No Flag Large Enough to Cover the Shame
What comes to mind when affronted by the picture above? If you didn’t know the story behind the picture, or if you hadn’t been online for the last month, you very well might think that the men standing before you are a gang of thieves who have been caught red-handed. Perhaps this is a picture that border guards have posted of some poachers or drug dealers that they have recently detained.
But alas, your speculations would be incorrect if you did indeed believe that the men arrested in this picture are drug lords, poachers, or criminals of any kind. They are, however, a group of brilliant writers. These men are known as Bangladeshi bloggers; the items that are displayed in front of them – the bloggers’ own computers and laptops – have been seized and searched by Bangladesh’s law enforcement. What a nice catch our police force has made!
At times, I fall speechless when asked if I have anything to say about the sorry case of the writers in our country. So many readers like me read their conceptions with such devotion, using their articles as a means to enhance our knowledge as well as our own logic skills. I was even personally acquainted with one of the accused “atheist” bloggers, Subrata Shuvo, who had wanted to publish one of his articles on Mukto-Mona (www.mukto-mona.com, a site for freethinkers of mainly Bengali and South Asian descent which I use to moderate), several weeks ago. His proposed story was on Mr. Shahidul Haque [aka: Shahidul mama (Uncle)], who was a freedom fighter of 1971. It was through Shuvo’s writing that I learned how S. Haque was the major eyewitness of Quader Molla’s – an evil war criminal’s – trial. Since S. Haque was a guerilla fighter, he saw the brutal genocide conducted under Quader Molla’s command. Haque was also an activist in the protests and riots of ’66 and of ’69.
Before reading Subrata’s story, I never knew a person such as Mr. Haque had existed – a person who is so passionate, brilliant, and brave, a person who loves his country more than I do. This fearless soldier came back from Sweden just to testify against Quader Molla, in the hope that he and countless others would finally achieve justice. “I won’t complain against the tribunal, but the sentence (that Quader Molla was only given life in prison) is simply outrageous” said Mr. Shahidul, where many had expected the vicious criminal to be hanged until death, at the very least. Shubrata’s writings covered various topics, examples of which are titled, “Interview: Ferdousi Priyovashini on freedom fighters & war children” and “Daily Shangram: their contribution on covering 1971’s 25th March.” Both articles were proof of the profound love that Shubrata felt for his homeland. There is no doubt that, because of youths like him, the Shahbag movement could awaken the people of Bangladesh.
And how does our government respond to his actions? Instead of praising or even acknowledging his patriotic contributions to the Bangladeshi community, they locked him behind bars. Their rationale? His ‘atheism’. After hearing about such horrific proceedings, I started reading Subrata’s Bangla blog on mukto-mona to see for myself why the government had taken such offense. To my surprise, I could not find a single entry indicative of the so called radical atheistic mindset that he was being accused of. Well, Subrata did write an essay on Richard Dawkins, one of the famous atheist celebrities of our time, but we all know that Dawkins is more than just another atheist – he is one of the best scientists of our time! Even people with the vaguest interest in science are mesmerized with Dawkins’ writing and logical analyses. Just as a skilled piano player spellbinds us with his keys or as a poet captivates us with his lines, Dawkins’ logic entrances us with his in-depth explanations….and anyone can express gratitude towards him for this reason alone! I myself have done so several times. As I read Humyun Azad’s Shab kichu nashtoder Adhikare jabe (All will go to the rights of Evil), or when I recite Bangladesher Katha (Story of Bangladesh), I encounter the same contentment as when I read Dawkins’ works. Should such feelings really be measured on a spectrum separating atheism and theism? Even Einstein, arguably the most celebrated man on the planet, abandoned the idea of a personal savior, saying – “I don’t try to imagine a personal God; it suffices to stand in awe at the structure of the world, insofar as it allows our inadequate senses to appreciate it.” The beauty and sublimity of Einstein’s words will no doubt affect a person’s mind, regardless of if he is an outspoken atheist or deeply religious.
Russell Pervez is another arrested blogger who was famous for his unique, hyper-article writing style in various Bangla blogs. His writings always reminded me of the style of the late Christopher Hitchens, because both writers used their immense knowledge in history, politics, science, literature, and religion to produce quality works. In a recent newspaper article, Arif Jebtik, the eminent blogger and columnist wrote a column in an online newspaper (bdnews24) under the title Ekmatro Bikalpa Bhalo Manushder Shakriyata (The only alternative is the activeness of a few good men). He began by asking why an exceptional scholar such as Russel would leave his comfortable and respectable life in the US to teach kids science in Bangladesh. Russell loved Bangladesh so much, that he left America for Bangladesh with his 2 year-old-child, despite the fact that his wife was still busy finishing her Ph.D. He took his son with him to book fairs, cultural programs, and to Shahid Minar to show gratitude towards our martyrs. He left America’s high-paying corporate jobs and took over teaching science in school instead. Soon, his wife joined him in Bangladesh, and she started teaching as well. One instant, Russell was busy spreading love for his country and knowledge about the freedom war of 1971; the next minute, he is in jail, accused of being an Atheist, which has suddenly become a punishable crime in our country.
