular community outside Bangladesh, and especially here in my country of the United States, can put pressure on Bangladesh to protect their people. Here is Dean, in his own words.

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To start off, let me introduce myself. I’m a 17 year old boy from a small nation called Bangladesh. My name is Dean.* I was raised in a family that values religion dearly. I was taught to obey God and abide by the rules and regulations imposed by our beliefs. My story was not much different than anybody else’s who fall in the category of the majority in my country.

My views began to change when I reached the age of twelve. That is when I started to question the world around me and the things I was taught. Eventually, at the age of 16, I decided that I was going to start identifying myself as an atheist. It took a long period of self-evaluation and courage for me to make that decision. I give the credit to my education and scientifically attuned way of thinking. I am surprised that people still believe in religions in this day and age, despite all the obvious flaws and fallacies within them. It should be clear to anyone’s conscience with empathy for others that indoctrinating or inspiring other people to subscribe to these flawed concepts are harmful in the long run. However, I will never use physical force against someone for not agreeing with my point of view. That is what I want to talk about.

I see corruption everywhere and at all times, especially, in Bangladesh. What is worse is that some of it is being conducted in the name of religion and so called social values. That is all the evidence and the reason anyone should require for admitting that ornamented ideologies affect our lives negatively.  This is not a new problem. It is a well-known fact and demonstrable truth that most societies in the world with a religious majority are biased towards things that ultimately do more damage than good. If you look at the statistics of good and bad things and compare two countries, you will find that the theocratic one is doing much worse than the secular. Our world is better than ever, but, religions are still prevalent in most countries. Bangladesh is, sadly, plagued with inanities originating from beliefs as well, such as child marriage, discrimination toward the LGBT community and people in general on the grounds of their gender, not to mention, oppression of people without religions, and many more.

Our country was established upon the foundation of free speech and against the forces of oppression. We were in a position where we could not speak. We were being deprived of our social, political, and economical rights. In 1948, when Bangladesh was a province of Pakistan, Urdu was established as the national language of the entire nation. It caused political unrest throughout our now independent country. The protests by students in 1952 is one of the most memorable events in our history. Because the protests were declared illegal by the government, police shot and killed some demonstrators. I think that was the defining moment when people realized that they need freedom and they need to be able to express themselves in their own way, without being persecuted or fearing for their safety or their lives. Eventually, Bangladesh was liberated after the war of 1971. It was not an easy or pleasant experience for our people. The victory came at the cost of approximately three million lives. I can undoubtedly say that our country came to be because we felt the need to be able to speak and live the way we want to live.

It is hard to watch, in spite of all the efforts and all the sacrifices made by the brave people who fought for our country, as we have taken a few steps backwards. Very recently there were two murders of atheists in our country by radical Islamists. Then just two days ago, a third was hacked to death. The first atheist who was murdered was the outspoken writer Avijit Roy. Ironicly, he was hacked to death near the national book fair that is held every year in honor of the language activists of 1952. There is a police station located very nearby, but still, nothing was done. His wife was also fatally injured.

The second atheist was killed in a similar manner, less than a month later. His name was Washiqur Rahman and he was a blogger like Avijit. Fortunately for his case, two hijrahs—transgendered women—helped to catch two of the three suspects. Trans people are another group that is persecuted by our religious-minded society. Irony strikes again. Our freedom of speech was initially about the freedom to use the Bangla language in our daily lives, but it should have become a standard for general liberation, which did not happen. The purpose of 1952 language movement or even the liberation war has become stiffened and inflexible. People here may be really proud about Bangladesh being a free country and the land of the brave, but in reality, it is quite the opposite. When these two atheists were killed, the local media did not even use the word ‘atheist’. Instead, all the outlets referred to them as being scientific-minded or a blogger. They were more than just scientific minded and online writers. They were two people with the ability to think critically. They had people in their lives who loved them, such as, parents, partners, children, siblings, and friends. Yet, they did not even get recognition for their identity even after being murdered brutally in public. This reflects the image of how Bangladesh society in general looks down upon people who are different.

