By Adeeb Chowdhury
Two years ago today, radical assailants ambushed a man and his wife returning from a book fair, launching a brief yet bloody attack that left a mutilated corpse in its wake. Machetes and meat cleavers had flown through the air, seeking the life of a man who had dared to disbelieve. The Dhaka soil found itself drenched in the blood of a couple who had fallen prey to the tides of religious fundamentalism on the rise across Bangladesh, strangling the secular values of the national constitution and trampling on the core liberties of the human race as they gained power. At the hands of fanatics seeking a dark, tyrannical future of Bangladesh—predicated on rage, vengeance, narrow-mindedness, arrogance, scientific illiteracy, and cowardice—Avijit Roy had attained martyrdom, his death embodying the defining principles of the social progress that Bangladesh had the potential to achieve: intellectual integrity, reason, compassion, and courage.
However, as screams of horror etched the evening air and the attackers fled the scene of their crime, it was not just Avijit Roy that lay slaughtered at the hands of fundamentalism. This attack left another death in its wake, a death whose final screams echo profoundly to this day—the death of the bright, progressive vision of Bangladesh. The death of the liberal values at the basis of the nation. The death of the protected freedom of speech. The death of this nation’s own potential scientific revolution. The death of our hopes that Bangladesh may elevate the principles that guide us to democracy.
Avijit Roy had a dream, a vision for what Bangladesh had the potential to be. As we look back on the two years that have passed since his martyrdom, we must ask ourselves, have we come closer to achieving that dream? Have we made significant progress, as a nation, to realizing the vision of Bangladesh that the scholarly hero of reason had maintained to his death?
Depressingly, the answer is a resounding “no.” In fact, this nation has apparently slipped back even further from that dream, staggering back into the dark, dismal vestige of radicalism and conservatism and haplessly losing its grip on the values of liberty, dignity, and progress. In a nutshell, the situation is bad and it’s on the track of getting steadily worse—unless efforts are rejoined to combat the rise of degenerative fundamentalism.
In the wake of Avijit Roy’s slaughter, a series of more writers, publishers, and activists have come under the blow of radicalism. They have been compelled to leave the nation, seeking asylum in other countries with the help of PEN International and other concerned organizations, exiled by the rising tides of terror. Meanwhile, Bangladeshi authorities themselves have yet to take any significant steps to combat the silencing of its writers, observing complacently as its bright minds are driven out. Instead, the nation’s government has even resorted to victim-blaming, accusing secular authors of “harming religious sentiments” as if it somehow justified the attacks that cost them their life and safety. In 2016, the Prime Minister herself condemned the bloggers’ writings, vilifying their “filthy words” and claiming they are “unacceptable”, avoiding governmental accountability in these matters. In other words, efforts to fight the suppression of free speech are being replaced by baseless accusations aimed at the victims of radicalism, casting the secular writers in the role of the villains who foolishly and stubbornly provoked religious groups, bringing their death upon themselves.
Fundamentalism has even seeped into the national education system—continuing the cycle of indoctrination imposed upon the youth. National curriculum books have been infested with teachings promoting illiberal ideals, such as replacing typical texts with religious references. The example for the letter “O” in Bangla used to be “ol”, a type of yam, but now it has been converted to “orna”—a “modest” article of clothing girls are expected to wear. A grand total of 17 stories and poems by non-Muslim writers were forcibly removed. This startling regress, noted with concern by The New York Times, demonstrates Bangladesh’s worrying shift towards intolerant conservatism—draining out diversity from its curriculum. It is saddening to see that in such pressing times, the government is buckling under pressure from fundamentalists and giving in to the unfounded demands put forward by fringe groups like the Hefazat-e-Islam—signifying the lack of a focused effort towards achieving progress on a national level.
What is the most effective way to control what the people of a country believe? Control what they read, think, and discuss. That seems to be the plan as Islamist groups work to suppress “secular” and liberal material, cutting off the supply of progressive books and stifling the blood flow of freethinking. The 2017 Ekushey Book Fair proved to be a case in this point, banning all books penned by Avijit Roy and his nasty gang of crooked freethinkers. This renowned book fair has only fueled the rise of radicals, satisfying their warped desires by forbidding the distribution of books promoting social progress. We are stabbing ourselves in the foot as we attempt to stagger forward.
Avijit Roy’s dying dream is being trampled underfoot. Not just by radicals, not just by fundamentalists, not just by terrorists—but by the people of Bangladesh itself, serving as silent bystanders as ravagers rip apart our constitution, ridding the nation of the guiding principles of secularism and liberalism. The government is supposed to be a protector, a guardian of the people against barbarism—but our national leaders have become accomplices in the crime, shifting the blame to bloggers and writers for exercising free speech. The government has made the fatal crime of lending more importance to satisfying fundamentalist groups and appealing to religious masses, rather than protecting the basic liberties enshrined in international human rights law.
It is still possible to preserve Avijit Roy’s dying dream, to revitalize his vision for this nation. One avenue we can take to accomplish that mission is to return the spotlight on education—eradicating the vestige of dogma. Allowing children to explore fresh ideas, rather than relying solely on long-held beliefs, and to understand the value of innovation and critical reasoning. Bangladesh is in dire need of a new generation of citizens that utilize the tools of the mind and foster appreciation for diversity and dialogue.
Avijit Roy put forth a vivid and daring dream for Bangladesh’s future. A dream that elevated the values of education, science, and reason. A dream that allowed for free speech, diversity, and critical thinking. A dream that antagonized darkness and dogma. A dream that emphasized the role of logic and compassion, rather than tradition and faith, in the progress that Bangladesh has the potential to make.
On the evening of February 26, 2015, the sun set on the mutilated corpse of Avijit Roy, an icon of freethought. Don’t let the sun set on his beautiful vision for this country as well.