No Justice for the Free of Thought

[Freethought Under Attack in Bangladesh]

By Trisha Ahmed and Avijit Roy

 

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Published in  Free Inquiry Magazine (OP-ED:  October/November 2013 Volume 33, Number 6)

On April 1st, 2013, the Bangladeshi government certainly played the fool’s role in a scheme that we can only wish was an April Fool’s Day prank. On that day, several bloggers in Bangladesh were put behind bars on the sole basis that they were openly atheist. When we say ‘openly atheist’, we do not mean that the bloggers held bi-weekly “denounce religion” marches in public squares, or that they emphatically condemned theists to the ugliest patches of ground after death. Instead, the government criminalized these four men for simply voicing their rational, skeptic, and scientific thoughts on blogging forums — sites that exist for free inquiry, self-expression, and, most importantly, free speech.

The tension began when the Shahbag Protest reached its peak in Bangladesh this past January. The Shahbag protest was a major event organized by university students, cyber writers, and young bloggers; the aim of the protest was to demand justice for the victims of notorious war criminals during Bangladesh’s Liberation War of 1971 (the war was a bloody battle between Bangladesh and Pakistan. 3 million Bangladeshi’s were killed, and 200 thousand Bangladeshi women were raped by the Pakistani army and its collaborators in just nine months).

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Pic: The Shahbag protest was a major event organized by university students, cyber writers, and young bloggers.

Although the bloggers had a large cyber-following, their activism did not go unchallenged by a few, radical Islamic groups.  In the aftermath of the Shahbag Protest, a faction of these Islamists waged a disinformation campaign to defame the bloggers. They claimed that the young bloggers had offended Islam and Muhammad, Islam’s holy prophet. The Islamists made a list of nearly 80 bloggers and cyber forum participants, who they labeled atheists and attackers of Islam; the group proceeded to publicly demand capital punishment for the bloggers’ ‘blasphemy’.

It is worth noting that Bangladesh has no “blasphemy” laws; though it is a Muslim country the nation’s constitution actually expresses “freedom of thought, conscience and expression” as a fundamental right. Nevertheless, the government disregarded this right, as it tried to appease the Islamists by arresting three popular bloggers (Subrata Adhikari Shuvo, Rasel Parvez, Mashiur Rahman Biplob) on April 1st, 2013. The very next day, the police force arrested Asif Mohiuddin, one of the most outspoken ‘atheist’ bloggers of the country. The men were paraded in handcuffs at a news conference as if they had committed a heinous crime. It was also reported that Bangladesh government had arrested two Facebook users from Sylhet for just allegedly ‘liking’ an antireligious page. By arresting these four bloggers – and by affronting dozens of other atheist bloggers and freethinking Facebook users with potential charges – Bangladesh’s government’s actions show that freedom of speech is regarded simply as a constitutional formality, and not a fundamental right.

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Pic:  The bloggers in Bangladesh were put behind bars on the sole basis that they were openly atheist. They were paraded in handcuffs at a news conference as if they had committed a heinous crime for their free speech.

Of course, attacks against atheist and secular-minded writers are hardly a new phenomenon in Bangladesh. Prof. Humayun Azad was a renowned Bangladeshi atheist, writer, linguistic scholar and was very popular among the younger, more progressive crowd. When Azad was returning home from a book fair on February 2004, he was attacked by a group of radical Islamists who attempted to slit his throat. Although Azad was able to reach the hospital quickly enough to survive the immediate effects of the assault, he could not recover from life-long trauma and ended up dying in Germany- where he had fled after realizing his life was at stake – several months later.  A similar case unfolded in 1994, when Taslima Nasrin – a feminist writer well known for her critical views towards Islam – had to flee Bangladesh while Islamic extremists threatened to kill her, because she was accused of remarking that the Quran should be revised. Although Taslima denied the accusation, she was forced into hiding when an Islamist leader offered bounty for beheading her. Taslima eventually fled the country.

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Pic: The attacks against atheist and secular-minded writers are hardly a new phenomenon in Bangladesh. Bangladeshi freethinker and writer Prof. Humayun Azad was attacked by his assailants in 2004.

Many other socially-conscious, progressive writers – including Aroj Ali Matubbar (a peasant philosopher of Bangladesh), Daud Haider (a distinguished Bangladeshi who had to flee after writing a satirical poem about Muhammad), Shamsur Rahman (another renowned poet who was attacked by fundamentalists), Dr. Ahmed Sharif (a linguistic scholar and outspoken atheist intellectual), and Prof. Kabir Chowdhury (a well-known academic, essayist, and secular humanist of the country) – encountered lifelong troubles for their moderate secular views. Even Asif Mohiuddin, who was arrested with the three aforementioned bloggers, was brutally stabbed in the street of Dhaka by the religious fundamentalists back in January of 2013. In a society where simple, justified inquiry is restricted, how can there be any hopes of progress?

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Pic: Asif Mohiuddin, one of the most outspoken atheist bloggers of Bangladesh was brutally stabbed in the street of Dhaka by the religious fundamentalists back in January of 2013.

Although freethinkers have long been suppressed and vilified by the religious community, the struggle of Bangladeshi freethinkers moved to a different dimension after the Shahbag movement started. Ahmed Rajib Haider, a 30-year-old architect and a member of the Shahbag activist network, was brutally hacked to death by Islamic fundamentalists. Haider was well-known for criticizing Islam under the blog name of Thaba Baba on various Bengali blog sites. In later months, it was proven that the fundamentalists were not the sole enemy of the freethinking writers. The Awami League government (Bangladesh’s ruling party, commonly portrayed as one of the largest secular forces in the country), publicly punished the atheist bloggers by putting them in the jail. To many, the government’s action was simply a strategic decision to appease a handful of mullahs, whose support the party needed to win the upcoming election.