I face this same discrimination every day in my life. I have lost a few people for being atheist too. It is very upsetting to realize that some people are not willing to stay by your side because of some changes in your beliefs. These people are desensitized to a point where their friends and family members mean less to them compared to their religions. I have been nothing but gentle when it comes to how I treat people, especially, the ones that are or were in this case, in my life. Some people mutually agree with me to look past our differences and enjoy each other’s company. Although still, most religious people in general endorse a stigmatic mentality about atheists, even the ones who deny it.Even in schools here, kids are often taught openly by teachers that atheists are evil. They point towards so called historic events in where religious people were persecuted by atheists or people of other faiths. Most of these alleged historic events are falsified with reference to the evidence and actual historic records. It seems to me that there are very harmful, incorrect assumptions about secular people are circulating in Bangladeshi culture and the sources are being praised for spreading them! So why are we still shocked when things like these happen in our country since people, from a very early age, are being taught to accept oppressive and morally repulsive behaviors? The Bangladesh government has personally persecuted people for speaking out against oppression by enforcing “blasphemy laws.” Chaos is inevitable under an umbrella of radicalization of a large population. People who are under the umbrella can stay safe from the shower of ethnic and ideological cleansing.The people who are not will be washed away. Me, for example. I was forced to pray under pressure from a teacher when I was in 8th grade. Later, someone said to me that I should die as soon as possible because I was disrupting the Islamic environment. The only thing I did was say what is on my mind in the same way religious people can rightfully do. I only demanded equal treatment because I am a citizen of this country and I should be able to speak. What is most alarming about it is that this was said to me by a science student from a school that follows regular curriculum. This is not a war against religions or religious people. It is an effort to spread awareness about atheism and humanism. It’s almost as though we have to start all over again from 1952. Atheists are not bad people and it is high time that Bangladesh understands that. We only happen to not agree with what religious people think is true. There are no ideologies attached to our thinking. Atheism is simply the lack of belief in God. Contrary to popular understanding, this does not make us evil. We do not suffer or have no purpose in life without God, and it does not make us rub it in every religious person’s face. We are only regular people. We have hopes and dreams. We love people and people love us, too. What we hope for is a society where our disagreements can be carried out with peaceful and civilized conversations.

What I personally want to see is Bangladesh’s people making small efforts in their lives to achieve that goal. The next time you meet someone speaking against your beliefs, talk to them nicely with logic, reason, and evidence, while keeping in mind that they have the right to speak just like you do. If they cannot be reasoned with, move on. The world is full of people who will never agree with you. That does not stop you from finding your own place in the community. You probably already have people who agree with you and accept you for who you are. Cherish them and love them, without spreading hate about others. If you feel so angry that you feel the need to kill someone who is giving you a hard time regarding your religion by stating their opinion, remember, after killing them, you will go back home to the people you love. The person you will kill would probably have done the same if you did not kill him or her. When you do something like this, you are not only killing an atheist, you are killing a person who is loved by many people, possibly a father, son, daughter, or other family member. Please, don’t do it. Instead, be peaceful. Words are stronger than weapons if you use them correctly. For now, we are not a truly free country. We will never be until everyone’s rights are protected by the law, which are made by an impartial government. A home is not yours before you can speak and walk without fear under its ceilings. That particular value is deeply ingrained in our hearts and minds. I hope that we can come together as the citizens of this country in peace, in tolerance, and in solidarity, to fix these social diseases. Our interest is common, we want freedom of speech and expression and we want adequate safety for everyone, regardless of their gender, religion, class, race, and sexual orientation. Unless this necessary step is taken by the government and the people, Bangladesh will remain in the dark. If you are reading this, I advise you to take action by being the change that we all want to see. Let us all work together to make Bangladesh and every other place free and peaceful.

* Not his real name.

(Image: Adnan Islam / flicker.com / Creative Commons)

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