The day after Asif Mohiuddin – another reputed blogger — was arrested, he was interrogated by the detective branch about his earlier protests against the raised fees that Jagannath University’s students had been afflicted with. His writing — which was heavily critical of religious dogma, bigotry and superstition – and his political activism angered the government, as well as marked the beginning of the threats he received from fundamentalists. These threats eventually led to action in mid-January this year. Mohiuddin was brutally stabbed and severely injured by three suspected but unidentified Islamist fundamentalists. When Asif returned, the BTRC (The Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission) allegedly told the blog communities to stop spreading his messages. Complying with the threat, Somewherein, Bangladesh’s first Bangla language community blog site, ultimately banned Mohiuddin, who used to write there regularly (and was even 2012’s User Winner for “Best Social Activism Campaign” at the Deutsche Welle’s International Blog Awards). Now, of course, he is arrested. While Asif has been an object of criticism for a number of groups, many young freethinkers in Bangladesh look to him as a nonconformist idol, who has fought against the tyrannical state machinery until the very end. Asif’s last status and a forceful writeup (published in richarddawkins.net – just before he got arrested) about the arrested bloggers reads,
There was a time in the 17-18th century in Europe when women who excelled in knowledge, science and philosophy more than men were blamed for witchcraft and were burned alive by the churches and their theocratic government. Education and thus advancement for women has always been a threat for radicalism so this is why the church and the government indulged in burning the progressive women by branding them as witches.The exact same situation is in Bangladesh right now. The whole new generation who brought in a revolution in Bangla blog community with their advancement in science, philosophy and critical mind, who wrote against the religious fundamentalism and in favor of our great liberation war, freedom of speech, secularism and democracy will be burned alive just like witch-hunt in the late middle ages. I was threatened a lot when I spoke against governments autocracy from so many other bloggers, but where are they now? Are they supporting the two headed snake government who acts secular but shelters the fundamentalists?
Asif went to jail with his head held high. This was enough to give the government a reassuringly sharp slap in the face, courtesy of the blogger community.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a Bangla article for an online Bangla newspaper that caused me to rethink deeper about the issue. Here, we still have malicious Facebook pages like ‘Basherkella’ & ‘New Basherkella’ who spread religious hatred among Muslims, and instead of it being banned, they are going viral! Lots of citizens belonging to different religious group are losing everything, even their lives. Some are taking of rail slippers with intentions of damaging rail systems, so that trains will slide and passengers will be killed. The Facebook pages that advocated these actions were not deactivated, and nothing was done to stop them. Even the newspaper “Amar Desh” (whose editor, Mahmudur Rahman, has been arrested few weeks ago) is still active online and is spreading made-up stories describing the personal life of a murdered blogger, calling people names and tagging them atheists. Uneducated Mullahs, who don’t have a single idea about what a blog or blogger is, are proclaiming the bloggers to be evil. “Ansarullah Bangla team”, whose members are sidekicks to Hijbut Tahrir – which was banned in Bangladesh for terrorism – is still working online. The team is imprinting fictitious messages in the heads of youths, posting tutorials on how to make bombs in a regular kitchen, and asking our sisters to join the Suicide Squad. The killers of Rajib were given gallant honor on their website! While the government should be taking care of these terrorists, it spends its time arresting progressive bloggers instead.
The weirdest and most disgusting aspect of the entire ordeal is how the media portrayed the bloggers; they were deemed as crooks in the public eye. Nobody has seen anything like this before. Our government is the ruling party that has housed known criminals like Shamim Usman. We normally see detectives running in circles to catch high-profile criminals or killers. What they caught instead were these couple of ‘dangerous’ bloggers – men who were presented as criminals and robbers for minding their own business and writing about freethinking and political issues. Co-blogger Nijhoom Majumder remarked, “DB (detective branch) usually takes photos like these when they arrest some serious criminals. The way the picture was taken, someone would think these three bloggers were caught red handed while stealing a computer! As a blogger myself, all I feel is pity.” I’m pretty sure that we are all feeling the same. It’s a shame for all of us — for writers, bloggers, and free thinkers worldwide. As an act of protest, several prominent blog sites such as Sachalyatan, Muktomona, Amar blog, Muktangon, etc, went on blackout by turning their sites off at that time. Just after the bloggers got arrested, Mukto-Mona issued a statement titled, ‘Bangladesh government squishing freedom of speech by arresting and harassing young bloggers inside the country’. Dr. A. H. Jaffor Ullah, one of the prominent members of Mukto-Mona, composed a very powerful article under the title – ‘Muzzling the voice of freethinking bloggers: An alarming development in Bangladesh!’. Both his article and the statement were cited by international press and also were shared (in Facebook) and twitted numerous times.
