Bangladesh Is Killing Atheists

Bangladesh Is Killing Atheists March 2, 2015

There’s horrific news from Bangladesh: the atheist activist and writer Dr. Avijit Roy was murdered on the street in Dhaka, hacked to death by two assailants wielding machetes as he left a book fair at Dhaka University. His wife Rafida Ahmed Bonna was seriously wounded in the same attack. An Islamist group calling itself Ansar Bangla 7 issued a statement claiming responsibility for the murder.

Dr. Roy was the author of books such as The Philosophy of Disbelief and The Virus of Faith, as well as the founder of Mukto-Mona, a Bengali web forum catering to freethinkers. He’s long worked with international secular groups like the International Humanist and Ethical Union and the Center for Inquiry (which had just published his final article in their magazine Free Inquiry). He was born in Bangladesh but moved to America, largely because of persistent death threats from Islamists. In his final article, he wrote a chilling, retrospectively prophetic passage about their reaction to his final book, the one he had returned to Bangladesh to promote:

As soon as the book was released, it rose to the top of the fair’s best-seller list. At the same time, it hit the cranial nerve of Islamic fundamentalists. The death threats started flowing to my e-mail inbox on a regular basis. I suddenly found myself a target of militant Islamists and terrorists. A well-known extremist by the name of Farabi Shafiur Rahman openly issued death threats to me… In one widely circulated Facebook status, Rahman wrote, “Avijit Roy lives in America and so, it is not possible to kill him right now. But he will be murdered when he comes back.”

I wish I could say this was a freak occurrence, a murder by a few deranged fundamentalists that doesn’t reflect on Bangladesh as a whole. Sadly, that’s not the case. Despite being a democracy and officially secular, Bangladesh is being dragged down into a vortex of increasingly radicalized, violent and openly theocratic Islamic fundamentalism.

One proof of this is that Dr. Roy isn’t the first atheist writer to be attacked in this way. The poet and scholar Humayun Azad, a member of Mukto-Mona, was attacked and badly wounded in 2004; he survived, but died later that year. Another atheist blogger, Asif Mohiuddin, was assaulted and stabbed several times in early 2013. And that same year, the blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider was hacked to death on the street. In response to the outcry over Haider’s murder, Bangladesh’s government arrested… four atheist bloggers, one of whom was Asif Mohiuddin, and charged them with blasphemy, and huge crowds of Islamists marched to demand they be put to death. After an international outcry, they were released after spending several weeks in jail. You can read more about the crumbling of free speech in Bangladesh in this article by none other than Avijit Roy.

Hardline Islamic political parties are powerful in Bangladesh; they’ve also staged mass demonstrations against equal rights for women. But as in the blasphemy case, their use of the democratic process shades seamlessly into bloodthirsty violence against people who don’t bow to their dogma. After this latest deadly assault, it seems frighteningly clear that Bangladesh is no longer safe for atheists to speak out. (Dr. Roy’s colleague and fellow freethinker Taslima Nasrin wrote a mock obituary for herself just a few days earlier.)

We can and should press the government of Bangladesh to find and arrest Dr. Roy’s killers, but I admit I have little hope for justice. As Salil Tripathi wrote for PEN about the country’s increasingly hostile and authoritarian climate:

[T]he Bangladesh Government, particularly the present one which claims to be secular, should stand by the writers and protect their right to speak freely. Instead, it has adopted a policy of appeasement… bloggers who have written critically of religion are being prosecuted under the nation’s colonial-era laws that restrict speech that might offend religious ‘sentiment’ or create ‘enmity’ between religious communities… And few would now want to return, given what happened to Roy. The loss that the Roy family has suffered is incalculable. And the harm done to Bangladesh – the land that inspired Rabindranath Tagore and Nazrul Islam – is severe; it is becoming a land where assassins feel emboldened and act with impunity while writers are forced to watch what they speak, keeping their thoughts imprisoned in their minds.

The one thing we can do, the one thing we can always do, is to continue to speak out. Thanks to the internet, fanatics and fundamentalists can’t silence us or keep our message from being heard. They can lash out in violent acts like this one, meeting peaceful words with murderous savagery, but all they accomplish is to further prove their fear, ignorance and intellectual emptiness. And the worldwide media coverage of this brutal murder will only shine a brighter light on Dr. Roy’s life and his cause, and redouble the spread of the freethinking spirit he advocated – especially if the secular community rises and adds our voices to his. Dr. Roy’s daughter Trisha Ahmed wrote a beautiful tribute to her father, Words Cannot Be Killed, urging us to do just that:

The reason I’m sharing this is less for me and more for my dad. He was a firm believer in voicing your opinion to better the world. He and my mom started dating when I was six years old. In the twelve years that followed, he became my friend, my hero, my most trusted confidante, my dance partner (even though we’re both terrible dancers), and my father. Not once did he tell me to simmer down or be more polite; he taught me to be informed, bold, and unafraid.

To say that I’m furious or heartbroken would be an understatement. But as fucked up as the world is, there’s never a reason to stop fighting to make it better. I’ll carry the lessons he taught me and the love he gave me forever. I love you so much, Dad. Thank you for every single thing.

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