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Though narrow and frequently precarious, there has long been room for free thinking and unbelief in Bangladesh. But with the country entering a time when more and more people are murdered for what they think and speak, I fear for the land of my birth. A certain opening that has existed for 20 years is closing.
The latest killing has brought forth a range of reactions.
Among those who knew Ananta and his work or value free speech, there is sadness for sure but, beyond that, considerable dismay at the realisation that the Bangladeshi state, despite claims to a certain kind of secularism, cannot protect the lives of those who hold dissident beliefs about religion.
There are others, though, who believe the bloggers went too far and that if they stop intruding into public space, peace will return.
That hope, however, is undermined by the bloodlust among many who celebrate these deaths. Right after Ananta’s murder, his Facebook page was riddled with comments applauding his death. There have also been comments and posts that pledge death for other so-called apostates, such as Shias or Ahmadiyyas. It may be hard to believe, but there are people who believe today’s Pakistan, with its routine killing fields, should be the future of Bangladesh.
When an Islamist takes a cleaver to the head of someone for what they think, there seem to be people who are attracted to this, who say to themselves that they want to be the kind of men who step into those shoes. But isn’t it the case that there are perhaps more humans who recoil from such cruelty, asking, if this be religion, I want none of it?
For many like me who came of age in the 60s, the shocks of 1970-71 moved us away from religion. In 1970 the terrible Bhola cyclone took away over a 100,000 lives. People who went to do relief work came face to face with scenes of massive destruction and bodies stripped of skin. The war of 1971 brought even more brutality, this time from soldiers of Pakistan carrying the banner of Islam.
Quite often it is death, either unexplainable by religion or committed by the religious, that drives people away from religion.
In Bangladesh, freethinkers have lived among a largely conservative, religious-minded population. Most are private and many go about their lives through one or another kind of compromise with the dominant culture. Besides unbelievers and skeptics, the country is of course home to a larger humanist population that draws inspiration from the Bauls or Tagore instead of organised religions.
At the same time, there have always been atheists in the public sphere for whom unbelief is a cause. Reacting to the harmfulness of superstitious thinking and believing in science and reason, they believe that this needs to be addressed in books, articles, or lectures. Some have found homes in academia. Others were affiliated with communist groups, though in the main communists tended to keep their notions about religion to themselves.
At least one remarkable skeptic emerged from village society.
In early 1991, when society opened up after the fall of the dictator Ershad, I was visiting Dhaka and attended a gathering in Purana Paltan at the office of a communist-affiliated writers group. The meeting celebrated the life of a self-taught free thinker, Aroj Ali Matabbar. This was the first time I had heard of the man.
Matabbar began to look at religion with a critical eye after a distasteful encounter with the mullahs. His mother died when he was in his teens. Wanting a memory of his mother he took a photo of her dead body. The mullahs refused to perform thejanaja for her. He found it unfair that his mother would be punished for an action he had committed. This experience led to a lifetime of questioning. Aroj Ali wrote a couple of books that were eventually published after Bangladesh became independent. He had been persecuted in the Pakistan period
For many years, Matabbar was mostly known to a small group of people. Since the 90s, his books have been published by a mainstream publisher and also released in English translation. He became an inspiration for newer generations of free thinkers.
The democratic opening after the fall of Ershad also brought other voices of unbelief into the public arena. Taslima Nasrin, who had started to publish even before the dictator fell, came into conflict with religious zealots. They forced her into exile.
Within a few years, the internet emerged as a new way for people to communicate with one another and with the public. Freethinkers who had started communicate on electronic mailings lists soon launched the website Mukto-Mona.
As we entered the 21st century, new books on religion were published, some original and others in translation. In 2006-9 when I was on an extended stay in Dhaka, I browsed bookshops and book fairs and found books by Aroj Ali Matabbar and Ahmed Sharif who had been a professor at Dhaka University. I also discovered a book titled Why I do not believe in religion, a translation of Bertrand Russell’s Why I am not a Christian. There were also dystopian novels that imagined a country taken over by Islamists: Humayun Azad’s Pak Sar Zamin Shad Bad and Masuda Bhatti’s Banglastan. Anisul Hoque’s Ondhokare Eksho Bochhor appeared in the 90s, but it remains out of print. More recently books and translations on evolutionary biology and other scientific topics have also come out.
With the end of the military regime and the election of the Awami League in 2008, the explosion of blogs and social media led to the emergence of an active public atheism from within the blogging community. This also coincided with a time when internet access became widely available, especially through mobile phones.
Some had been inspired by Mukto-Mona. But this new atheism was more combative and visible to a larger population because of the spread of internet access.
Among some of them, mockery of religion became common. Partly this was the result of youthful fervour that seemed to take pleasure in scoring points against fundamentalists. Partly it was triggered by the scale of evil perpetrated worldwide these days by religious followers as well as the memory of atrocities committed by the Pakistanis and their collaborators in 1971. There seemed to be a feeling among some atheists that they had carved out a secure space within Bangladesh. Since the Awami League government had initiated war crimes trials and sometimes talked about secularism, there seemed to be a belief that now the state would offer an umbrella for all those raising voices against political Islam and religion in general.
Reality has turned out different.
The state has shown that it cannot ensure security to bloggers. In a public statement, the Prime Minister’s son, himself an adviser to the government, indicated that the ruling party is nervous that its support for secularism might imply closeness to atheists. This appears to be a formula to defend inaction.
Beyond that, the state has long shown that it cannot ensure security of life even more generally. Most murders that involve some type of controversy, usually involving people or groups with power, go unsolved. This is testimony to both the weakness of crime solving among police institutions and the lack of political will.
Even more insidiously, the state itself has set an example of extrajudicial murder through ‘crossfire’ killings by police forces that have been given a license to kill. Somehow the state believes that this is solving the problem of crime. Instead the stakes are raised and the country becomes the scene of even more gruesome crimes. Sometimes the police forces themselves are implicated in crimes carried out for the benefit of private circles.
Yes, pressure needs to be maintained on the state to defend the right to life and expression. But it’s also necessary to look squarely at how things have turned out. We have entered a time when bloggers and writers, publishers and bookshop owners, all have to deal with the new reality of blogger murders. What should you do when you know that the state cannot protect you?
This isn’t just a question for individuals as they sort out how they will approach self-preservation and their public roles. There is a broader issue: how can free thought, science, and humanism in Bangladesh best be defended in an age of death squads? The times call on freethinkers and humanists to take a longer strategic view. Each person needs to ask what they want to achieve. What kind of writing and expression are essential? How can the internet and social media best be used? This is a discussion that needs to take place within the larger humanist community.