Nationalism, socialism, democracy, and secularism are the four fundamental principles of the Bangladesh Constitution. Ironically we are living in a country where the constitution speaks for secularism, but society does not.
Religious intolerance has grown deep roots in our society, and now we are experiencing its extremes. Bangladesh is not a good place for practicing the fundamental right of religious freedom other than if one is a Muslim; it seems every now and again, there is news of suffering among Hindus, Buddhists, and indigenous peoples.
Apart from these minority groups, there is a super minority group present in Bangladesh who choose not to practice any religion at all: agnostics and atheists. This minority, who choose logical reasoning over religious belief as their philosophy in life, live under the constant threat of death. They are not even allowed to breathe in their own beloved country!
I would like to quote Washiqur Rahman Babu, who was brutally killed in a machete attack by three religious extremists on the morning of Monday 30 March, 2015. He wrote:
“Mullahs have freedom, extremists have freedom, apologists have freedom, Muslims have freedom, corrupt people have freedom, political leaders have freedom, petty political leaders have freedom, rapists have freedom, armed forces have freedom, so called civil society has freedom, Pinaki has freedom, Shafi huzur has freedom, garment-factory owners have freedom, ship owners have freedom…
“Farmers and labourers are not free,
Nor are indigenous and minority groups,
Nor are freethinkers,
All the people trying to be human are not free.”
It has been a month since we lost Dr. Avijit Roy. He was the founder and moderator of the secular humanist blogging site Mukto-mona where bloggers practice rationalism; dare to question anything counter intuitive to logical explanation. He was a humanist, a leader of rationalist movement in Bangladesh and most importantly, he was a science writer, a man of science.
He had dedicated his life to popularising science in Bangladesh until his death. Anyone who is familiar with his writing are aware of this focus. His books, “বিশ্বাস ও বিজ্ঞান (Faith and Science),” “ভালোবাসা কারে কয় (Science of Love),” “অবিশ্বাসের দর্শন (Philosophy of Disbelief),” “সমকামিতাঃ বৈজ্ঞানিক এবং সমাজ-মনস্তাত্ত্বিক অনুসন্ধান (Homosexuality: Scientific and Socio-psychological Research),” “স্বতন্ত্র ভাবনাঃ মুক্তচিন্তা ও বুদ্ধির মুক্তি (Independent Thoughts: Free-thinking and Freedom of Mind),” “মহাবিশ্বে প্রাণ ও বুদ্ধিমত্তার খোঁজে (In Search of Life and Intelligence in Universe),” “আলোহাতে চলিয়াছে আঁধারের যাত্রী (Pilgrimage of Darkness Towards Light),” and “শূণ্যথেকে মহাবিশ্ব (From Zero to Universe)” represent the theme of his body of work.
His genre was anti-establishment. Whenever he spoke against any popular but incorrect concepts, he attempted to dissect them from the scientific point of view. He wanted to share the knowledge he earned throughout his education and research.
He was a person who wanted to enlighten the population that had the slimmest chance of attaining true education. He worked towards inspiring a generation with science and rationalism. The killing of Dr. Avijit Roy was not only a bodily attack, but also an attack on science, an rationalism, and secularism.
Dr. Avijit Roy wrote on evolution of life on earth. I have witnessed many people of limited knowledge, who may or may not have their bachelor’s degree, and have never studied evolution, trying to define evolution as only a hypothesis that has never been seriously considered as science.
Such statements prove the limitations of their knowledge. When we are sick, we visit doctors for medicines like antibiotics. They remain unaware that the antibiotic industry constantly faces challenges due to the evolution (mutation) of microorganisms such as viruses and bacteria living in our body.
Today’s study of molecular biology, pharmacology, and medical science would lose their base if they ignored the theory of evolution. Dr. Avijit Roy fought against such misconceptions. Wasn’t it his fundamental right as a person?
“Do not take anything for granted” is the first lesson I learned from my past research adviser who has a Stanford University doctorate degree. A Chinese scientist can say fearlessly, “I am a scientist, I can’t be religious.”
American academics encourage their students to ask logical questions in every phase of academia. Koreans feel proud of teaching cultural values to their children instead of religion. All over the world, all scientists work in harmony just because they can move beyond their religious superstitions.
The practice of such rationalism and free thinking is allowed all over the world except nations like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt et cetera, and the newest jewel of this series, Bangladesh!
