Are we retreating as a society?

Raihan Jamil
Published : 17 March 2015, 10:46 AM
Updated : 17 March 2015, 10:46 AM

Prolific Bangladeshi-American writer, blogger, engineer, proponent of free-thinking, and father Avijit Roy, Ph.D., was killed in a brutal attack in Dhaka, Bangladesh on February 26, 2015. He was returning from Bangladesh's most popular and renowned national annual book fair, the month-long Ekushey Boi Mela with his wife Rafida Ahmed Bonna. Dr. Roy (more commonly known as Avijit or Avijit-da) was hacked to death on the spot by two masked men with machetes, while his wife was severely injured. These men are widely believed to be supporters of extremist Islamic parties in Bangladesh, such as the Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh and its many other sub groups. The news of Avijit's murder spread like wildfire in the national and then international media. BBC, CNN, The New York Times, and The Guardian – all made headline news on this killing.

The reason behind this brutal attack and murder is that Avijit proclaimed to be an atheist and he co-founded a blog named Mukto-Mona (free thinkers) with this father, Dr. Ajoy Roy. The senior Dr. Roy is a notable physicist (retired) from Bangladesh's leading university, the University of Dhaka, and is also a winner of Bangladesh's most prestigious award – the Ekushey Padak. After finishing his undergraduate degree from Bangladesh's top engineering school – Bangladesh University of Engineering & Technology (BUET) – Avijit got his Master's and Doctorate degrees from the National University of Singapore (NUS) – another globally ranked school. He then moved to the U.S. and settled in the state of Georgia. Avijit wrote prolifically on issues related to secularism, freethinking, critical thinking, and was a strong opponent of all religious extremism.

In one his most recent write-ups in the U.S. based Center for Inquiry Transnational (simultaneously published in the Good Reads site on Jan 21, 2015), Avijit wrote about how religious extremists have gunned down 145 people in Peshawar, Pakistan, 132 of whom have been school children. This news shocked and shook the whole world, as we would like to believe our children should not be involved in any forms of violence, whether religious or otherwise. Avijit then talks about how merely three weeks after the Peshawar attack, two Islamic militants entered the office of the French publication Charlie Hebdo and killed twelve people in the name of Islam.

These militants were heard shouting Arabic verses. "To me, such religious extremism is like a highly contagious virus," writes Avijit, "my own recent experiences in this regard verify the horrific reality that such religious extremism is indeed a virus of the mind." Accordingly, his most recent book is titled "Bishwasher Virus" or the "Virus of Faith." This and the publication of another book during the 2015 national book fair brought him to Dhaka – brought him to his untimely death.

What happened in the social media since his death could be simply coined as puzzling to any observer. As a person who knew Avijit to some extent and as a fellow Bangladeshi, the events seem even more perplexing to me. The social media world, primarily Facebook and Twitter, got very heated in the debate about Avijit's murder. One might wonder, what is there to debate about? Sadly, the debate focused on whether this heinous crime was justified or not. Why would it be justified? Many felt (and some even celebrated) the killing was just because Avijit wrote strong criticisms of Islam as a religion, and in a country with an overwhelming Muslim majority such writings could not be accepted or tolerated.

Avijit was anti-Muslim and anti-Islam, people wrote, and he got what he deserved. This is additionally good, people said, as this killing would stand as a warning to all those who claim to be atheists before they write anything so hateful. The other side claimed Avijit wrote about the flaws he saw in extremist Islam, and he is free to choose to be who he wanted to be. Religion is not a must for everyone, and his writing should have been dealt with by other writings. So fight a pen with a pen, and not a machete. An interesting aspect of this so-called debate is that there emerged a third group who refused to take any clear stance. They took the middle ground saying they do not condone the brutal killing of Avijit, but he should not have written such hateful materials against Islam.

The first group is clear – they support the killing. The second group is also clear in their opposition about such violence. However, I find this third group of social media users to be the most problematic. In their attempt to portray neutrality on this barbaric crime, to appear balanced on both sides, they chose to stand in the murky water of dehumanising themselves. It reminded me of a common tactic of blaming the victim.

An example would be a girl is raped because she dared to go out by herself in the evening, or that she had not dressed up modestly. As one of the Indian bus rapists recently said in a BBC interview, he thinks the girl they raped and subsequently killed on a bus two years ago is to blame for the most part. "How dare she travel outside her home in the evening with a male friend?" he said. How can we be blamed for feeling attracted to her? His lawyers made similar claims in the court.

Similarly, Avijit should be blamed for being killed because of what he wrote attracted his killers to take his life. The members of this third group would first condemn "all killings" including Avijit's, and would then use a "but," "although," or "however" as part of their secondary clause and say how Avijit's writings were hateful and were asking for trouble. It makes one wonder, whether these users realise that by doing so, they are implicitly supporting the murder of a man for his writings. In essence, this group is aligning itself fundamentally with the mindset of the killers, and is thus becoming an ally of the killers. But while doing so, they are trying to portray an image of being neutral and being informed about the issues on both sides of the matter – was Avijit anti Muslim or was he pro Muslim? By talking to many of them, I realised they have not read much (if any) of Avijit's works or his philosophies about Mukto-Mona.

So was Avijit or his blog platform anti Muslim? Were they pro Muslim? What do they say about this issue? It is clearly stated on the Mukto-Mona blog for everyone to read. In their own words, they are first and foremost humanists. They place humanity above all else and anywhere they see humanity being trampled over, they would resist. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers in the U.S.A by Islamic militants, Avijit and his team were very vocal against Islamic fundamentalists. Many then equated that with being anti-Islamic. However, it is this same group of people, who protested against the unjust war against Iraq by the US, or stood by the Muslim brothers and sisters of Kashmir and Gujarat. Many people then thought Avijit and the team at Mukto-Mona are pro-Islam.

