Bangladesh

Freethinker silenced

Print edition : April 03, 2015

A torch-lit protest against the killing of Avijit Roy in Dhaka on February 27, the day after he and his wife were attacked while leaving a book fair. Photo: MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP

Avijit Roy, a handout photograph. A software engineer based in the United States, Roy was a writer and blogger who spoke out against the excesses and blindnesses of all religions.

Avijit Roy's father, Ajoy Roy (right), and other relatives beside the slain writer's coffin, in Dhaka on March 1. Photo: Suvra Kanti Das./AP

Federal Bureau of Investigation members inspecting the site of the attack, also on March 1. Photo: RAJIB DHAR/AFP

Bangladeshi Rapid Action Battalion personnel with Farabi Shafiur Rahman, arrested in connection with Roy's killing, in Dhaka on March 2. Photo: MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP

Fundamentalist forces strike again, killing the writer and blogger Avijit Roy in Dhaka in what is being perceived as yet another attack on freethinking and secularism in Bangladesh.

It was a cowardly act on the part of the assassins who hacked to death Avijit Roy, a writer and a well-known blogger, and caused severe injuries to his wife, Rafida Ahmed Bonna, on February 26 in Dhaka, when they were alone and unarmed. The brutality has inflicted a blow on Bangladesh’s liberal polity, which promotes freethinking, and the culture of religious tolerance. The murder also reminded the country’s secular population that the elements of extremism are active and out to silence free voices.

A group of unidentified people attacked Avijit, 43, founder of the popular blog Mukto-Mona, and his wife, Bonna, 40, with sharp weapons in front of Dhaka University’s Teachers-Students Centre as they were returning home from the Bangla Academy book fair, where a few books of the writer were released. It was slightly after 9 p.m., and the place was swarming with hundreds of people leaving the book fair. The site of the attack was within sight of dozens of uniformed and plain-clothed policemen and members of security agencies guarding the book fair ground. No one tried to help the couple or thwart the attackers. A young news photographer came forward and took the two of them to a nearby hospital. Avijit died soon after.

Avijit and his wife had come from the United States to see his ailing mother and to join the book fair, held every year in February in commemoration of the historic Bengali language movement of 1952. The attack came within two weeks of their arrival.

Avijit’s father, Professor Ajoy Roy, is a well-known and long-time teacher of Dhaka University’s physics department. Avijit founded the Mukto-Mona (Freethinker) blog with the intention of debating critical issues that are of importance in building a free society. The blog was developed into a website (www.mukto-mona.com), which probably was the first South Asian humanist forum on the net. The aim, in the words of Avijit, was “to build a society which will not be bound by the dictates of arbitrary authority, comfortable superstition, stifling tradition, or suffocating orthodoxy, but would rather be based on reason, compassion, humanity, equality and science”. It always raised a voice whenever people’s freedom and civil liberties were under attack.

Author of 10 books and an e-book, Avijit wrote around 600 blogs on his platform, and also reportedly for other websites. His books cover issues ranging from the beginning of the universe to the science of religion, and from love and homosexuality to psychology. He was a software engineer by profession and was based in the United States.

The young thinker also campaigned for the 2013 Shahbagh movement (“Surge of hope”; Frontline, March 22, 2013), and when some Bangladeshi “atheist” bloggers were arrested for blasphemy, Avijit worked closely with international freethinkers’ platforms to ensure justice. He believed atheism to be a rational concept to oppose any unscientific or irrational belief. He was also a staunch advocate of bringing to justice the perpetrators of crimes committed by the Pakistani occupying army in 1971 and their fundamentalist cohorts.

The writer became a target of the forces of intolerance first in 2008 following the publication of his book Abiswaser Darshan (The Philosophy of Disbelief). He faced many threats in 2013-14 for this. Rokomari.com, an e-commerce site, had to drop the book from its catalogue after its owner received death threats from extremists.

Avijit’s murder has revived memories of a similar tragedy in February 2004 when Humayan Azad, a noted poet, freethinker and essayist, was critically wounded by unidentified attackers at the same place. He, too, was returning from the Bangla Academy Book Fair. Another blogger, Ahmed Rajib Humayun, was murdered in 2013 in Dhaka for his criticism of religion. Militants suspected to be backed by the Jamaat-e-Islami hacked to death a university professor, A.K.M. Shafiul Islam, in northern Rajshahi last year. Prof. Islam followed the folk sect Baul. Hours after the killing, a self-styled militant organisation Ansarullah Bangla Team -2 claimed responsibility for it on Facebook.

