Thanks to Freedom from Religion Foundation for the Forward Award. Thanks for being a partner at this critical time, helping the freethinkers in Bangladesh from half the world away. Let me introduce myself first and then I will come to the situation in Bangladesh.
I am Rafida Bonya Ahmed, I normally write with my middle name Bonya Ahmed. I am a Bangladeshi American blogger, author and also one of the moderators of the bengali blog called Muktomona – which is the first Freethinking blog in Bengali language. My late husband Dr. Avijit Roy founded this first online platform in 2001 as a Yahoo forum for the atheists, freethinkers, humanists and secular Bengali speaking community.
Anyway, I was born in Bangladesh but I came to do my undergrad here in the early 90s and have been living here since. My day job used to be in the Corporate world, I was a Senior Director of Marketing at one of the Credit bureaus. My husband Dr. Avijit Roy was also born in Bangladesh, did his PhD in BioMedical Engineering in Singapore and then moved here in 2006.
We were visiting Bangladesh last year, our home country, for a book signing event last year in the month of February. On 26th of February 2015, when we were leaving the well-lit, crowded book fair to get back to our car, Avijit and I were attacked by Islamic militants. Al Queda of Indian Subcontinent have claimed responsibility for this attack. We were stabbed repeatedly with machetes on the side of the road. Avijit died in the hospital and I was gravely injured as a result of four stabs around my head and my thumb was sliced off. I have injuries on both hands, fingers, and my body. I was brought into the Mayo Clinic 4 days later. 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.
After the attack, it did not make sense to continue my job in the corporate world, so I decided to take a leave from work. When University of Texas at Austin, with a very strong South Asian Institute, offered me a visiting scholarship to do research work on the rise of Islamism in Bangladesh, I gladly took it up. I thought this would finally give me the opportunity to work not for a paycheck but for something I always craved to do.
Now Let me take a min to see how my husband Avijit and I factor into this situation in Bangladesh? What was our fault, really?
Avijit and I are, were, atheists, bloggers, writers, and above all we are secular humanists who tried to answer the larger questions in life. We wrote in Bangla because we wanted to popularize the basics as well as the cutting edge concepts of science, rationalism, philosophy and art in this language. I wrote a book on Evolution named Along the Path of Evolution a few years ago.
As I said before Avi founded the first online platform Muktomona. We wrote about Science, rationalism, atheism, Freethinking, literature; he wrote and edited 10 books. 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.
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 fundamentalists.
I guess that would be it- a pretty good summary of our crimes, to be hacked to death – in the eyes of the Islamic terrorist groups.
Actually Let me take a moment to ask you if you guys are aware of what’s happening in Bangladesh in recent months…… Okay, okay
Let me give a very brief intro…
Bangladesh is a small country surrounded by India in 3 sides and the Bay of Bengal in the south. The attack on us 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.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 todeath 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 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 have extended from atheist bloggers to minority Shiite, Hindu or Christian groups, foreign nationals, progressive, secular university professors, intellectuals, activists.
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 that month 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. Few days ago, ISIS’s publication vowed to kill the atheists and the minorities in Bengal again.
The government’s;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 the & ‘semi-blasphemy’ laws – a very old British colonial 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 socalled religious feelings on the internet punishable with up to 14 years of jail time. They have been systematically harassing and arresting bloggers, writers, journalists under this law.
Let me give an example, Bangladeshi government banned a secular progressive blog site called Istition few days ago under this law. Its moderator Nur Nobi dulal has been in hiding for almost a year. The Islamic militants are looking for him and also Bangladeshi Govt is looking for him. He is living an inhumane fugitive life with 2 teenager kids and his wife.
Thanks to Freedom from Religion Foundation for helping these kind of people at this critical moments of their lives.
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.
You can say, We are caught between a rock and a hard place.
The government was finally forced to respond once the ISIS supported militants took over a restaurant in the affluent diplomatic area of the Capital city on July 1st of this year and slaughtered 20 people all night long with Machetes: most of them were foreigners, working in Bangladesh. 29 people were killed that day.
Afterwards, Bangladeshi government claimed to arrest quite a few of these militants from a couple of Islamic terrorist groups. But, but, we are also hearing that many of them are getting killed in so called Crossfire by the
Police before bringing them to justice to judicial system. There has been an uproar about these crossfires in Bangladesh in recent months.
I have been continuing to work to raise awareness to the International community like European Union, United Nations, US Congress and also help out the threatened and displaced bloggers and writers in different ways. We have built a few temporary shelters and migrated a few bloggers to the safer places.
To be honest, I have to confess, Europe has been pretty open to take some of these bloggers, Awareness about the rest of the world is greater there too. I am still waiting to get some positive response from the our government here. Freedom from religion Foundation along with PEN America and Center for Inquiry have been a great partner in this journey.