However, in the darkest of hours I still see a slither of light. Prominent citizens and intellectuals like Dr. Salahuddin Ahmed, Dr. Zillur Rahman Siddiqui, Dr. Sirajul Islam Chowdhury, Dr. Anisuzzaman, Dr. Ali Akbar Khan, Dr. Ajoy Roy, Qayyum Chowdhury, Ramendu Majumdar, Dr. Sarwar Ali, Advocate Sultana Kamal, Rasheda K Chowdhury, Khushi Kabir, M M Akash, Dr. Yasmin Haque, Dr. Iftekharuzzaman, Tarek Ali, Dr. Muhammad Zafar Iqbal, Shaheen Anam, and Robaet Ferdous stand boldly on our side. They have requested the government not to block free speech and free thinking. “Everyone has the right to practice their religion, but nobody should block free speech”, they proclaimed. It provides me with some solace that even when the free thinking spirit is being gagged, we still have so many enlightened people on our side. Several days later, the teachers and students and online activists formed a human chain in front of Dhaka Central Jail on April 22, demanding release of four bloggers. They gathered there wearing black badges and masks and holding placards, some of which read, “Either release the arrested bloggers from jail or put us into it.”
Pic: The teachers and students and online activists gathered in front of Dhaka Central Jail holding placards- “Either release the arrested bloggers from jail or put us into it.”
We also have the international support from a few influential organizations. IHEU, the world umbrella organization for freethinkers and humanists, issued a strong statement titled, “Government is stepping right into the trap set by these Islamic fundamentalists”. A few days later they issued another alert: ‘Call to action: Defend the bloggers of Bangladesh’. Atheist Alliance Int’l (AAI) also demanded immediate release of the bloggers. The American Humanist Society also sent a petition to the US Ambassador to get involved. CNN, BBC, Huffington Post, and Slate published articles criticizing Bangladesh’s actions towards the bloggers. Psychology Today published an article on April 10, 2013 titled, ‘Atheism Shouldn’t Be a Crime: Blasphemy should be celebrated, not outlawed.’ In it, Dave Niose reminds us of the obvious, yet necessary, point that atheism should not be criminalized:
One of the many problems with the concept of protecting religion from defamation is that ideas (including religious ideas) cannot be defamed – only people can be defamed. If governments feel that any idea must be shielded from scrutiny, questioning, or even ridicule and satirical commentary, that idea must be extremely weak, or alternatively the society in question must be repressive.
This is why blasphemy should not be criminalized, but celebrated. Those subversive individuals with the bad manners to remind us that no idea is sacred – that governmental defense of any theology necessarily weakens the legitimacy of both the government and the theology – should be thanked for making us think and for reminding us that we live in a free, open society.
Nonbelievers are valuable contributors to society and deserve no inferiority complex or stigmatization, yet their government encourages it. “Theistic supremacy” is too often the official governmental line, only because politicians find it easy to pander to religious voters by exalting religious belief. It may not be akin to throwing atheists in jail, but it still isn’t right.
Amnesty International issued a statement titled, ‘Bangladesh: writers at risk of torture’. Center for Inquiry (CFI), a New York-based global secular group has requested the US Secretary of State John Kerry to ‘pressure the government of Bangladesh to reverse its policy of arresting atheist bloggers who were critical to religion’. CFI sent a letter to Secretary Kerry and Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Suzan Johnson Cook ‘to do all they can to raise public awareness of this situation’. Other influential organizations such as Free Society Institute of South Africa, Reporters Without Borders, Committee to Protect Journalists, Global Voice Advocacy, and several other bodies have also called for immediate release of the Bangladeshi bloggers and appealed to several other foreign authorities to press Bangladesh on the issue.
Besides these organizations, many influential writers and activists, including Taslima Nasrin, PZ Myers, Hemant Mehta, and Maryam Namazie, publicly expressed their support. Among them, the Iranian-born activist, commentator, broadcaster, and 2005’s Secularist of the Year award-winner, Ms. Namazie called for 25 April to be an international day to defend Bangladesh’s bloggers and activists. Dhaka University students and teachers have also called for a strike on April 25th to press for the release of the four bloggers. An international coalition of atheist and humanist organizations led by CFI also planned demonstrations in New York, Washington D.C., London, Ottawa, and other cities around the world on the same day. The rallies being organized by groups such as Center for Inquiry, American Atheists, and the International Humanist and Ethical Union were supposed to be held outside Bangladeshi embassies and consulates to demand the release of the bloggers who were arrested on charges of blasphemy.
