Bangladesh cover image
Illustration by James Albon

This article is a preview from the Autumn 2015 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.

In February 2015, Avijit Roy and his wife Rafida Bonya Ahmed travelled from their home in Atlanta, Georgia, to Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh. This was their home town, and they were attending the annual Ekushey Book Fair, which runs all month. They’d been unable to attend in 2014 because Roy had received death threats after the publication of his book The Virus of Faith, which criticised religion.

The couple were familiar with controversy. They ran a Bengali-language web forum called Mukto-Mona, or Free Minds, promoting rationalist thought, and had been threatened online by Islamic fundamentalists. During their trip to Dhaka, they avoided being out too late at night, varied their routines and checked in regularly with relatives. For the first ten days, the strategy seemed to work.

On 26 February, they attended a series of events at Dhaka University, where the book fair is held. They left in the evening, walking back to their car through a crowded and well-lit area. Suddenly, they were surrounded by a group of masked men with machetes. Ahmed doesn’t remember what happened next, as the knives rained down upon them. There were hundreds of people around, including police officers. They did not step in. After the attack, a young journalist intervened and drove them to the hospital. Ahmed survived, severely injured. It was too late for Roy, who died during the drive.

“We knew the risks,” Ahmed told me when we met in central London four months after the attack. “Avi was there on his own in 2012 and he was pretty open and nothing happened, so we were not ready for this. Our daughter says we underestimated the situation. We thought, okay, there could be protests, there could be people yelling and screaming – but not this.” She pauses, struggling with herself. “We knew, we knew how dangerous it could be.”

Ahmed is a small woman in her 40s with short cropped hair, wide eyes and a youthful face. After the attack, she is missing a thumb. Her scalp and neck also bear scars; she was stabbed repeatedly in the head. She is quick to laugh but says her thoughts are “scattered” by the heavy medication. She gets tired quickly because of the head injuries.

Roy, who held dual US and Bangladeshi nationality, was the most prominent atheist writer to be attacked in Bangladesh, but he was not the first – nor the last. On 30 March, a month after Roy’s murder, another blogger, Washiqur Rahman Babur, was set upon by a group of masked assailants. On 12 May, Ananta Bijoy Das, who wrote for Mukto-Mona on rationalism and science, was attacked in his hometown of Sylhet. On 7 August, men with machetes broke into the Dhaka home of Niloy Chakrabarti, a blogger who used the pen name Niloy Neel. All three men died.

The four murders in 2015 were brutal and happened in quick succession, but the violence began in 2013. Atheist blogger and political activist Asif Mohiuddin was on his way to work on 15 January that year when he was attacked from behind by a group of men with machetes. “At that time, I was thinking I would die,” he tells me over Skype from his new home in Germany. “But somehow I survived.” He spent several weeks in intensive care, and still finds it difficult to move his neck. “I think I will carry this problem all my life.”

A month later, another blogger critical of Islamic fundamentalism, Ahmed Rajib Haider, was attacked in the same way outside his house in Dhaka. He did not survive. In 2014, no bloggers were targeted, but the violence continued. In August that year, someone broke into the Dhaka home of television personality Nurul Islam Faruqi, who had criticised fundamentalist groups on air, and slit his throat. A humanist academic, Professor Shafiul Islam, who had pushed for a ban on full-face veils for students, was murdered near ­Rajshahi University in west Bangladesh in November.

These brutal crimes have gone unpunished; initial arrests have not led to prosecutions. The government appears unwilling, or unable, to stand with atheists. Instead, in an attempt to appease Islamists, it has ramped up its own actions against “blasphemous” bloggers. Secularists are terrified. Many have stopped writing altogether, some have left the country and others are desperately seeking an exit. Who is behind these attacks on atheists, a tiny subset of the Muslim-majority population? And can Bangladesh’s secular ­tradition survive in the face of such violence?

Bangladesh was born out of the partition of India in 1947, when it was labelled East Pakistan, officially part of the new homeland for the Muslims of the subcontinent, despite being separated from West Pakistan by thousands of miles of Indian territory. The independence movement began in the 1950s, and came to a head with the bloody 1971 war of independence, which saw genocide of liberation forces by West Pakistan. The war brought to the forefront tensions within Bangladesh. On one side were Islamists, who supported West Pakistan, arguing that it was an affront to Islam for Bangladesh to declare independence. On the other were secularists who wanted a state free of the religious strictures and economic marginalisation they suffered as part of Pakistan. The latter group won the battle of ideas, and the country’s constitution guaranteed secularism as a founding principle. It didn’t last. Power was seized by the military in 1975 and, just as had happened in Pakistan, a process of Islamisation began. In 1977, military leaders removed secularism from the constitution and declared Islam the state religion. This remained the case until 2010, when the Supreme Court restored the principle of secularism. Islam remained the state religion. This fractious history points to an unresolved question: what is the true identity of Bangladesh? Perhaps unsurprisingly for a debate born out of such violence, it is a polarising subject.