I know most of the mainstream national and international media covered the attacks on us me and Avijit and others as the attack on Freedom of expression, freedom of speech. But I really think it is more than that.As my good friend Professor Nigel Hughes from UC Riverside wrote inHuffington 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, 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 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, weare seeing a concerning rise of assaults on rational way of life here at home in America – Modern Concepts of equality and assurance of basic
rights based on humanistic and Scientific understanding of the world. We see presidential candidates rejecting well established theory of evolution,denying the impacts of climate change or attempting to deny women's right to choose. The list can go on. These are all done in the name of politics and 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. 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 has outpaced only by the widening income inequality! With this much global wealth, strangely enough, we still havea large population in the world living under extreme poverty.
The implications of modern day imperialism taking new and more dangerous forms every day. Climate change is beginning to transform lifeon Earth. Around the globe, seasons are shifting, temperatures areclimbing 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? We are seeing a shift towards religious fundamentalism and
conservative in many parts of the world including here at home. 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 Muslim parents did notdiscourage 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, with my left political stand. It was little ‘uncommon’ at that time but not a punishable act like it has been now. I attended Medical school in Bangladesh right after my high school in the late 80s. It was only a matter of time before I dropped out of med school and worked in a garments factory for a year – first as a helper, and then as a machine operator. My parents got really worried and they forced me to leave the country. They were worried about my safety. That is when I came to do my undergrad here 1991.
Anyway, Some of you may be familiar with the tragic fatalities that occur in garments factories in Bangladesh. We hear about the fatalities from the building collapses and fires every now and then. The country has an export-oriented ready-made garment industry, which employs more than 4 million workers. 90% of garments workers are women.
The plight of garments workers is something I have thought about for decades. I worked with these workers side by side, an opportunity normally kids from my socio economic class do not get. In part, they have shaped my worldview for ever.
During my time as a garments worker, I discovered firsthand that the whole industry is governed by Inhumane working conditions, long hours, extremely low wages, lack of building safety, child labor, repression, corrupt government policies ——- you name it. It continues the same way, evennow.
By sacrificing the livelihoods of these female workers, brands like Old Navy,Walmart, H&M, and GAP can provide us with clothes at competitive rates here.
Even now the minimum wage for these workers is less than 70 dollars a month. The workers protested a while back to get it up to 100 dollars a month, they had to settle for 70 at the end of the negotiation with the garments factory owners…..
Does it remind you about the workers and the sweat shops here in the 19th century Annie Laurie reminded me of this quote from a 19th century feminist freethinker, Helen Gardener, when she heard about my experience in the garment’s factory. Helen said,
“I do not know of any divine commands. I do know of most important human ones. I do NOT know the needs of a god or of another world. . . . I do know that women make shirts for seventy cents a dozen in this one. I do
know that the needs of humanity and this world are infinite, unending, constant, and immediate. They will take all our time, our strength, our love and our thoughts; and our work here will be only then begun.”
You know….Many people ask me what gets me going after everything that has happened to me. This is what gets me going …in this careless, indifferent, value-less universe in which we live. Because the universe is indifferent, we create our own purpose during our tenure in this little planet. We try to create a better world every day with every bit we can.
You know, Whenever I start to sink in to the deep sense of my personal loss, I realize that for all intents and purposes that I stand before you in a privileged position here today. I have been given a platform to speak, I have a comfortable life, a network of good friends and family who will support me through this ordeal.
But what about those who have no voice, no agency, no platform? When the thousands of men and women get trafficked through the wild ocean, when millions of people get displaced in wars, ISIS butchers, beheads, when they force girls into sexual slavery, when Boko Haram abducts hundreds of young women and sells them off in medieval style, thousands of garments workers fight for their basic rights as human beings, millions of
children die in poverty stricken nations ——- I see that they do not have a voice.
These are not isolated events, we need to understand the global phenomenon , the political, economic and social connections. I firmly believe that we need to have a sense of collective responsibility and consciousness. I would like to leave you with this thought today:
Todays world is connected in ways we cannot conceive. The Islamists are asking for a World of 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. In 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 cognitive, social and anthropological phenomenon but a tool which humanity sharpened into a political weapon again and again all over history. 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 or any religion – 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 Imperialistic, political and economic discriminations and exploitation globally and locally. We should also have the courage to call out the ingrained religious fundamentalism including Islam and defend secular beliefs, Science and reason. We should stand up against both – not one or the other- in the name of so called ‘correctness’.
As humanists, as people free from any religious dogma, we need to go beyond the notions of national concerns or only political or religious concerns and understand the complicated web of global connections. Thiscan facilitate a better understanding of today’s world, transmit and mingle ideas, form a global bond of resistance to build a better world.
Socrates said, “I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world.” We, all, also need to strive to become the citizens of the world.