Despite being a Muslim majority country, and the recurring upsurge of religious extremism, the overall socio-cultural scenario in Bangladesh and its capital Dhaka is visibly secular. Moving through Shahbagh area, in the heart of Dhaka, the cultural, intellectual and educational hub of the country, one can easily feel the palpable enthusiasm of the younger generation, their cultural affinity and vivacious expression in the forms of Song, Drama, Literature, Debates, politics and protests.
For more than a week after Avijit was killed, there were widespread protests in and around Dhaka, specially in the University area, where people from all walks of life took the streets, hold processions and protest marches, Dharnas, Candle Light Vigil, hunger strikes, thousands of placards sprang up all over Dhaka denouncing the killing and remembering Avijit Roy. Various student groups left or centre, organised protest meetings, sits on strikes. From University Vice Chancellors to Media luminaries, Poets, Writers, Intellectuals, theatre groups, women organistions. Workers everyone came on the streets to protest against killing, communal threats and government’s ineptness.
Not a single speaker, ever mentioned that Avijit was a Hindu and wrote mostly against Bangladesh’s growing menace of Islamic extremism!
From London to New York, Paris to Montreal, whenever there are a sizable numbers of Bangladeshi expatriates, protest marches were organised, speaker after speaker raised their voice to denounce the dastardly act and remembered Avijit’s relentless fight against extremism, censorship and communalism.
Who Is Avijit Roy?
Avijit Roy, the blogger, writer, rationalist an acclaimed champion of atheism, free thinking and secularism, refused to be silenced despite repeated threats against his life by Islamist fanatics. As a defender of his country’s secularist principles, enshrined in the Bangladeshi constitution but often betrayed by its political opportunists, he attained fame and admiration of Bangladesh’s free thinkers, intellectuals and the younger generation.
Born in Dhaka in 1972, Roy was brought up in the Bangladeshi capital, where his father was a renowned professor of Physics at Dhaka University. Avijit took a degree in microbiology from the Bangladesh Technical University and done his Masters and PhD from Singapore National University (NUS) and worked as an engineer in Bangladesh and later in the US.
He worked as a software engineer in Atlanta, USA and wrote a series of books on science, rationalism and secularism in Bengali and some in English, as well as established Mukta-Mona, “free thinker” in Bengali, a blogging platform which he described as “an Internet congregation of freethinkers, rationalists, atheists, skeptics, and humanists of mainly Bengali and South Asian descent.”
He started his blog in 2001 and stayed in Bangladesh despite regular threats on his life. Ultimately he immigrated to the US in 2007, obtained US citizenship and settled in Bethany Creek, 30 miles north of Atlanta, Georgia, with his wife Rafida Ahmed, who is a scientist, a co-blogger and a champion of secularism, and daughter Trisha, who studies in John Hopkins University.
From his Atlanta base, Avijit wrote a series of books, primarily in Bengali, dealing with subjects that are anathema to Islamic fundamentalists, including atheism, scepticism and rationalism, the theory of evolution, which inspired the ‘British Humanist Association’ to describe him as “the Richard Dawkins of Bangladesh“.
His two most recent books Obisshahser Dorhson (“The Philosophy of Disbelief”) and Biswasher Virus (“The Virus of Faith”) have created a lot of interest as well as debate among the Bangladeshi intelligentsia.
In “The Virus of Faith”, Avijit adopted the metaphor first popularised by Professor Dawkins that religious faith “can behave”, as Roy wrote in a recent description of his book, “like a ‘biological virus’ in a living organism,” arguing, in line with Darrel W Ray and Daniel Dennett, that “religions display behavioural control over people in much the same way that parasites invade organisms. For example, the rabies virus infects very specific neurons in the brain of a mammalian host, later inducing the host to bite or otherwise attack others.”
In the pure rationalist tradition he pulled no punches in his criticism of Islam, attracting the fatwas to kill “infidels”.
It’s not that he had criticised only Islam, which is the religion of 90% of Bangladeshi population, he also criticised the Vedas and other Hindu scriptures, wrote extensively on Babri Masjid Demolition and rise of Hindu fundamentalism in India, even questioned Hindu icons like Swami Vivekananda.
