The cause is highly personal

Avijit Roy and his daughter Trisha Ahmed wrote an op-ed for Free Inquiry, October/November 2013: Freethought Under Attack in Bangladesh. (I had a piece in that issue too. I never met him, but it was one degree of separation.)

It’s chilling to read now – all the more chilling, that is. It was chilling then and it’s more so now.

On April 1, 2013, the Bangladeshi government played the fool in a disgraceful affair that we only wish had been an April Fool’s Day prank. On that day, several bloggers were put behind bars in Bangladesh on the sole basis that they were openly atheist. When we say “openly atheist,” we do not mean that the bloggers denounced religion in public squares or emphatically condemned theists to the ugliest patches of ground after death. Instead, the government criminalized these four men for simply voicing their rational, skeptic, and scientific thoughts on blogging forums—sites that exist for free inquiry, self-expression, and, most important, free speech.

And why did the Bangladeshi government do that? Because Islamists made a stink.

Following the Shahbag Protest, members of one Islamist faction waged a disinformation campaign to defame the bloggers. They claimed that the young bloggers had offended Islam and Muhammad and published a list of nearly eighty bloggers and forum participants whom they labeled atheists and attackers of Islam. The group publicly demanded capital punishment for the bloggers’ “blasphemy.”

It is worth noting that Bangladesh has no blasphemy laws. Though it is a Muslim country, the nation’s constitution proclaims “freedom of thought, conscience and expression” as a fundamental right. Nevertheless, the government disregarded this right and attempted to appease the Islamists by arresting three popular bloggers—Subrata Adhikari Shuvo, Rasel Parvez, and Mashiur Rahman Biplob—on April 1. The very next day, police also arrested Asif Mohiuddin, another one of the country’s most outspoken “atheist” bloggers. The men were paraded in handcuffs at a news conference as if they had committed a heinous crime. By arresting these four bloggers—and threatening dozens more bloggers with potential charges—Bangladesh’s government demonstrated that it regards freedom of speech as a constitutional formality, not a fundamental right.

It’s like living in the 11th century and the 21st century at the same time. It’s like sitting next to Savonarola on the bus.

Of course, attacks against atheist and secular-minded writers are hardly a new phenomenon in Bangladesh. Humayun Azad was a renowned Bangladeshi atheist, writer, and linguistic scholar popular among younger and more progressive readers. When Azad was returning home from a book fair, he was attacked by a group of radical Islamists who attempted to slit his throat.

What I said – chilling. Azad survived the immediate attack but he died some months later.

A similar case unfolded in 1994, when Taslima Nasrin—a feminist writer well known for her critical views toward Islam—had to flee Bangladesh after Islamic extremists threatened to kill her for her criticisms of the Qur’an. Although Nasrin denied the accusation, she was forced into hiding when an Islamist leader offered a bounty for her beheading. Eventually she fled the country. [Taslima Nasrin is now a senior editor of FREE INQUIRY.—Eds.]

And my friend.

Many of us freethinkers decided to organize to protest the government’s violation of freedom of speech. For us, the cause is highly personal. The imprisoned atheist bloggers have long been known to us as active writers on sites including Mukto-Mona (an Internet site popular among freethinkers, rationalists, skeptics, atheists, and humanists of mainly Bengali descent). We have created several Facebook pages, written individual blogs, issued formal statements, and penned articles for newspapers in Bangladesh as well as for international media. We also worked closely with the Center for Inquiry, the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), Atheist Alliance International, American Atheists, and other secular organizations. They demonstrated immense concern, and some issued multiple statements condemning the Bangladeshi government for suppressing the voice of the freethinking community. Michael De Dora, director of the Center for Inquiry’s Office of Public Policy and the organization’s representative to the United Nations, suggested a worldwide protest rally complete with demonstrations in Washington, D.C., London, Ottawa, Dhaka, and other cities around the world. The demonstrations were held on April 25, 2013, and May 2, 2013, under the banner of “Worldwide Protests for Free Expression in Bangladesh.” They succeeded in drawing global attention to this new threat to freedom of belief and expression. More important, the demonstrations put pressure on the Bangladeshi government to release the freethinkers. As pressure mounted, the government responded and it released the arrested bloggers on bail at the end of June 2013. Still, the bloggers are awaiting trial and face continual death threats from fundamentalist groups. Their names, pictures, and even addresses have been widely publicized, and they are now easy targets.

Clearly global attention cuts both ways – it puts pressure on governments but it also puts targets on people and gives the theofascists more fuel for their murderous rages.

But we have to resist.

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