24 hours ago the wife of a police officer was killed in Bangladesh by Islamic Militants while walking her six years old son to school. According to her son, 3 people stabbed his mom all over her body and then shot her in the head before fleeing on a motor cycle.
That her husband, a police officer, was praised for apprehending Islamic terrorists operating within Bangladesh.
Before I start, let me ask you if you guys are aware of what’s happening in Bangladesh in recent months…… Okay
Let me thank all of you for giving me the opportunity to talk in front of you today. Some of you were there in the AHA convention last week. I am sorry if I bore you with some of the horrific details again. I just don’t know how to describe the problems plaguing the nation without giving the necessary intros.
Bangladesh is a small country surrounded by India in 3 sides and the Bay of Bengal in the south. Avijit and I both were American Bangladeshi citizens, living in Atlanta for quite some time.
We were visiting Bangladesh, our home country, for a book signing event last year in the month of February. On that day, when we were leaving the well-lit, crowded book fair to get back to our car, Avijit and I were attacked by Islamic fundamentalists and terrorists. We were stabbed repeatedly with machetes on the side of the road. Avijit died and I was badly injured as a result of four stab wounds, around my head and my thumb was sliced off. I have injuries on both hands, fingers and my body. I’ve had multiple surgeries to repair the damaged nerves and arteries.I continue to suffer from constant headaches and back issues and I have been put on PTSD watch.
But this is not the end of the story rather you can say its the start. Avijit was perhaps the most prominent victim but he was neither the first, nor the last such victim. After the attack on us, Islamist terrorists killed another two humanist bloggers and writers in Bangladesh in the same manner within couple of months.
Pic: courtesy of Maryam Namazie
Local Islamic militants claimed responsibility for these murders. They vowed to kill one a month.
In Aug 2015, as our Government stayed completely quiet the militants walked into the apartment of another atheist blogger and stabbed him to death in front of his partner.
In October last year, they targeted two of Avijit’s publishers in their office. They managed to slaughter one in his office, the other publisher barely escaped along with two other writers. Many of these secular bloggers, writers publishers had to flee the country to save their lives.
You would think the Bangladeshi government would be outraged by now. Instead, it remained largely silent as the killing spree continued. And while this supposedly secular and democratic government did eventually speak out, after the fourth victim was killed, the criticism was undercut as it shamelessly blamed the victims for their own deaths for crossing ‘boundaries’ and warned against writing anything that could hurt so called ‘religious feelings’.
We are now seeing the inevitable results of encouraging a culture of impunity in Bangladesh.
The systemic pattern of assassinations and attacks has extended from atheist bloggers to Shiite, Hindu or Christian minority groups, foreign nationals, progressive, secular university professors, intellectuals, activists and now the assassination of the wife of a police officer yesterday.
The machete wielding terrorists marched into the apartment of the editor of the first bengali gay magazine in April this year and stabbed him along with his friend in front of his mother and safely got away. Their crime? they were homosexuals… They assassinated 6 people in the month of April alone.
Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent and ISIS have been claiming responsibility for these slayings. ISIS, meanwhile, has featured Bangladesh in its magazine Dabiq multiple times.
The government’s response has been unbelievable. While they are condemning these killings they are also arresting bloggers, writers and publishers, closing down publications under the guise of “semi-blasphemy” laws – a very old British law which has been enforced in recent times with an increased amount of severity. Believe it or not – this new amended ICT Act has made the criticism of religion or hurting so called religious feelings on the internet punishable with up to 14 years of jail time.
The truth is that the liberal progressive secular community and minorities of all sorts in Bangladesh now don’t just have to fear Islamic militants — we must also fear our own government, which shows no regard for its secular beginnings and chooses instead to appease the religious fundamentalists to secure their vote banks.
We are caught between a rock and a hard place.
Picture: Reason Rally 2016, Day 1.
Lets see how my husband Avijit and I factor into this situation in Bangladesh?
Avijit and I are, were, atheists, bloggers, writers, and above all we are secular humanists who tried to answer the larger questions in life. Avi founded the first online platform Muktomona for the bengali speaking atheists, freethinkers and secular minded people. Avi used to write way more than me, writing was his life, his passion. He wrote about Science, rationalism, atheism, Freethinking, literature; one of his last books was called how the universe could emerge from nothing. He wrote books about the Origin of life, science behind homosexuality, on Love from the perspective of Evolutionary Psychology. He even wrote a literary piece regarding the relationship between Nobel Laureate Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore and the Argentinian feminist writer Victoria Ocampo.