He celebrated “Darwin Day” in his blog and often questioned the base of Christianity. He was one of the very few in Bangladesh, who wrote regularly in support of the LGBT community there.
A September 2013 blogpost by him was headlined, “Happy Blasphemy Day, Happy Birthday ‘Mukto Mona.'”
Roy wrote that the day is “dedicated to those who are systematically being persecuted, harassed, or killed for their simple expression of Freethought (more precisely, for their ‘blasphemous’ views towards religion).”
Denouncing ISIS, he wrote in an essay, which was published posthumously on the US website of the ‘Centre for Inquiry’: Those who wish to be factually correct rather than politically correct [in describing the true nature of Islam] may be outcast or even physically threatened… This is exactly what happened to me.”
We are united in our grief and we remain undefeated
Visit the bangla blog
Can’t access the site? Use “https://” before the website link and if you get browser warning click on “I understand the risk”. Its completely safe!
অভিজিৎ রায়। লেখক এবং প্রকৌশলী। মুক্তমনার প্রতিষ্ঠাতা সম্পাদক।
আমার মূল আগ্রহ সাম্প্রতিক বিজ্ঞান এবং দর্শন বিষয়ে। মুক্তমনায় আমার নিজস্ব ব্লগে এ নিয়েই মুলতঃ লেখালিখি করি। পাশাপাশি আমাদের সমাজে ট্যাবু হিসেবে পরিচিত বিভিন্ন বিষয় নিয়েও লেখার আগ্রহ আছে। বাংলাভাষায়আমার লেখা বইগুলো সুধীমহলের দৃষ্টি আকর্ষণ করতে পারায় আমি আনন্দিত, এবং পাঠকদের কাছে কৃতজ্ঞ।
Avijit began one of his final articles by describing last January’s Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, “a tragic atrocity committed by soldiers of the so-called religion of peace.“
He recalled the case of another secular Bangladeshi blogger, Ahmed Rajib Haider, who was also hacked to death outside his home in Bangladesh in February 2013, by assailants with machetes.
“The virus of faith was the weapon that made these atrocities possible,” Avijit wrote in the article, which was to be published in ‘Free Inquiry’ magazine in April.
Stalked By The Killers
Despite continuous threats on his life from the radical groups, he came to Bangladesh in mid-February this year, to attend the Bangladesh National Bookfair, where two of his books were to be released. Ekushe Biomela is always a prime attraction to every Bangladeshi, specially for the cultural and intellectual fraternity.
On Thursday, Feb 26, at around 8.30 in the night, the outspoken blogger, engineer and writer known for speaking out for secular freedom died, when returning from a speaking engagement and launching his newly published books in the Bangladesh National Bookfair (Ekushe Boimela) with his wife Rafida Ahmed (Popularly called Banya), after being brutally attacked by machete-wielding assailants, in the vicinity of Dhaka University.
The Coroner of the Dhaka Medical College Hospital, just a short distance away from the crime scene, testified that the attack was an act of a professional killer. Two deep rooted stabs at the back of the skull were so severe that the victim died within a short time from severe bleeding. His wife had also been attacked and seriously injured. She was put into ICU, and later shifted to the USA for further treatment, by the US Embassy. Rafida is a naturalised US citizen.
Ajoy Roy, his father, a respected Human Rights activist and retired Professor of Physics lamented, “This Bangladesh which was built by the blood-sacrifice of the martyrs has now turned into a den of militants.”
Bob Churchill, from London-based ‘International Humanist and Ethical Union’ lamented, the “loss is keenly felt by freethinkers and humanists in South Asia and around the world.” He remembered Avijit Roy as “a colleague in humanism and a friend to all who respect human rights, freedom, and the light of reason.”
Acclaimed Bangladeshi Publisher Majharul Islam showed his despair: How many more writers will be killed by these extremists in Bangladesh! We must stand up now. We want to come out with this slogan, “Books against Violence”.
Despite threats, Avijit regularly returned to Bangladesh for the February book fairs, said Michael De Dora, Director of the Amherst, New York-based ‘Center for Inquiry’ and a friend of Avijit Roy.
“Avijit was very idealistic,” he said. “His understanding was that he wouldn’t be killed, that if anyone ever tried to attack him or hated him, that they could just kind of have a chat and he would convince them … that they could at least have a dialogue.”