Avijit got threats repeatedly from radical Islamists for his views. Shortly after the vicious murder took place, an extremist group called Ansarullah Bangla Team – 7 claimed responsibility for the death on its Twitter account. Avijit’s murder is widely perceived in Bangladesh as an attack on secularism and freedom of thought, values that the nation inherited from the 1971 liberation war. The murder is also perhaps a reflection of a much bigger problem that Bangladesh society now faces, with intolerance and bigotry being fuelled by religious extremists. Downplaying or side-tracking the danger out of political considerations will be a serious mistake.

Avijit had been locked in arguments on social media with some extremist bloggers, including hate campaigner Shafiur Rahman Farabi, ever since he received a death threat. Remarkably, extremist bloggers choose to use social media networks to carry out their campaign.

The U.S. has understandably taken the murder of an American citizen seriously. A day after the attack, the State Department condemned it as a “cowardly act” and said it was ready to assist the investigation, if its help was sought. A team of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has already visited Dhaka to assist the local police in the probe. Avijit’s wife, also a blogger, was flown back to U.S. for treatment of her injuries.

The crime has reminded the nation once again that despite strong presence of law enforcers, no one is really safe if radical Islamists plan to strike. Similar incidents, such as the attacks on Humayun Azad, Rajib Haider and Shafiul Islam, have not been resolved and the guilty punished. To send out the right signal, the government should conduct a focussed investigation and bring the killers as well as those who threatened Avijit publicly to justice.

Shafiur Rahman Farabi, a key suspect, was arrested by the elite Rapid Action Battalion. This young radical Islamist first made the headlines by hailing the murder of the blogger Rajib, who was an architect and an activist in the Shahbagh movement. He even went on to warn on Facebook that if any imam administered the “atheist” blogger's funeral prayers, he would be killed as well.

Last year, Rakamari.com, an online bookstore, removed Avijit’s books from its list following threats by Farabi. Farabi had been detained in 2010 for vandalism at Chittagong University and in 2013 for issuing a death threat to the imam who conducted namaz-e-janaza for Rajib Haider. On both occasions, he got bail.

Freedom fighters of the liberation war, students, teachers, writers, intellectuals and and eminent citizens demonstrated on the Dhaka University campus for days after the attack. Comments and photographs uploaded on social media reflect the mood. But there were also groups that celebrated, with one group claiming the responsibility.

“Allahu Akbar [Allah is great]!!! Brothers We can!!! Target down here in # Bangladesh,” tweeted an account named Ansar Bangla 7 , barely half an hour after the attack on February 26. The same account posted a bloodied photo of Avijit and Bonna and said: “He was a top target 4 last 3/4 years.” Earlier, on January 25 last year, a Facebook post of Farabi said, “It's a holy duty of Bangalee Muslims to kill Avijit.” Then on February 9 last year, he commented on another Facebook post: “Avijit Roy cannot be killed now. He lives in America. But he will certainly be killed once he is back.”

In the killing of Ahmed Rajib Haider, police found the involvement of the Ansarullah Bangla Team, an underground extremist outfit. Six members of the outfit —all students of the country’s top privately run North South University—are now behind bars. It should also be a cause of great worry that the fanatic groups have made considerable headway in many reputed educational institutions across the country. And in most cases, they recruit young men with influential family backgrounds.

Avijit, who was born in a Hindu family in 1971, posted a status message on his Facebook page on October 14, 2014: “I do not have much faith in any religion, but many people around and close to me are Muslims. I have no abhorrence or repugnance for them. I rejoice with them in their moments of happiness. I feel pain when oppressions befall them. I never hesitate to stand beside the Muslims in Palestine or Kashmir when they become victims of torture and oppression. I did that in the past, I will do that in future. This is the manifestation of my humanism.”

Avijit defended the practice of atheism, calling it a “rational concept to oppose any unscientific or irrational belief”.

“I founded this ‘blasphemous site’ Mukto-Mona in the year of 2001, with a singular intention: to debate and discuss on controversial, but utterly important issues. Only with this principle, I thought, can the construction of a progressive, rational and secular society be possible in mainstream Bangladesh and South Asia...,” he wrote in 2013 about the platform.

Avijit’s family donated his body to Dhaka Medical College Hospital for research, as the slain writer had wanted. After Avijt’s death, Mukto-Mona site went black with a message: “We are grief-struck but undefeated.”

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