His larger passions were science and reason. They acted as a gateway for his curiosity about our world and our surroundings. Still art acted as a force of change and inspiration in his life.
But Two of his books titled Philosophy of Disbelief and Virus of Faith, created far greater attention than his previous works. On one hand, they made him exceedingly popular among young adults and progressive readers… On the other hand, these books fueled hostility and anger towards Avijit from the Islamists militants.
We wrote in Bangla because we wanted to popularize the basics as well as the cutting edge concepts of science, philosophy and art in this language. I wrote a book on biological evolution named Along the Path of Evolution a few years ago.
Avi wrote countless articles, blogs as well. He wrote in opposition to all kinds of prejudice, injustice, unscientific and irrational beliefs – As a humanist should do. He protested injustice and intolerance in society anywhere and everywhere, something which can be demonstrated in the breadth of topics he covered in his writings. It extended from women’s rights, trying the Islamic fundamentalists who committed war crimes during the liberation war of Bangladesh, he protested the invasion of Iraq by the American Govt, he wrote against the torture in Abu Ghraib, massacres in Gujrat or Kashmir, Palestine, even the nationalistic views of the Bangladeshi Government and military actions against the minority ethnic groups in south-eastern Bangladesh.
I know most of the mainstream national and international media covered the attacks on us as the attack on Freedom of expression, freedom of speech. But I think it is more than that.
As my good friend Professor Nigel Hughes from UCR wrote in Huffington Post right after the attacks on us last year:
they did not die only for the cause of free expression. They also died because they believed that the natural explanation of where we come from is the correct explanation; that it is factually right, that it speaks the truth. They died because they understood that what science has to tell us about the past, has direct consequences for choosing how we face the future, and that science has repeatedly proven to be the surest way to do this successfully.
Yet on the very day that Roy, a U.S. citizen, was bludgeoned to death… another American stood on the floor of the US senate with a snowball in his hand, and claimed that what his gut told him was a better basis for preparing for the future than the scientific contributions of thousands of individuals, accomplished over thousands of years.
This is why the deaths this year of these science advocates in Bangladesh….is a matter of consequence the world over. The global significance of their deaths must not be obscured behind a veil of free speech concern: they died because they understood that the risks of ignoring what science tells us are too serious to indulge political ambition clothed in a supernatural mantle, wherever it occurs.
Beyond the direct implications like 911 or the killings of San Bernardino, we are seeing a concerning rise of assaults on rational way of life, concepts of equality and assurance of basic rights based on humanistic and Scientific understanding of the world, here at home in America too. We see presidential candidates rejecting well established theory of evolution, denying the impacts of Global warming or attempting to deny women’s right to choose. These are all done in the name of religion.
I think secular humanism is more important now than ever in the history of our species..
In last few hundred years we have come a long way. Its the first time in our written history that we are asking for equality for half the population of the world – the women! Actually, we are demanding equality for all people – regardless of racial or ethnic background, sex, gender, religious views, or political leanings. The increase in global wealth is outpaced only by the widening income inequality, with this much global wealth we still have a large population in the world living under the poverty levels. The implications of modern day imperialism taking new and more dangerous forms every day. Climate change is beginning to transform life on Earth. Around the globe, seasons are shifting, temperatures are climbing and sea levels are rising- We need a deeper understanding of science and reason to deal with the challenges of the 21st century. Now our world is connected, intertwined way more than ever before. We are all a part of a complicated web, where all actions contain global consequences.
You know I pause sometimes, to consider what really happened in Bangladesh in such a short period of time, what is happening in many parts of the world? May be, Bangladesh, a muslim country with a secular beginning can act as a test case for us.
Believe it or not. I was openly an atheist since the age of 13 – no no- not here, not in Europe, in Bangladesh. My liberal parents did not discourage my lack of religion. We hosted open debates during dinner about religion, human rights, politics and history. As a teenager, I was openly an atheist, along with some other friends, with my left political stands in Dhaka Medical college in the late 80s. I dropped out of the Med school and got very involved in left politics – that got my parents very worried – I was forced to come here to finish my studies. Thats how I ended up here in early 90s.
Yeah, I remember, in the med school, people would sometimes tease me for being an atheist, my older cousins would lovingly say she is nuts, and they would invite me to have a debate… but I never feared for my life as a result of these beliefs or non beliefs you can say. There have been incidents here and there where atheist writers, poets were criticized or forced to leave the country. But it did not have any systematic pattern, it was not the norm.