According to De Dora, Roy, who was an American citizen, reported last year’s threat to the FBI, but the author was skeptical of alerting Bangladeshi authorities.
“For him, even if he was getting threats that he thought were serious, to not be able to go back to his home country and meet with activists and other bloggers and writers would be kind of horrible thought for him,” De Dora said.
Death threats against Avijit Roy and a top Bangladeshi online bookseller ‘Rokomari’ compelled the company to stop selling Roy’s books, earlier last year.
The vital Facebook threats came from an Islamist, Farabi Shafiur Rahman, allegedly a member of the radical ‘Jamaat e Islami’, who issued them publicly but remained free.
Farabi noted on Facebook: “Avijit Roy lives in America and so, it is not possible to kill him right now. But he will be killed when he comes back.” The threat apparently proved all too real on that very night.
Where Avijit Was Felled
Avijit Roy and his wife were attacked in the vicinity of Dhaka University, in full public view, on the thoroughfare opposite Suhrawardy Udyan.
Surhawardy Udyan is a place of high national importance. Formerly known as Ramna Race Course, this is the final resting place of three Bangladesh national leaders, Sher-e-Bangla A.K. Fazlul Huq, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy and Khwaja Nazimuddin.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman made his historic speech here, invoking the Bengalis to prepare for the freedom struggle. The Bangladesh flag was hoisted here for the first time at such a huge public gathering (it was earlier privately unfurled within the premises of Dhaka University).
On 16 December 1971, the Pakistan Army under Lt. Gen. A. K. Niazi surrendered here to the Indian Army.
The park is now maintained as historic place with the eternal flame (Shikha Chironton), first lit in 1996 to symbolise the freedom struggle.
Facing the Udyan is the iconic meeting place of Dhaka University students, TSC (Teacher Student Centre).It’s the cultural and intellectual hub of Dhaka University. The Center includes auditorium, library, cafeteria, reading room, art and music centres, stage for performance, provision store, bookshop, swimming pool, gym and bank. It’s the area where various Music and Street Theatre Groups perform, artists hold their exhibitions, even many cultural organisations have their de-facto office at this address, a popular venue for events of current socio-cultural and political issues, seminar and symposiums. It is most famous for “ADDA” and continuous debates and dialogues on contemporary local and global issues, a favourite spot for the lovers too.
Killing in this happening and culturally charged vicinity, where Avijit too spent years of his student life, is not only shocking, it’s a blot on the spirit of openness and spontaneous protests, a city and its people known for!
In its statement, Dhaka University Teachers Association (DUTA) said: Dhaka University is a cradle of exercising free thoughts and democracy. For these reasons, the communal extremists chose the university campus to launch attacks on persons of progressive conscience.”
Dhaka University professor Muntasir Mamoon felt utterly disgusted and told: I was born in Pakistan. We broke it created a new nation Bangladesh. Are we now going back to Pakistan? The day BNP—Jamaat e Islami coalition sat on power, the freethinkers, the writers and the fearless journalists were threatened, killed. Writer Humayun Azad was attacked on his way from the book fair in the same manner, on 27 February 2004. He died later. Had his killers been brought to book, Avijit had not to die”!
Returning back to USA, Avijit’s wife Rafida made a strong statement. She said: My husband “an intellectually fulfilled atheist, who dedicated his life to promoting science and secularism …I will go back to being vocal and expressing what we believe in. The cause that Avijit died for, I will not be quiet.”
She said, “Dhaka University campus is historically the hub of progressive movements. We were threatened reputedly earlier, but it was not even in our dreams that we would be attacked within the University premises”!
No One Came Forward!
This is the area within Dhaka’s Shahbag central neighbourhood. Throughout the history, Shahbag has been a place of protests and demonstrations for the people of Bangladesh, raising the public and political demands, most notably the 2013 Shahbag protests when thousands of students and youths gathered demanding arrest and punishment of the collaborators of 1971 war crimes and banning of Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami.
During the protests, Ahmed Rajib Haider, a progressive and pro-Shahbag blogger was brutally killed outside home by machete-wielding youths.