“There is a rationalist intellectual tradition that goes back all the way to the nineteenth century,” says Dr Sumit Ganguly, professor of Indian Civilisations at Indiana University. “It cuts across religious lines because Bengal was the great head of British colonialism, so ideas of Enlightenment really took root there. There was already a cultural consensus about an openness to the world, a certain cosmopolitanism, reflected in the work of prominent writers.” But, he explains, this secular tradition did not exist in isolation. “There was always a strain of bigotry, of closed-mindedness – Hindus and Muslims were equally contemptuous of each other. During Bangladesh’s earlier heritage as East Pakistan, various forms of bigotry were actively ­promoted by the state.”

Over the years, that conservative segment of the population has been empowered by periods in which religious-minded military leaders were in power. One of the two main parties, the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), is allied with religious groups. The other, the Awami League, is secular. But, as religion has become an ever more sensitive topic, they too have capitulated to the religious lobby.

It was against this backdrop that a small but committed community of secularist bloggers began to emerge in the mid-2000s. The first Bengali-language public blogging platform, “somewhereinblog”, was launched in 2005. People wrote personal diaries as well as political and philosophical articles. Users with different perspectives debated and responded to each other’s posts. Gradually, some noticed an increasing volume of religious material. Atheist users of the site responded by sharing their own views. “We believed that even if non-believers, we should have the right to talk about our thoughts and reasons for unbelieving, when the believers and religious authors have the right to preach through social media,” blogger Nastiker Dharmakatha wrote in a recent piece about the plight of Bangladeshi atheists. For many of these writers, it was a revelation to find that others shared their views.

“Day by day, I saw the Islamisation of blogs,” says Mohiuddin. “In Bangladesh, Islamic groups control the mainstream media and TV channels – and they were trying to control the blogs as well.” He and other writers started their own sites, contributing to each other’s blogs and starting Facebook discussions on diverse topics such as history, philosophy, science, law and feminism. Some posts were explicitly critical of the government; others dealt with religious texts. “I criticised many verses of the Qur’an and the Bible because I thought those verses were not compatible with modern society,” says Mohiuddin. “My blog was especially about all those things.”

It was through this virtual group of Bangladeshi atheists that Roy and Ahmed first made contact. They began to speak on the phone, discussing their ideas, how they both came to atheism. Roy was born a Hindu, and had abandoned religion at 19 after reading about rationalism. Ahmed was from a Muslim background, and decided she was an atheist at 13 after noticing logical inconsistencies. Both came from liberal families who accepted their non-belief. On the phone, she teased him that he’d discovered atheism so late. They debated ideas and swapped stories about their family lives. They soon met in person and became a couple. “That marriage was a lot of work,” she says. “We grew and changed all the time and we didn’t agree on everything – but we were committed. We used to laugh a lot that we are so untraditional in everything, but when it comes to the relationship, we’re middle-class romantics, writing handwritten letters to each other.”

When they first met in 2001, Roy had recently established Mukto-Mona as a small Yahoo forum. In 2002, Ahmed helped him set up the first Mukto-Mona website. “What we really wanted to do was promote science, rationalism, humanism and free thinking, for atheists, agnostics, secular minded people, in the Bangla-speaking community,” says Ahmed. “We actually started writing in English, then said, there’s so much done here already. If we really want to contribute, we need to do this in Bangla.”

Mukto-Mona became a central point for Bangladesh’s small community of atheist writers. Other forums were popular too, including the Dhormockery, a satirical site where atheists lampooned religion. Some, like Mohiuddin – who had also come to atheism in his teens, repelled by the violence of religious texts – ran their own blogs which began to gather substantial audiences. The posts were often controversial, attracting furious comments from religious conservatives as well as positive ones from likeminded readers. Aware of the potential risks of criticising Islam and advocating non-belief, many writers used pseudonyms. Some received death threats. They grew close to each other; Ahmed describes Ananta Bijoy Das, murdered three months after her husband, as “a little brother”. She had recently come out of the intensive care unit when she heard about his death. “Every time I went to Bangladesh, I would give him the bus fare to go home, because he was a student,” she says. “I just lost my whole recovery when I heard about him.”