Dr. Avijit Roy was a man of science and he asked logical questions on religion. In many cases he mentioned religious statements which are contradictory to modern day science. The problem is, religious people who think his statements are offending their religious sentiment have never tried to answer those questions logically.
People are still attempting to generalise his writing as the humiliation of religion even after his brutal murder. When anyone says Dr. Avijit Roy humiliated religion, we who are familiar with his writing, can clearly understand these individuals never read his writing.
Islamic extremists killed Dr. Avijit Roy, and the group generalising his work as insults to religious sentiment from a point of ignorance, are wrongfully defaming a man who had been horrendously killed by terrorists. In other words, these quarters are trying to justify the heinous act of terrorism. Is that really honouring religion?
As a country, Bangladesh is failing to ensure freedom of speech and secularism. We are barred from sharing our knowledge from fear of extremism. We are not allowed to raise our voice anymore. We have been threatened for our intellect, for our voice, for our efforts to disseminate knowledge throughout society. How loudly we shout for our right to freedom of speech; how spontaneously we want to live; and yet no one cares!
Dr. Humayun Azad was similarly attacked on February 27, 2004. When Dr. Humayun Azad was attacked by these terrorists, our seniors and general citizens stayed silent. The government disposed of their duties by financing the medical cost of his treatment.
No justice arrived in ten long years. Islamist terrorism continues to grip Bangladesh for ten years. On February 26, 2015, exactly a decade later, another brutal killing has taken place, as if they are marking another era of terror through intellectual death. These two events will be long marked in the history of Bangladesh.
Dr. Avijit Roy’s blood has not quite dried yet, and already Washiqur Rahman Babu has been killed in the same manner on March 30, 2015. In 2013, they stabbed Asif Mahiuddin and killed Rajib Haider. What was the role of Bangladesh’s government against such attacks? The government arrested four bloggers Subrata Adhikari Shuvo, Mashiur Rahman Biplob, Russel Parvez, and Asif Mohiuddin (who was also stabbed earlier) for their questionable writing. Should we blame extremists alone?
Rajib Haider’s killers were bailed out and two years have now passed, with no justice in sight. One month has passed since the late Dr. Avijit Roy’s murder, and the police are without leads. And now Washiqur Rahman Babu’s murder has taken place.
Can the government of Bangladesh answer why our writers, bloggers, journalists, and teachers are persecuted and openly killed? Who has the greater power in our nation? The government’s silence acts as consent for these events to continue to pass. The next target may be anyone. Remain silent or be killed: this is the ultimatum left open to the general populace.
They are afraid the uneducated will learn to think rationally and scientifically, and the chances of taking advantage of an illiterate population, easily afraid of illogical threats spread under the name of religion, will diminish.
Dr. Humayun Azad who spoke against Islamic fundamentalist, Dr. Avijit Roy who presented how some religious statements can be contradictory to modern day science with his wisdom and rationalism, Rajib Haider who used to write satirically, Washiqur Rahman Babu who presented how Islamic clerics made contradictory arguments, who spoke for humanity and was met with a reply of machetes. Two murderers were caught running away from the scene by the help of transgendered individuals. Both murderers are madrasa students.
They have stated, “We do not understand blog. We haven’t read his writing. Huzur said that he was an anti-islamist. It’s our religious duty to kill him. We have killed him to fulfil our religious duty.” What I would like to ask these radical Islamists is “Who is this Huzur?” Who are their ideological leaders?
Hifazat-e Islam’s Bangladesh leader Allama Shafi said once, “Atheists are apostate; it has become wajib for us to kill atheists.” When a religious leader with a political agenda to insist Shariah law starts to spread hatred against non-religious people, then thousands of mullahs will preach and guide their students into terrorism. This is unsurprising.
Allama Shafi and many other Islamic preachers are violating our fundamental right to a peaceful life by encouraging terrorism under the name of Islam. But I hope Bangladesh government has not forgotten our constitutional right to secularism.
Who will ensure our human rights? Who is in the charge of protecting freedom of speech? Ignoring the brutal killing of intellectuals, writers, and bloggers will create a future where no one will approach educating society. No writer will feel safe to write about science. No one will speak up for human rights. No one will stand against the heinous activities of Islamic fundamentalist groups.
One war has started; this is not a war between secularists and Muslims. Rather, this is an ideological war between Bangladesh and radical extremists. At the end of this war, only one will remain extant.
Jawshan Ara Shatil is a doctoral researcher and blogger at Mukto-Mona.