Author: Anonymous, USA.
Coincidence is the Destiny
Part of me that thinks sharing this is a waste of time. I have made a conscious effort not to discuss my personal belief publicly on social media for quite some time now. There was a point in time when I would post my online comments on various discussions, almost always motivated by what I feel is right and what I uphold as my ideology. But I stopped. Too often in creates misunderstandings and strains certain relationships that I want to keep. Mostly because my personal belief (or the lack thereof) has nothing to do with others around me. It does not affect the relationship dynamics if it were left unsaid. Then there is another part in me that thinks it is absolutely necessary to write about it. This piece is a deliberate effort on my part to speak up.
Almost six months ago, on February 26, Avijit Roy was killed by militant Islamist groups during a book fair in Bangladesh. (If you want to know more about the incident or who Avijit was, just google ‘Avijit Roy news’). Coincidentally I started this draft on the day before that. Work came along and I saved it for later. Then Avijit Roy was killed.
I have not come back to this draft till now.
I needed some time to grieve for Avijit. An immediate return to write this piece would have been detrimental. It would have shifted the focus to the incident, and I would have failed to express my initial thoughts. So I am going to talk about Avijit first. I did not go through all five stages of Kübler-Ross model this time (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). There was no space for denial. The graphic photos of his bloody body on the pavement surfaced within half an hour of the attack. To me, he was not just a random name. He was Avijit’da. I knew him through his blogs and books. I have met him in person, in the same book fair a few years ago. And he is not here anymore. In those pictures, his wife, Bonnya apa was holding him, she was also soaked in her own blood. I felt angry. Then I felt the depression. It has not been easy since. But today I felt an urge to finish writing this because I fear I may never finish it.
Days of My Past
Philosophically, I am a non-believing agnostic. Spiritually, I am a realist or materialist. I use these terms being aware that they hold various interpretations, and that labels are often too generic for expression of thoughts. The problem with such labels is that they don’t have a universal meaning. The definition is there, but what they mean is derived from one’s personal understanding of the words. I will explain my views throughout this piece and hopefully these labels will become clearer to the reader.
I am a moderately educated (and extremely privileged) person from Bangladesh. I have been brought up by Muslim parents, in a community where more than ninety percent are practicing Muslims. Learning how to read and recite the Quran is pretty common, if not mandatory, in my culture. I went through the same process of learning to read and pronounce Arabic alphabets, words, and rhythms. There were Aampara, Sipara, etc. I had several private tutors who taught me to read the Surahs properly. By the time I was twelve, I have completed reading (we call it a “khatam”) the whole Quran. A few of my friends were also getting tuitions from the same tutor and I remember there was a sense of competition among us. Who is reciting it better? Sometimes we would read together in the afternoon and that competing atmosphere was as tense as if it’s a jousting tournament. Who is ahead in reading and who is lagging behind?
Unlike other mothers mine insisted on me reading the Bangla translation of the Quran rather than just memorizing/reading without understanding a single word. I remember several conversations involving her and my tutor where she asked the tutor to teach and explain the Bangla meaning of the Quran while the tutor wanted to go through the Arabic text only. It was more time consuming to read the translation, because when you read it in a language you understand, you tend to ask more questions that require explanations. The stories of different prophets were much quicker to go through than the chapters of religious philosophies for the humanity. The Bangla translation didn’t help either. It was archaic, confusing, and overly complicated. Moreover, as you read more you find repetitive verses, some things were emphasized more that didn’t appeal to me as a kid. To be honest, I found the boasting ayats monotonous. It felt as if someone bigger than me is telling me over and over again how awesome he/she is, when we both clearly agreed that he/she is bigger and better than me. I still feel such claims of ego is seriously off-putting. At that time due my age, I was more interested in the stories of different prophets than the generic comments and instructions of religious rules. I was also reading the Ramayana and the Mahabharata in Bengali as story books. My aunt had a huge library of children’s books in her house, and I ‘inherited’ those books when they moved to the States. I remember countless hours of afternoons just rushing through pages of the Egyptian history, the Roman, or the Greek mythology. She had a large collection of Islamic history books containing stories of the prophet Muhammad, the Rashidun Caliphs, Arab Sahabahs, and Bengal Auliyas. If I look back, I remember being mesmerized by all these stories irrespective of where they come from. I always accepted the mythical and magical nature of these stories as they are, myths and magics.
There was a subtle social discrimination between Hindus and Muslims in Bangladeshi society back then. An underlying slow current of distance grown out of decades of social mistrust and politics, but as a child and young adult, I seldom felt it. May be because I was fortunate to have very liberal parents, who never brought religion to teach us morality and ethics. May be because I had a good neighbourhood where such things almost never occurred. I don’t and can’t pinpoint the reason. Personally I was fortunate to shred such discriminative attitudes early on. I heard the common story that red ants (that bite) are Hindus and black ants (that never bite) are Muslims, but I brushed it away as ridiculous thing spewed by the ignorant. Since my parents never restricted me with religious rituals, I never thought of resisting religion. I was very pious, saying my prayers regularly. Ironically, the turn of the tide of my belief started from the same book, the Quran. When I was in high school, I went to study in a Cadet College. There was a collaborative weekly effort among cadets to jointly khatam the Quran. Everyone interested will pick one of the thirty Paara or juzʾ and finish reading it in a week. I participated in this activity, quite seriously. Since I am only reading a paara a week, I was paying more attention to the meaning and explanations of the text this time. This time, I understood more about what the Quranic verses meant. I distinctly remember that reading the so called ‘scientific’ verses first made me question the authenticity of the book. It was apparent that whatever those verses were saying, was not something scientific. To me, science was still something that base itself on equations and formulas, it was also something that conveys very direct message about the nature of things. But the Quran never said something outright, but had very poetic and open to interpretation comment on various topics, ranging from the structure of the universe to the origin of life. And then there were the history of mankind. The fact that we are all descendants of brothers and sisters marrying each other really made me uncomfortable.