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Pic: Ahmed Rajib Haider, a 30-year-old architect and a member of the Shahbag activist network, was brutally hacked to death by Islamic fundamentalists. His death took the struggle of Bangladeshi freethinkers to a different dimension.

While appeasing the Islamists to win an election may be vital for a ruling political party, it is not even a second thought for us – the apolitical free thinkers and activists of the world. Many of us decided to organize ourselves for protesting against Bangladesh’s government’s violation of the freedom of speech. Moreover, we are fighting for a highly personal cause. The imprisoned atheist bloggers have long been known to us as active writers on sites, including Mukto-Mona (an Internet congregation of freethinkers, rationalists, skeptics, atheists, and humanists of mainly Bengali descent).  We have created several Facebook pages, wrote individual blogs, issued formal statements, and penned articles for newspapers in Bangladesh, as well as for international media. In one of our previous articles, ‘The Struggle of Bangladeshi Bloggers’ (eSkeptic feature article, May 8th, 2013; ISSN 1556-5696), we more-fully described the background of the audacious Bangladeshi bloggers, and their recent struggle in general.  At the time, we also worked closely with CFI, IHEU, AAI, American Atheists, and other secular organizations in the USA and beyond. All of them showed their immense concerns, and some issued multiple statements condemning the Bangladeshi government for suppressing the voice of the freethinking community. At one point, Michael de Dora (Director of the Center for Inquiry’s Office of Public Policy and the organization’s representative to the United Nations) suggested a worldwide protest rally against the arrest and persecution of atheist bloggers in Bangladesh, complete with demonstrations in Washington, D.C., London, Ottawa, Dhaka, and other cities around the world. The demonstrations were held under the banner of ‘Worldwide Protests for Free Expression in Bangladesh’ on April 25, 2013 and May 2, 2013. The protests succeeded in drawing global attention to the plight of the rights to freedom of belief and expression. More importantly, the demonstrations put pressure on the Bangladeshi government to release the freethinkers. As pressure mounted, the government responded and released the arrested bloggers on a temporary bail by the end of June, 2013. However, the bloggers are still awaiting their trial in Bangladesh (very recently these atheist bloggers have been charged again under one ICT amended law. If proven guilty, they could be given between 7 to 14 years in prison) and are facing constant death threats from the fundamentalist forces. The Facebook users from Sylhet are still in prison. They all are now easy targets, since their pictures, names, and even addresses are widely publicized in Bangladesh.

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Pic: The worldwide demonstrations were held under the banner of ‘Worldwide Protests for Free Expression in Bangladesh’ on April 25, 2013 and May 2, 2013 to free the bloggers.

Although Americans may look at the news of the bloggers in shock, we cannot overlook our own, oftentimes hostile policies towards atheism. In the States, religious differences are tolerated, even celebrated; however, lack of religion is still regarded with fear and animosity. The case of Jessica Ahlquist epitomizes this assumption. Two and a half years ago, Jessica, a sixteen year old junior at Cranston High School West in Rhode Island, spoke up against mandatory prayer in her school; she went as far as to taking the issue to federal court and winning her case. But, instead of receiving praise for spotlighting – and vanquishing an unconstitutional act, she was degraded by her community for ‘spreading her atheism’. Not only was she insulted by her classmates at school and online, but she was also publicly shamed by state representative Peter G. Palumbo, who infamously called her ‘an evil little thing’. A previous issue of Free Inquiry  featured an article (Ophelia Benson, Who’s Oppressing Whom?, FI, June/July 2012) with sample of the comments that Jessica received – starting from ‘burn in hell’ to ‘fucking worthless cunt.’

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Pic: Church-state separation heroine Jessica Ahlquist who spoke up against mandatory prayer in her school.

Living in 21st century America, we like to believe that human civilization is forward-moving. That it does not seek to limit our thinkers or artists or leaders. But in an age where all ideals are still not open to scrutiny, criticism, or discussion, we realize that we still have a ways to go before we can achieve a truly progressive society. It is true that – unlike Bangladesh – America does not put atheists in jail, but it is also true that American society is not even close to accomplishing social acceptance of nonbelievers.  All over the world, the non-religious group of people is growing at a faster pace than ever before. Nonbelievers are not only valuable contributors to society, but they also constitute a large fraction of the global intellectual and academic community. Whether it is a courageous sixteen year old from Rhode Island or a group of individualistic bloggers on the other side of the world, we should not belittle the endeavors of bold human beings to create rational, secular, and freethinking communities.

 

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Trisha Ahmed is a student with interests in the biological sciences living in Atlanta, USA.  She has taken an active role in spreading news of these bloggers to local and international communities. Trisha is the founding president of her school’s Science, Philosophy, and Freethinking Club – the ‘Philosoraptors’. She is a blogger at Mukto-Mona, where she writes about science, culture, and social issues. Her articles have been published in various newspapers and magazines  including   Free InquiryThe News from Bangladesh, The Voice of Bangladesh, and The Financial Express.

Dr. Avijit Roy is a Bangladeshi-American blogger, published author, and prominent defender of the free thought movement. He is an engineer by profession, but well-known for his writings in his self-founded site, Mukto-Mona—an Internet congregation of freethinkers, rationalists, skeptics, atheists, and humanists of mainly Bengali and South Asian descent. As an advocate of atheism, science, and metaphysical naturalism, he has published seven Bangla books, and many of his articles have been published in magazines and journals. His latest book, Obisshahser Dorshon (The Philosophy of Disbelief), has been critically well-received and is a popular Bengali book on science, skepticism, and rationalism. He writes from Atlanta, Georgia.