I will be lying if I say we did not have the the availability of Islamism in Bangladeshi society. NOOO – we did. Like any society, especially in a conservative third world country we had our fair share of religious fundamentalism. But my point is – that was not the dominant force.
What we have seen in last 30-40 years?
Bangladesh gained its independence in 1971 after a nine month long war with Pakistan. Its new constitution promoted Secularism, nationalism, democracy and socialism though in reality none of these were implemented.
We saw democratic political systems getting ousted and taken over by military dictators. Rumor has it – the military government was put in power to move the country over from one super power to the other. … We have seen, fundamentalist religious political parties, like Jamate Islami, reinstated in the country by these dictators, establishing a very strong financial and cultural base, though many of their leaders were involved in heinous war crimes during the 1971 war.
We have seen a systematic rise of political islam, infusion of Saudi Wahhabism, establishment of thousands of religious schools called madrassas – often unregulated by the government. Now we are seeing an influx of millions of these madrassa students, along with an unemployed frustrated generation, associating themselves with Al Queda, ISIS.
We are seeing, in front of our eyes, the so called ‘secular’ government siding with the Islamic fundamentalist parties in the name of political interest. The prime minister of Bangladesh refuses to tolerate any criticism of religion. To our surprise, we watched the U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh praising the government for fighting terrorism even as she asked the government to speak out. I guess Voltaire said it right, ‘God is not on the side of the big battalions, but on the side of those who shoot best.’.
Between the availability of Islamism locally, religion based local politics within these countries by the ideologically bankrupt and corrupt governments and the support from the powerful nations for political and economic gain, poverty, unemployment and lack of secular education, imperialism – the anger over the unjust global political and economic actions – religious fundamentalism and ideologies have been flourishing. This has been used as a weapon for political gain.
Its no secret that most of these rich middle eastern countries like Saudi Arabia are America’s biggest allies. Their oppressive fundamentalist monarchies would not survive without our backing. In fact, the underlying cause for many military conflicts after WW2 is the power struggle between the two superpowers to gain control of the resource and global markets. The discovery of oil makes the history more complicated and bloody.
Russia invades Afghanistan we create Bin Laden. We empower dictators like Saddam Hossain turning a blind eye to the offenses against humanity when he gases the Kurds. We are seeing it first hand how Instating an allied government is more important to the global Powers in Syria today. than destroying ISIS or Al Nusra.
In many ways I think we are seeing the aftermath of political and economic policies which allowed and promoted the rise of religious fundamentalism since the first and second world wars.
I am no expert on this complex issue and I don’t claim to be. And I do not think we can solve something like this via a short lecture. I would like to thank UT Austin for giving me an opportunity to do some research work on this.
However, I would like to leave you with this thought today:
Today’s world is connected in ways we cannot conceive. The Islamist are asking for a World Islamic Ummah something which goes beyond the shores of any national boundary. Today’s powerful nations coin their political and economic strategies keeping the global economy in mind, the big corporations innovate thinking about the global markets.
We the humanists cannot be confined only to the issues related to our islands.
On one hand It is easy to place the entire fault on religion. Within almost all religious texts exists justification for heinous intolerance, discrimination, hatred, terrorism, and violence. But I think religion is only one piece of this big puzzle. Religion is more than a belief system, more than a social and anthropological phenomenon but a tool which humanity sharpened into a political weapon as well. We should be able to navigate this complex dynamics with proper knowledge and reason.
On the other hand we see a concerning trend amongst the modern Liberals and humanists who are scared to criticize Islam – its ingrained extremist views- in favor of political correctness.
I think as we have come to a point in history, where it has become our responsibility, to condemn Imperialism, political and economic discriminations and exploitation globally and locally. We also have the courage to call out the ingrained religious fundamentalism including Islam defending Science and reason. We should stand up against both – not one or the other- in the name of so called ‘correctness’.
As humanists we need to go beyond the notions of national concerns or only political or religious concerns and understand the complicated web of global connections. This can facilitate a better understanding of today’s world, transmit and mingle ideas, form a global bond of resistance against all injustice. As the philosopher Denis Diderot wrote to the Scottish philosopher David Hume “I flatter myself that I am, like you, citizen of the great city of the world.” Now let us all strive to be the citizens of the world.
Pic: Courtesy of Faisal Sayeed Al Mutar
Thank you all for listening.