The frustration grew as I had no source of getting answers of my questions. Whoever I asked, I was either shushed (by the elders) or ridiculed (by my contemporaries). Even my parents forbade me to ask these questions. I got the impression that some things should not be questioned and as a matter of fact, you have to take a leap of faith. But I never stopped reading more text regarding the Quran. There was a good collection of Bangla literature in our cadet college library, where I spent hours reading these books on Islam and Islamic history. And then it happened one day: the turn. I stumbled upon a book on documenting the science in the Quran. I started reading it, and pretty soon got skeptic about the translations of verses in that book. I compared them with several other translations, including the Quran. This book was twisting the translation to fit the scientifically established ideas. I was astonished to learn that such a book could exist. Up until then, I thought mistranslation of the Quran is impossible, because that is one of the most forbidden things in Islam. You must not change the meaning of the verses, or you will go to the lowest level of Hell, that was my idea. And here is a book filled with mistranslations, wrong interpretations, and straight-forward lies about Quranic verses, and nobody bats an eyelash. I brought up this serious issue to several people, and was shocked by the nonchalant response. I realized that people don’t read the Quran that way, that they recite it from memory, but do not know the meaning of those words. So eventually it does not matter until their idea of Islam is not hurt. That book spreading false verses is not hurting their feelings, but if someone points out one discrepancy in the Quran, that hurts them. In both cases, they never read the original text, nor did they understand what is actually written.
This realization was my awakening. I started reading the book (still reading it) again, with a very critical and skeptical view. My view about everything changed from taking the leap of faith to taking everything with a pinch of salt. I became more open to ideas alien to me, ranging from political Islam to gay rights. I have accepted the fact that the world is colorful and there is existence of white and blue and red and yellow and black in the same color spectra, so I might as well get used to it. I tried to remove all previously held judgmental opinions about people in general.
There is No Spoon
This skeptical world-view is often received with negative remarks. I think we have a tendency to feel comfortable with conformity, so whenever someone questions an established order it receives opposition. Opposition comes in forms of anger, disgust, fear, mockery, and so on. And we all know that it will come. So we purposefully avoid raising those questions, lest it brings such reactions. The allegory of this behavior, to me is that of a water bubble. The bubbles of questions and confusions are fine under water, but when it comes out on the surface, we burst it with a billion Pascals.
It is also popular notion that questions are disturbances, and it creates chaos in the steady-state. There are two things most people overlook when they come to such conclusions. Firstly, there is no steady-state. We do not live in a society that is a utopia. We are almost all the time oppressed, tortured, tormented, if not killed by a society that we ourselves had built in the first place. Mankind dwells in silly rituals and superstitions, which is the basic tool of a small group of people for controlling a large group of people. Secondly, chaos is the opposite of order. But every improvement in human history was a chaos. If we are so afraid of these questions, we might as well be dead. If history has taught us anything then it is true that the human condition under a totalitarian superpower is eventually going to rebuke. We can only achieve a better human condition through chaos and change. And such a change can only come if we build a social atmosphere of skepticism.
I wanted to share my story, however common and insignificant. If you don’t agree with my opinions I am sure that you think it has some agenda, some ulterior motives. But it is not the case. Nobody lives a life with an agenda. Our political and social activities are driven from what we believe to be true, and the truth is that there is no truth. There is no divine power, at least not in the sense that it intervenes with our lives. Not in the sense that we can feel its presence. So why react?
There is a looming threat of killing every free-thinking ‘heretic’ in Bangladesh. The situation is getting darker with each days end. At one end, we have an ultra-violent machete-wielding religious terrorists, who would kill to spread fear. And on the other end, we have the all-powerful so-called ‘secular’ leaders – who, instead of catching the killers, are forbidding writers to write. It seems Bangladesh is quickly turning into a country where no free thought is safe. But I chose to tell my common insignificant story any way. Because it is not right to allow terrorism. Because it is not just to blame the victim. Because it is not right to oppress freedom of speech (and yes, if you ask me, there is no condition to it). It is my right to tell my story, even if you try to kill me. I have to talk about the throat-gripping blasphemy law. I have to talk about the overall ignorance of our general population.
And I learned it my whole life. Just like how I was ordered not to utter questions about the Quranic verses, now I am ordered to keep mum. I didn’t listen then, I won’t listen now.
Footnote: The title of this piece is a famous quote from a science-fiction film The Matrix. When a child asks the protagonist to bend a spoon with his mind, Neo asks him how he can do it. The child replies, “Do not try and bend the spoon. That’s impossible. Instead… only try to realize the truth.” Neo asks again, “What truth?” The boy answers, “There is no spoon. Then you’ll see, that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.”