The scars of the 1971 war of independence have recently been reopened, drawing to the surface the tension between Islamists and secularists. In 2010, the Awami League began a war crimes tribunal aimed at bringing the perpetrators of mass killings to justice. Many of those on trial were Islamists, members of the Jamaat-e-Islami, a conservative religious political movement that spans South Asia. The trials emerged from a divided political landscape, dominated by the personal animosity between the two women who head the main parties. Sheikh Hasina, head of the Awami League, is the daughter of Bangladesh’s first president Majibur Rahman, slaughtered in the military coup of 1975. The BNP is led by Khaleda Zia, widow of Zia ur-Rahman, the country’s first military dictator. From the outset, the war crimes process was controversial. Critics saw it as political score-settling by Hasina, the prime minister, for the murder of her father.

Many bloggers were vocal supporters of the tribunal. A significant contingent of these secular activists advocated the harshest penalty available – death. Others, like Mohiuddin, supported the process but opposed the death penalty on principle. The trial came to a head in late 2012 and early 2013, and it was at this point that fundamentalists turned their attention to atheist writers. In a lecture hosted by the British Humanist Association in July, Ahmed described the situation: “The Islamists were under extreme pressure. With voter support for Islamist parties declining and senior Islamists finally being found guilty of those war crimes, the Islamic fundamentalists turned their attention to atheists. If Islamist leaders might be put to death for war crimes … then the secularists and atheists who called for justice must themselves meet the same fate.”

In January 2013 Mohiuddin was knifed, and in February Haider killed. Both were active in a protest group known as the Shahbagh Movement, comprised of secularists supportive of the war crimes tribunal. After the attacks, thousands took to the streets, calling for justice for Mohiuddin and Haider. “This is where the tension really took a whole new level,” says Sumit Galhotra, Asia researcher for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “But Bangladesh was already headed on this trajectory. Throughout the 1990s, early 2000s, there were authors who had to flee the country, long before the current crisis against bloggers. The roots of all of this go back several years; to the ideological battle to define what the country stands for.”

It did not take long for Islamists to form counter-protests, calling for the death penalty for blasphemers and atheists. Protests descended into violent clashes. Islamist fundamentalists published a hit-list of 84 bloggers. Many had used pseudonyms; now they were outed. Newspapers ran inflammatory articles about non-believers, labelling them anti-religion and further publicising their names. Many went into hiding, fearful of vigilante attack. Mohiuddin covered his face with a mask when he left the house.

The group leading the counter-protests, Hefazat-e-Islam, issued a 13-point list of demands, which appeared to be based on those issued by the Taliban before it seized control of Afghanistan in the 1990s. Along with demands that girls’ education be limited, the list called for the government to pass a law “keeping a provision of capital punishment for maligning Allah, Islam, and the Prophet Muhammed, and smear campaigns against Muslims”. It also called for punishment for the leaders of the Shahbagh Movement.

Rather than defending the right to freedom of expression, Hasina capitulated. She said there was no need for a new blasphemy law, since there was already one against “hurting religious sentiments”, under which bloggers could be prosecuted. An amendment was added to the Information and Communication Technology Act, outlawing any communication that “causes hurt to religious belief”. In April 2013, four bloggers from the list distributed by Islamists were arrested. One of them was Mohiuddin, who had been attacked with machetes three months earlier.

“I was very angry when the government started arresting secular bloggers,” he says. “They were officially recognising the fundamentalist message – these people are atheists and they have to be killed. We had problems now from Islamic groups and the so-called secular Awami League.”

Prison was a dangerous place for Mohiuddin. His name and photograph had been published in newspapers, and Islamist groups had incorrectly labelled him the leader of the country’s secular bloggers. “The first day I was in prison, all the prisoners shouted that in the morning they will cut me into pieces. I thought, this is the end of my life, and tomorrow morning they are going to kill me.”

Mohiuddin was placed in a cell with two other men, who asked if he recognised them. When he said he did not, one of the men responded that they had attacked him in January. “I don’t know why they put me in the same cell with them,” he says. “I was shocked, but then I decided to talk to them – why did they attack me? I have written many times that if you disagree with my views, you can criticise me, but you cannot attack me physically.” He spoke to them for over an hour before being moved again. The men were unrepentant, threatening to attack him again when they were released from prison. Displaying forgiveness often associated with the religious, Mohiuddin is not angry. “I had a feeling that they were brainwashed. They thought they were doing a good thing. The problem is with the education system and madrasa network. I have to fight with that system, not with the people.”

He was in jail for three months, accused of criticising Islam and the Prophet. He was bailed for a month before being imprisoned again for nine days. After that, he went to Germany to take up a scholarship. He plans to remain in Europe for several years, until it is safe for him to return home. “They are still looking for me. Just a few days ago I got threats. It has become very normal for me, but I still have to take care. I don’t share my location anywhere.”

