These are dark times. So dark that forces more medieval than those in the Middle Ages are trying to hurtle us back into a place where nothing grows except the seeds of intolerance; so dark that the people who have been entrusted to protect us from those forces are in fact bowing down to them.
Pandering to the extremist elements for securing a vote bank is an old political trick in this country. It nonetheless comes as a shock that that trick is no more reserved for the extreme right; now it is played by the so-called secular parties as well. Never was it more shamefully evident than the current government’s silence about the well-planned, brutal killings of one blogger after another.
Had the government stayed silent about all the other attacks these forces carried out on cultural and political programmes, we would have understood. But that was not the case. The Awami League-led government has cracked down on them rather consistently except when faced with the issue of the atheists.
This is an insidious silence. Except for a few rights bodies and Gonojagoron Mancha activists who have stridently protested these killings, most other organisations and quarters have found it safe to be insouciant about the whole affair. Even the ones who protested were not as vocal as they usually are when speaking against an incident of sexual violence. The strongest stance we all must take against perpetrators of sexual violence, no doubt about that. But why should we be selective and go all out in protesting some cases and take up less than a half-hearted approach to some others?
As if atheism became a taboo topic and those known as atheists, when threatened with death, needed no protection, and when brutally murdered, were best left unmentioned in discussions, whether private or public.
All of a sudden, the atheists seem to have become a vulnerable social group who are not even saved the mental torture of knowing that they would be killed.
Has this country always been this hostile towards them? Have their heretic beliefs always made them easy prey for militant outfits with law enforcement agencies watching the show, and doing nothing about it? Or has it always been about politics with the atheists being sacrificed as the scapegoats?
All those writers who have faced persecution or threats or harassment or been killed were victims of dirty political games in this country. All this fuss about their atheism is just a red herring, an abhorrent campaign, to divert people’s attention from what these writers are saying, and also partly, to justify their killings. Atheists never really posed any problem unless they wrote or spoke publicly about how the fundamentalists were the same forces as those who had formed the Al-Badr and the Al-Shams in 1971 and how they manipulated Islam to justify brutal killing and repression of religious and ethnic minorities, say for example in 1992 after the demolition of the Babri Mosque, or in 2001 after the BNP-led four-party alliance came to power.
I’d pick up the case of Humayun Azad to prove my point but before that, a very brief reflection on atheism in this region seems necessary.
This country has never been a safe haven for those with heretic views. This is no news. But nor has it ever been a slaughtering ground for them.
When the baul movement had peaked around the middle of the 19th century — defying the prescribed norms of society, going against religious fundamentalism and intolerance — they were threatened, attacked and ostracised by both Muslim and Hindu leaders. Even a liberal visionary like Kazi Nazrul Islam had to face the wrath of religious bigots for making poetic utterances on the existence of god by which he sought through the literary to bring the existence of the British Raj down.
Conversely, Charbak — the atheist who is known to be one of the founding fathers of materialist philosophy in ancient India — was a common point of reference among science writers and philosophers since the beginning of the twentieth century, not to mention Jibanananda Das who alluded to his philosophy in some of his poems. Numerous writers in both parts of the Bengal from Sukumar Roy to Debiprasad Chattopadhyay to Shibnarayan Roy to Dwijen Sharma to Dr Ahmed Sharif have contributed to this genre. These tendencies are common across many other genres of fiction and non-fiction as well. What all these writers have developed is regarded in the history of our literature as the secular-humanist tradition, a school of thought that has never been short of atheists.
Atheism, as a matter of fact, has never been an alien or menacing phenomenon in this region. It has always remained like a force that cannot be seen on the surface but can always be felt like an undercurrent running through the veins of our culture, flowing deep underneath.
The journey of this tradition, however, has never been a smooth one. But despite the bumpy nature of its ride, atheists, like the bauls, have never failed to merge with the larger society that they inhabit. Despite all the adversities, they have carved out their own paths and dedicated themselves to make the world a far better place than what it is today. The most glorious example of this is perhaps to be found in the persona of Aroj Ali Matubbar who, a self-taught atheist, was treated with respect even by the Charmonai peer (an influential religious leader in Barisal).
Aroj Ali Matubbar, Dr Sharif, Humayun Azad, Daud Haider, Taslima Nasrin, and Avijit Roy were all writers in this tradition. One may not agree with all the points these writers have made in their writings. I myself don’t and have found their analyses falling short of a holistic critical approach. Addressing religious extremism, without putting it in context and relating its roots and growth to the cultural and capitalist economic structure of Bangladesh, I believe, has to end up in understanding the problem in fragments.