Then, struck the Savar tragedy. An eight-story building collapsed on April 24th in Savar, a small town in the outskirts of Dhaka, killing at least 300 people and injuring more than 1,000. April 25th, the day after the tragedy, has been proclaimed the National Day of Mourning in Bangladesh. In effect, official protests to be led by CFI have been postponed to May 2nd. Dhaka University students and teachers also cancelled the strike anticipated for the 25th of April.
Pic: Aaron Underwood, vice president of the MU student atheist organization, speaks to a crowd at the Defend Dissent protest on Thursday April 25, 2013.
However, several freethinking groups, including the American Atheists and Secular Coalition for America, decided to continue with the protests that were originally planned for April 25th, since the day had already been declared ‘International Day to Defend Bangladesh’s Bloggers.’ American Atheists led protests at the consulate office in New York City and the embassy in Washington, D.C. (with assistance from the Secular Coalition for America). Defending his decision, American Atheists’ president David Silverman said,
“My decision to continue … is based on the fact that I feel this is an urgent problem. People are in jail for doing nothing but self expression, and that is wholly immoral. This protest is weeks in the making, international in scope, and we aren’t canceling it because of an impromptu day of mourning imposed by the very people imprisoning atheists like us.”
Pic: Freethinkers rallies on Thursday (April 25) outside Bangladeshi embassies.
Maryam Namazie led another protest rally in Trafalgar Square in London. A day prior to the demonstrations, she wrote a powerful blog titled, ‘While we remember the dead, let us also remember those fighting to live.’ In it, she expressed,
Today 25 April has been declared a day of mourning in Bangladesh for the victims of the nation’s worst factory disaster. The death toll of the collapsed garment factory has risen to 160; more than a 1000 have been injured. Rescuers continue to hunt for survivors.
Those who died in the building collapse did not need to die. Workers saw cracks in the building the day before but were ignored.
Today is also the International Day to Defend Bangladesh’s Bloggers, four of whom are imprisoned, and more than 80 others who face death threats by Islamists. Here too their safety and lives have been ignored by the Government.
In both these cases, the Government has failed to defend fundamental rights. Unfortunately, it is too late for the many garment factory workers. But there is still time to save Bangladesh’s bloggers. The Government must act before it is too late.
On 25 April, whist we remember the dead, we must also remember those who are fighting to live.
Protests in Columbia, MO also ensued. Members of local groups of skeptics, atheists, secular humanists, and agnostics convened on Thursday at the University of Missouri’s campus to be part of the global movement.
Pic: Several freethinking groups protested globally on April 25th, whereas many others will continue on May 2nd [More pictures can be found here].
The remaining groups who did not participate in the April 25th protests, have rescheduled for May 2nd. These groups include the Center for Inquiry, CFI-Canada, and British Humanist Association. They will lead protests in Washington, D.C., Canada, London, and NYC. An additional protest rally in Dhaka, Bangladesh is also planned for May 2nd.
It is clear that international pressure against the Bangladeshi government is rising (please refer to my piece which can be found in BDNews24, an online Bangla newspaper, and in Mukto-Mona Bangla Blog- here). If Bangladesh does not change its course of action, it is clear that our country will not progress. Of course, only time will tell what direction it takes. If the bloggers are kept against their will, Bangladesh will be well on its way to being a fundamentalist autocracy; if it does, however, let the bloggers go in peace, there may be some hope for redemption. For now, the cards are in the government’s hands.
 Human chain in front of jail for release of bloggers, The Daily Star, April 23, 2013
 A Statement from IHEU: Arrests of “atheist bloggers” shows Bangladesh authorities are “walking into a trap set by fundamentalists”, 4 April, 2013
 Maryam Namazie, On 25 April 2013 we stand with Bangladeshi bloggers and activists!, http://freethoughtblogs.com,
 Worldwide Protests for Free Expression in Bangladesh, Campaign for Free Expression, CFI.
 Kimberly Winston , Atheists postpone protests after Bangladeshi disaster, The Washington Post, April 25, 2013
About the Author: Dr. Avijit Roy is a Bangladeshi blogger, published author, and prominent defender of the free-thought movement in Bangladesh. He is an engineer by profession, but well-known for his writings in his self-founded site, Mukto-Mona (mukto-mona.com) – an Internet congregation of freethinkers of mainly Bengali and South Asian descent. As an advocate of science, and metaphysical naturalism, he has published seven Bangla books, and many of his articles were published in magazines and journals. Dr. Roy lives in Atlanta, Georgia, and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
[A slightly modified version of the article has been published in Skeptic (Feature Article, eSkeptic, Wednesday, May 8th, 2013 | ISSN 1556-5696) under the title, ‘The Struggle of Bangladeshi Bloggers’.
Another version of the article also appeared at the main page of Center for Enquiry (CFI) on May 1, 2013.]