A Bangladeshi Freethought blogger Arifur Rahman, who was present at the 2015 Bookfair, recalled: In Bangladesh, we have seen Government satisfying Islamists’ demands, not protecting bloggers, and writers at all. Everyone almost accepted the fact that this will happen and will continue to happen. Government and state is not here to protect or give any help. After the incident everyone is advising me leave country immediately. I am not interested in leaving right now. But no point in living here too, if I have to be afraid all the time.”
Asif Mohiuddin, who spoke in a plenary session at, last year’s ‘World Humanist Congress’ about the threats on writers, journalists and bloggers commented: Avijit was my hero, and hero of many young freethinkers in Bangladesh. Many young people were inspired by him so much. Now we have a big atheist and agnostic community, gay and lesbian community that was possible only because of him. He was our support in every step. Whenever we had any problem, he solved that very quickly”.
There is speculation that nothing will happen to the killers considering the pace and nature of investigations in the case of Professor Humayun Azad, Rajib Haider, Professor Lalon, Sagor-Runi, and so on. In the Avijit killing the photographs published in the newspapers and social media show that there were eye witnesses, including police.
Several published photographs have pointed that police presence were there near the victim. While wife Rafida Ahmed yelled for help no-one came forward!
According to eyewitnesses, Shahbagh More, Doyel Compound near the Bookfair, Fuller Road Crossing and almost at every entry gate of the University campus, police were present in sizable numbers. FBI had reportedly informed Bangladesh authority about the threat on the couple’s life (according to some sources, US FBI officers are long present in Bangladesh). So why Avijit was not protected!
In a highly volatile political environment in Bangladesh now, Police might not been able to prevent the attack, but they could at least have chased them and attempted to nab the killers
Bloggers In Peril
Many Bangladeshi bloggers supported the 2013 Shahbag protests that sought capital punishment for the Islamist leader and war criminal Abdul Quader Molla, as well as to ban Jamaat-e-Islami from politics. Islamist groups responded by organising protests calling for the execution of “atheist bloggers” accused of insulting Islam, and the introduction of a blasphemy law.
Many atheist bloggers who supported the Shahbag protests came under attack, and Ahmed Rajib Haider was killed by Islamist groups on 15 February 2013. A month before the protest, blogger Asif Mohiuddin was attacked outside his house by four youths.
Asif Mohiuddin, an award winner for online activism, was on an Islamist hit list that also included the murdered sociology professor Shafiul Islam. Mohiuddin’s blog was shut down by the ‘Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission’ (BTRC), and he was jailed for posting “offensive comments about Islam and the Prophet.”
The Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) has asked community blog owners to ban a number of blogs which have been deemed “anti-state” and “anti-religious!”
The so called secular government arrested several other bloggers and blocked about a dozen websites and blogs, also given police protection to some bloggers.
A popular community blog ‘Amarblog’ has reportedly received communication from BTRC with instructions similar to those sent to other such Blogs. In a blog post, ‘Amarblog’ denounced the BTRC order to provide authorities with the confidential “IP address, location, email address, cell phone number and real name” of its bloggers.
International organisations, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Reporters without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the imprisonment of bloggers and the climate of fear for journalists.
Avijit Roy wrote that he was appalled that the Bangladeshi media portrayed young bloggers as “crooks in the public eye” and wrote to various global media outlets for support.
Avijit went on to coordinate an international protests in Dhaka, London, New York, Washington, D.C., Ottawa and other world cities in support of the jailed bloggers. Avijit was joined by writers, activists, and prominent secularists and intellectuals around the world including Taslima Nasrin, Salman Rushdie, Maryam Namazie, Anu Muhammad, PZ Myers, Qayyum Chowdhury, Ramendu Majumdar and Muhammad Zafar Iqbal in publicly expressing their solidarity with the arrested bloggers.
Avijit also helped many persecuted Bangladeshi writers, bloggers and journalists to relocate abroad.
According to the information shared by ‘Reporters Without Borders’, blogger Subrata Audhikary Shuvo could the next possible target of the radical Islamists, who sentenced him to death after he was arrested under the blasphemy law in May 2013 and have been threatening him ever since.
Bangladesh is ranked 146th out of 180 countries in the 2015 ‘Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index.
By: Deep Basu