The key stance of the Mukto-Mona website remains to be philosophical and not political. But that surely did not stop the Islamists in Bangladesh to kill other atheists or bloggers who were critical of Islam and some of its practices.

In 2004, Professor Humayun Azad was assaulted and injured in a similar fashion by similar extremists, while returning from the same book fair, and passed away in Germany. In 2013, during the huge Shahbag movement, two bloggers were brutally attacked. One, Asif Mohiuddin, was attacked near his house by four youths who were followers of the Al-Qaeda leader Anwar Al-Awlaki. He survived. But another blogger, Rajib Haider, was not that fortunate. He was hacked to death in February 2013. All three of them were known to be atheists and criticised Islam in the public domains. Those incidents were now repeated for Avijit Roy and his wife.

Then the question arises whether Islam is such a fragile religion, that the writings of a few "derailed" atheists would break it. Islam has been around for the past 1400 years and is currently the second leading religion on earth. One out of every five people is a Muslim in today's world. So it would suffice to say that Islam is here to stay. The founder of Islam, Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) faced the harshest of criticisms about Islam during his own lifetime. Neither he, nor did his followers go around killing people at will. I am sure they had that option if they chose to. But as a religion of peace, the prophet won more hearts by peaceful dialogue and treaties than by war. We have all grown up listening to his stories of peace, forgiveness, and compassion. Have we not?

One of the most common stories of what kind of a person Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) was is the story of the old lady who would lay down sharp objects on the prophet's path in the morning while he would go for prayers. The intent was to hurt this man as much as her age would let her. One day the prophet did not find those sharp objects on his path, and felt concerned about the well-being of the old lady and looked out for her. He found her to be ill and took care of her, and seeing this, she became a Muslim. That is one of the beauties of true Islam, to show compassion, kindness, and patience. There are many other stories similar to this one about how the preachers and leader of Islam showed their compassion, kindness, and skill in dialogue to win people's hearts.

Is that the kind of Islam that comes into the media nowadays? Disregarding the validity of the claim, the image of Islam around the globe has become more in line with extremism and violence than that of peace and piety. It is widely known that the US is responsible for the rise of the Taliban and eventually Osama bin Laden. Recent writings from Noam Chomsky now implicate the US again for the stemming of ISIS. Both these extremist and terrorist organisations have sadly become key examples of Islam to people of other faiths. And for us who practice Islam, it is hard to believe such false claims about this beautiful and peaceful religion.

This beauty of Islam has always been present in Bangladesh, as we have seen growing up. The Ramadan and the two Eids as Islamic celebrations of faith have become synonymous with the secular cultural values of Bangladesh. And this is equally true of Pujas, Christmas, and the Buddha Purnimas practiced by people of other faiths. Our cultural arena is full of music, poetry, and dramas about this religious harmony that has been practiced in Bangladesh for decades. Yet, now we see an alarming rise in rhetoric of division – division along religious lines.

Some of us have become so violent and intolerant of differences, that we have taken up violence and killing to erase these differences. People who are Muslim feel the pressure to 'appear' very pious (e.g., praying five times a day), the 'need' to wear a hijab has increased manifold, people from other faiths have become afraid to express their beliefs in public, many have been forced out of their own country to go and settle elsewhere, and people who do not feel inclined to follow any religion are shamed in the public sphere. I will not even discuss the perils of being a sexual minority in our country here – many among us do not even consider them to be human! Is this the Bangladesh we grew up in? Is this how we want our children to grow up?

The brutal killing of Avijit had made me reflect on many questions like the ones above. Leaving aside our constitutional pillar of secularism and equity, Bangladesh as a nation has always lived in harmony with all its citizens. We have to look within and see what has changed so much that it makes us so intolerant of others' views. Avijit's murder is just one more example.

Are we regressing as a nation? Are we moving back into darker times or darker examples of other countries? Or are these questions too premature to even ask now? And if we do not ask now, will it be too late to inquire later on? I feel this is something the government and the people need to consider now. Just as much as it is the government's duty to keep us safe and bring these criminals to justice, it is equally important for us not to bow down to ignorance, bigotry, or extremism. If we claim to be growing as a nation and as a country, we have no option but to be educated in the right way – whether it is science, or philosophy, or religion, or atheism. I am sure this is what would make us united as a nation.

I knew Avijit from around the year 2000. Mukto-Mona started off as a Yahoo Group where some of us would exchange ideas and discuss issues that interested us. Soon Avijit realised the need for a more public platform and came up with the website that is still there. As someone passionate about our Liberation War and 1971, it made me very happy when Avijit took the time out to support our first Shuchinta Shadhinota Padak to Mr. Mahbubur Rahman Jalal in 2006. He always remained true to the biggest pride of our motherland – our 1971. I am sure people will remember him for many different reasons, but I will always remember him as the man who loved 1971 and gave his own life and body for the betterment of the people who take pride in 1971.

Finally, I would request all of us to reflect on this: The moment I would start to accept machetes to answer pens, would be the moment my children would learn to equate machetes with pens.

Raihan Jamil, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Business Communication in the College of Business at Zayed University, Abu Dhabi, UAE, and is also the co-researcher and the primary content supervisor of Center for Bangladesh Genocide Research (CBGR).

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher