On August 03, 2015 Dhaka Tribune ran an article called Our Brand of Secularism written by Towheed Feroze, on secularism and contemporary Bangladesh.
Towheed Feroze, in the article, is “compelled” to ask whether Mukto-Mona critiqued one religion or all faiths–but couldn’t be bothered to visit the website to research this. He dismisses the notion (noted by the ‘slain person’s father’ in the BBC show—it’s interesting that not once does he name Avijit Roy or any of activists who were murdered and/or attacked, leaving them some nameless, faceless mass in this column) that Mukto-Mona has a “huge following”. The reason he doesn’t think Mukto-Mona has a huge following is this: “I haven’t met anyone who had even heard of Muktomona before the fatal attack on the blogger.” His social circles, apparently, are representative of Bangladesh at large.
He ‘assumes’ these blogs only attack one faith–but again, can’t be bothered to research this. “Do free speech anti-religious advocates write against Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism?”
Yes, actually, they do. But, again, he couldn’t be bothered to verify his claim. Even a cursory googling of the Mukto-Mona website reveals blog posts and essays critiquing Hinduism, Christianity, and Buddhism. Here are just a few issues covered in Mukto-Mona: Hinduism and slavery, Hinduism and casteism, Buddhism and misogyny, a critique of Biblical “science.” He returns to this claim repeatedly, that Islam is the only faith critiqued; he asks “So then, are we to assume that these blogs only attack one faith, leaving the others out?” No. You’re not supposed to assume anything—you’re supposed to, at the very least, conduct some basic research.
But that would be hoping for too much.
He then goes on to state, “In the radio program, the minister for information said Bangladesh is a country where respect for all faiths is central to an integrated, peaceful existence, which is a fact.”
Apparently “community clashes divided by religion” do not dispute this “fact”, the existence of the Vested Property Act doesn’t dispute this fact, the smashing of idols and temples pretty much every year doesn’t dispute this fact, the steady decline of our Hindu population doesn’t dispute this fact.
Apparently, “In Bangladesh, all major religious festivals of other faiths are celebrated with equal fervor,”—which makes Bangladeshis secular. This celebration of ‘religious festivals of other faiths’ sounds ridiculous when one considers the reports of churches and temples that come under attack every single year. It’s the religious sites of these ‘other faiths’ that come under attack –not those belonging to the majority.
The other proof he provides to maintain that Bangladeshis are secular is that “a lot of people” drink alcohol socially but refrain during ramzan. He seems unaware that alcohol consumption as a social and socially acceptable practice is common among a very select few. The vast majority of Bangladeshis do not find alcohol consumption a socially acceptable practice—many would most certainly find drinking liquor highly offensive, whether during ramzan or not.
Then Feroze asks, “Would I be wrong in calling these the enlightened of the country?” So his definition of what constitutes ‘the enlightened’ is this—people who drink, but still go to jumma prayers, refrain from alcohol during ramzan but celebrate Eid with a bottle, visit religious festivals of other faiths, but also go to milads. Apart from the insinuation that there are no non-Muslim enlightened in Bangladesh, it’s noteworthy that intellectual exploration, reasoning, knowledge gathering—none of these are characteristics that define an enlightened person to Feroze.
Feroze claims that the international media reporting “people here are killed if they speak their minds” is agenda driven, and untrue.
There’s a difference between facts and opinions. His claim is an opinion. Here are the facts.
Avijit Roy was murdered in February 2015. Bonya Ahmed barely escaped with her life during the same attack. Washiqur Rahman Babu was murdered in March 2015. In May 2015, it was Ananta Bijoy Dash. In February, 2013, it was Ahmed Rajeeb Haider. Yesterday, a blogger/activist named Niloy Chatterjee was found with his throat slit open. There are more to add to that list of names. Their ‘crime’ was that they critiqued religion.
His other equally ludicrous claim is that gay people are not stigmatized in Bangladesh. But here’s the caveat he makes: as long as they keep quiet about it. Same goes for atheists. He calls it a South Asian Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. As if DADT isn’t a discriminatory policy. As if it’s a good thing.
Even apart from the fact that, yes, atheists are being targeted, gay people are discriminated against socially, and institutionally….Feroze seems completely unaware that silencing is stigmatizing. Not being able to live who you are, what you are, without shame, is being stigmatized.
He also tries to make the case that secularism and atheism are imported ideas. “The occidental idea of atheism is an anathema in Bangladesh.” As if Bengal has not had its own tradition of atheism and secularism. As if ideas should be limited according to national or religious boundaries and are not meant to be examined, explored, exchanged.
Feroze’s brief essay was perhaps a blip in the content game of the English language dailies. The Bangladeshi English dailies are even more starved for content than the Bangla ones. A friend of mine commented that responding to this balderdash is giving it undue importance. We see ignorance like this around us every day.
The reason Feroze’s mishmash of wrongheadedness is worth examining is because it parrots a certain mindset, quite vocal on social media these days, which believes itself secular and accepting, but refuses to examine their (not-so-hidden) assertion that it is acceptable to murder someone because they hurt your religious feelings. Because when people like this make excuses such as, oh these bloggers/activists shouldn’t have said this, written that, behaved that way—that’s exactly what they’re saying. They’re saying that these murderers are somehow less culpable because they had ‘cause’.
This sort of thinking isn’t uncommon; but now it is given voice by a national daily. This mindset is thus given not only ‘importance’, but is amplified, is made acceptable at large.
How difficult can it be to unequivocally state that no matter what offense a religious person takes, it is utterly unacceptable to take a human life? If one truly believes in a divine order, shouldn’t one consider human lives as something precious?
Avijit Roy, Ananta Bijoy, and the others who were murdered or attacked, were not the ones who took up weapons, targeted human beings, and murdered them.
Avijit Roy, Ananta Bijoy, and the others who were murdered or attacked, wrote. That’s all they did. They wrote words. Sometimes on paper, sometimes on the internet.
In what world, in what kind of mind, in what kind of heart, do these things bear equal weight?