But one does not necessarily have to fully agree with those points to appreciate that they believed that beyond the divisions constructed along religious lines lies a greater cause for all humanity, that they all took up writing and some form of activism to lead us into a world where seeds of all colours, as opposed to the one favoured by the extremists, are greeted with a welcoming smile.
Taking into consideration the changes, developments and tonal shifts in their writings, one could easily say they never intended to hurt or harm Islam. They rather questioned the ways how Jamaat-e-Islami and its offshoots continued to kill minority people in the name of Islam, indulging at times in bloodshed that should be considered well calculated acts of ethnic cleansing. They also vented their frustration that these extremist forces, who should have been brought to justice for their roles in genocide in 1971, were given, as they still are in many cases, a free hand.
It was only when these issues were brought to the fore that these writers were branded (as atheists), targeted, and ousted from the country or killed. It was only then they had to be silenced not because they were atheists but rather because they were showing the fundamentalists up.
Azad was also a self-proclaimed atheist, much like Matubbor. In his prolific writing career, he has written poetry, novels, and many books of non-fiction on subjects ranging from literary criticism to politics to linguistics to feminism, including his magnum opus Nari (Women).
In 1997, two of his books hit the literary scene: Amar Obiswas (My Disbeliefs) and Shubhobroto Ebong Tar Somporkito Shushamachar (Shubhobroto and some News about Him). The former is a work of non-fiction and the latter a fiction. In the former, side by side his views on literature and politics, he strongly expressed his atheist beliefs in support of humanism whereas in the latter he sought to construct a religious allegory to show how the founders of Islam were not leaders of an irresistible social change; how they were rather trigger-happy soldiers of an intolerant force who brutally wiped out all the other indigenous forms of religion.
I have always found Azad’s stance in Shubhobroto politically incorrect. The allegory he constructed is part of a growing discourse that has been used in the west to spread Islamophobia for quite some time now. The Sang Parivar, pioneer of communal propaganda against Muslim minorities in India, has also clung on to the same discourse whenever they needed to provoke or justify large-scale violence against Muslims in India. But that critical analysis is not pertinent here. The point to note here is: if atheism, or an avowedly anti-Islamic stance, was the reason for extremists to attack Azad, then why wasn’t he attacked in 1997 or in 1998? Why was he attacked in 2004, a year after the publication of his Pak Sar Jamin Sad Baad, another political allegory where he acerbically attacked Jamaat-e-Islami and revealed its communal face?
One might argue that in 2001-2006 the then government both overtly and covertly sponsored violence against minorities, and secular organisations and voices, not to mention left-leaning parties, whereas in 1996-2001—when Azad wrote and published Shubhobroto — the extreme right elements were subdued, their wings clipped. But this argument does not hold water as all the bloggers including Avijit Roy are being killed right under the nose of the so-called secular government which is supposed to protect them and hold their killers in check.
The case of Humayun Azad explains when and exactly when atheists become a problem in this country. It also explains under which political circumstances the government changes its colours or why it patronised activists of the Shahbagh movement at the beginning and then left them in the lurch in the end.
Avijit was the founding member of Muktomona (Free thinkers), a blog site which, side by side publishing articles on science and materialist philosophy, ruthlessly criticises the Jamaat-e-Islami and demands hasty trial of the war criminals who represent that party. Ahmed Rajib Haider, Asif Mohiuddin and Ananta Bijoy Das were contributors to this site. Not all of their arguments were as well informed as Avijit’s, but they all had this common emphasis on war crimes trial. Avijit had several books of science, philosophy and literature to his credit. The three ones (Biswaser Virus, Oboswaser Dorshon, and Biswas ebong Biggan) I have seen are
all written in the secular-humanist tradition and they not only combine the spirits of Matubbar and Azad but also intensify the attack on the Jamaat leaders and the demand on their trial.
Although the recent political situation is entirely different than when Azad was attacked, the need for silencing these Muktomona voices was never more pressing before. The spirit of the Shahbagh movement needed to be doused out. What better way to accomplish it than to strike terror and kill some of them? As if there was an unsaid and unwritten understanding between law enforcers and the killers that there would not be any backlash or that they would not even be arrested.
The government through its calculated silence is setting a very bad example that is giving the extremists’ a license to kill. Instead of thwarting different political and radical manifestations of these forces, the government is rather negotiating with them by giving in to many of their demands i.e. by arresting (atheist) bloggers on no specific charges.
We know that the government is technically capable of tracing out those who masterminded these killings and we believe that it still has time to right its wrongs. Because if it doesn’t, these forces will grow to be the predominant cultural force in our country, replacing tolerance with intolerance, peace with violence and love with hatred.
Rifat Munim is a journalist, writer, and translator.