Mohiuddin’s ordeal neatly crystallises the double threat faced by bloggers – Islamist violence on the one hand, and official repression on the other. The crisis faced by atheist writers is unfolding against a backdrop of a wider clampdown on press freedom. “It’s been a really bad time for the media at large,” says Galhotra. “Sheikh Hasina’s government has been going after anyone reporting critically on her – not just opposition papers and channels, which have been shut down, but also the mainstream press.” The editor of Amardesh, an opposition newspaper, is behind bars, while two TV news channels affiliated with the opposition remain off-air. Recently, some Islamist bloggers have also been arrested.

Freedom of speech is being pressed from above by the government as well as from below by the extremists. “For me, the pressure from the government is more difficult than from fundamentalist groups,” says Mohiuddin. “When the government treats us as the enemy of the state, we cannot go outside our homes.”

While tension over the war crimes tribunal has now died down, violence against atheist writers has surged. “One of the reasons is that Bangladesh has allowed a culture of impunity to flourish over the years,” says Galhotra. Arrests have been made after the four murders this year, but given that those charged with Haider’s killing in 2013 have still not stood trial, relatives are not hopeful. “On the one hand, the government does nothing when the terrorists strike, but on the other hand, when they make their demands, the government bend their knees and listen to it,” says Ahmed. “What’s the message? It gives them a free pass that they can do anything.”

The attack on Roy and Ahmed this year gained international attention, but the Bangladeshi government made no comment. Eventually, in May, Hasina’s son Sajeeb Wazed spoke to Reuters news agency: “Our mother offered private condolences to Avijit’s father. But the political situation in Bangladesh is too volatile for her to comment further… We don’t want to be seen as atheists. It doesn’t change our core beliefs. We believe in secularism. But given that our opposition party plays that religion card against us relentlessly, we can’t come out strongly for him. It’s about perception, not about reality.”

His comments underscore the corrosive impact of Bangladesh’s polarisation. Religion is a highly sensitive issue and each party is too afraid of ceding ground to the other to take a stand against bigotry and violence. In effect, this means pandering to fundamentalists.

The government’s inaction has identified these writers as an easy target for those wishing to impose religious conservatism. “There has been a global upsurge in radical Islam, and Bangladesh is not free of those currents,” says Ganguly, the academic. “There’s certainly an element of vigilantism [in these attacks] but these are people that are imbued with an ideology that is genuinely global and who are deriving their inspiration from and probably have some links to global organisations.”

Ahmed also believes that the death of her husband should be seen in the context of an international rise in fundamentalism. “My friends are very angry that justice hasn’t been done. I just keep thinking this is much deeper than you think. It’s not about catching two people. It’s a global phenomenon which has roots very deep. So what am I going to do with justice for these killers? Avijit is not going to come back. Justice means rooting out fundamentalism. Justice means so many bigger things to me.”

The impact on Bangladesh’s close-knit group of secularist bloggers has been drastic. Many have stopped writing altogether. “My heart goes out to the men and women who despite considerable risk to their lives write things which are highly critical,” says Ganguly. “But it’s a small number, and a number that’s growing smaller by the day. When you face the prospect of someone walking into your office with a meat cleaver – that produces a certain concentration of mind.”
Mohiuddin bears the scars of this battle of ideas on his body; when he wakes up each morning, he has to stay still for 20 minutes before he can move his neck. But he is most distressed by the loss of his work. When the government banned his blog, they deleted all the content from the server. “I cannot live my life without writing. I am breathing, so I have to write. I was very upset for that blog. I have to start everything from the beginning.”

Ahmed, who still speaks about her husband in the present tense, is grieving her loss. “It’s a process. I am still under treatment. It’s going to take a while. I feel nothing any more, just absolutely nothing.” When we met, she was deciding how best to pursue her activism and advance the causes she once championed with her husband. He was always happy in the public eye; she preferred to remain private. It was something they fought about. “This is his revenge on me,” she says. “Avijit is like that. He drove me crazy with everything and now he is still. I can’t believe I’m doing this [interview]. He’s happy. He’s laughing. He laughed a lot. He was a happy person.”

Throughout their relationship, the couple gave each other handwritten letters. Ahmed’s last letter to Roy was written on 12 February, two weeks before he died. In it, she remembered that, when they first met, she criticised him for neglecting books because he was too focused on the internet. “I wrote to him and said, now you read so much more, and I have slowed down. You encourage me and remind me that I need to get back to that. I guess that’s the strength we have, that we encourage each other.”

Her phone bleeped with messages from Mukto-Mona’s international network of moderators, determined to keep the discussion going. But the public space for Bangladesh’s atheist writers and activists is closing all the time.