On April 1, 2013, the Bangladeshi government played the fool in a disgraceful affair that we only wish had been an April Fool’s Day prank. On that day, several bloggers were put behind bars in Bangladesh on the sole basis that they were openly atheist. When we say “openly atheist,” we do not mean that the bloggers denounced religion in public squares or emphatically condemned theists to the ugliest patches of ground after death. Instead, the government criminalized these four men for simply voicing their rational, skeptic, and scientific thoughts on blogging forums—sites that exist for free inquiry, self-expression, and, most important, free speech.
The tension began when the Shahbag Protest in Bangladesh reached peak this past January. This protest was a major event organized by university students, cyber writers, and young bloggers; the aim of the protest was to demand justice for the victims of notorious war criminals during Bangladesh’s Liberation War of 1971. (The war was a bloody battle between Bangladesh and Pakistan. Three million Bangladeshis were killed and two hundred thousand Bangladeshi women were raped by the Pakistani army and its collaborators in just nine months.)
Although the bloggers had a large online following, that did not deter a few radical Islamic groups from challenging them. Following the Shahbag Protest, members of one Islamist faction waged a disinformation campaign to defame the bloggers. They claimed that the young bloggers had offended Islam and Muhammad and published a list of nearly eighty bloggers and forum participants whom they labeled atheists and attackers of Islam. The group publicly demanded capital punishment for the bloggers’ “blasphemy.”
It is worth noting that Bangladesh has no blasphemy laws. Though it is a Muslim country, the nation’s constitution proclaims “freedom of thought, conscience and expression” as a fundamental right. Nevertheless, the government disregarded this right and attempted to appease the Islamists by arresting three popular bloggers—Subrata Adhikari Shuvo, Rasel Parvez, and Mashiur Rahman Biplob—on April 1. The very next day, police also arrested Asif Mohiuddin, another one of the country’s most outspoken “atheist” bloggers. The men were paraded in handcuffs at a news conference as if they had committed a heinous crime. By arresting these four bloggers—and threatening dozens more bloggers with potential charges—Bangladesh’s government demonstrated that it regards freedom of speech as a constitutional formality, not a fundamental right.
Of course, attacks against atheist and secular-minded writers are hardly a new phenomenon in Bangladesh. Humayun Azad was a renowned Bangladeshi atheist, writer, and linguistic scholar popular among younger and more progressive readers. When Azad was returning home from a book fair, he was attacked by a group of radical Islamists who attempted to slit his throat. Although Azad was able to reach the hospital quickly enough to survive the immediate effects of the assault, he never fully recovered from the trauma of the attack and ended up dying in Germany—where he fled after realizing his life was in peril—several months later. A similar case unfolded in 1994, when Taslima Nasrin—a feminist writer well known for her critical views toward Islam—had to flee Bangladesh after Islamic extremists threatened to kill her for her criticisms of the Qur’an. Although Nasrin denied the accusation, she was forced into hiding when an Islamist leader offered a bounty for her beheading. Eventually she fled the country. [Taslima Nasrin is now a senior editor of FREE INQUIRY.—Eds.]
Many other socially conscious, progressive writers—including Aroj Ali Matubbar (a peasant philosopher of Bangladesh); Daud Haider (a distinguished Bangladeshi forced to flee after writing a satirical poem about Muhammad); Shamsur Rahman (another renowned poet who was attacked by fundamentalists); Dr. Ahmed Sharif (a linguistic scholar and outspoken atheist intellectual); and Professor Kabir Chowdhury (a well-known academic, essayist, and secular humanist of the country)—have faced lifelong troubles for expressing even moderate secular views. Asif Mohiuddin was arrested the day after the three aforementioned bloggers were brutally stabbed in a Dhaka street by religious fundamentalists in January 2013. In a society where simple, legitimate inquiry is restricted, how can there be any hope of progress?
Although freethinkers have long been suppressed and vilified by religious communities worldwide, Bangladeshi freethinkers’ struggles reached a new level after the Shahbag Protest movement began. Ahmed Rajib Haider, a thirty-year-old architect and a member of the Shahbag activist network, was brutally hacked to death by Islamic fundamentalists. Haider was well-known for criticizing Islam on various Bengali blog sites under the pseudonym Thaba Baba. In later months, it was proven that fundamentalists were not the sole enemy of freethinking writers. The Awami League government (Bangladesh’s ruling party, commonly portrayed as one of the largest secular forces in the country), publicly punished the atheist bloggers with imprisonment. To many, the government’s action was simply a strategic move intended to appease a handful of mullahs, whose support the party needed to win the upcoming election.
While appeasing the Islamists to win an election may be a consideration for a ruling political party, it is not even a second thought for apolitical freethinkers and activists inside or outside of Bangladesh. Many of us freethinkers decided to organize to protest the government’s violation of freedom of speech. For us, the cause is highly personal. The imprisoned atheist bloggers have long been known to us as active writers on sites including Mukto-Mona (an Internet site popular among freethinkers, rationalists, skeptics, atheists, and humanists of mainly Bengali descent). We have created several Facebook pages, written individual blogs, issued formal statements, and penned articles for newspapers in Bangladesh as well as for international media. We also worked closely with the Center for Inquiry, the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), Atheist Alliance International, American Atheists, and other secular organizations. They demonstrated immense concern, and some issued multiple statements condemning the Bangladeshi government for suppressing the voice of the freethinking community. Michael De Dora, director of the Center for Inquiry’s Office of Public Policy and the organization’s representative to the United Nations, suggested a worldwide protest rally complete with demonstrations in Washington, D.C., London, Ottawa, Dhaka, and other cities around the world. The demonstrations were held on April 25, 2013, and May 2, 2013, under the banner of “Worldwide Protests for Free Expression in Bangladesh.” They succeeded in drawing global attention to this new threat to freedom of belief and expression. More important, the demonstrations put pressure on the Bangladeshi government to release the freethinkers. As pressure mounted, the government responded and it released the arrested bloggers on bail at the end of June 2013. Still, the bloggers are awaiting trial and face continual death threats from fundamentalist groups. Their names, pictures, and even addresses have been widely publicized, and they are now easy targets.
Twenty-first-century Americans like to believe that human civilization is forward-moving—that it does not seek to limit thinkers or artists or leaders. But in an age where all ideals are still not open to scrutiny, criticism, or discussion, we realize that we still have far to go before we can achieve a truly progressive society. It is true that, unlike Bangladesh, America is not throwing atheists in jail; nonetheless, American society is not even close to accomplishing full social acceptance for nonbelievers. (Just ask Jessica Ahlquist, who faced widespread condemnation and abuse after she sued successfully to force removal of a prayer banner from her Cranston, Rhode Island, public school [See Ophelia Benson, “Who’s Oppressing Whom?,” FI, June/July 2012].)
All over the world, the nonreligious are growing in number faster than ever before. Nonbelievers are not only valuable contributors to society; they also constitute a large fraction of the world’s intellectual and academic community. Whether it is a courageous sixteen-year-old from Rhode Island or a group of individualistic bloggers on the other side of the world, we should never belittle the endeavors of bold human beings to create rational, secular, and freethinking communities.