Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association and President of the International Humanist and Ethical Union
Wherever they are from in the world, people arrive at humanism in a variety of ways. Sometimes it is because some demand of social justice or human rights seems only to be met completely, without tension or contradiction, by humanist ethics. Sometimes it is because immersion in mythology and the classics, or philosophy or anthropology, lifts us above the fray of competing religions. Sometimes it is science, providing an alternative picture of the world, over, above, and better than religious conceptions. Often all this and more might be involved in someone's journey to humanism, but its clear from his writings where Avijit Roy fell on the spectrum. He had a clear-eyed, almost child-like enthusiasm and wonder at the world science reveals, as well as its rational methods and its speculative future.
But it must not be forgotten, either, that when the backlash against "atheist bloggers" began in earnest, with the murder of Ahmed Rajib Haider and the attempted murder of Asif Mohiuddin in 2013, that Avijit Roy stepped up to the plate, to defend free expression and call for the protection of other bloggers' rights. He championed their cause and that of all the Mukto-mona and other freethinking, humanist and atheist writers, academics and activists who suddenly found themselves at hugely, horribly increased risk. He contacted and worked with us at IHEU that same year and he reached out to many other human rights groups besides. He was, I think, painfully aware how real the risk was, including to himself.
We must be careful to avoid, as some media and the government have sometimes failed to avoid, adopting the assumptions and language of the very people carrying out these murders. Islamists identify the bloggers they have killed "anti-Islamic" and "atheist", as if that is justification to kill them, as if criticising political forces and expressing non-religious views is inherently wrong. If media use "atheist" as if it is a self-evident explanation for their deaths, and Sheikh Hasina cites "hurting religious sentiments" as if it were a self-evident moral outrage, this only emboldens and legitimizes the forces of murder and oppression. We must affirm: yes we may write about our strong dissent from Islamism, yes we may write about our non-religious views, our atheist critique of religion, and more than that - like Avijit Roy - we will write about science, we will champion human rights, we will be enthused and inspiring and true. We will advocate our humanist values and ideas. We will defend and we will use our free expression. And no, we will not be told that we have done something wrong in speaking, in writing, in advocating our views.
One Degree of Separation
Vice Chair, Center for Inquiry Canada
In a scene from the long running television series the West Wing, fictional US president Josiah Bartlet asks one of his advisors: “Why do we value the life of an American over another?” The response: “I don’t know why, but we do”. That is a bit how I felt after hearing of the brutal assassination of atheist blogger Avijit Roy. Roy was Bangladeshi by birth but was a US citizen by choice living in Atlanta Georgia when, despite threats on his life, he visited his home country only to met by the type of religious violence he spoke so strongly in opposition to.
Why does the death of this particular atheist resonate with me personally? Roy was a regular contributor to Center For Inquiry’s Free Inquiry magazine. As a board member of CFI Canada many of my colleagues in the US office knew and worked with Roy and that degree of separation brings the reality of religious extremism into stark focus.
Ironically, or, if you will forgive the term, prophetically, his last article for the magazine is to be published in the April edition of Free Inquiry. In the article he discussed at length the problems of Islam, he especially cites the Koran as a manual for violence. He also reiterates his position on religion which is summed up in his most recent book, Biswasher Virus (The Virus of Faith). Roy uses Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett’s meme of religion as a virus to make his point. Roy quotes extensively from the Koran to make his point. Apparently quoting from the Koran is only available to those who believe it is the word of God, not those who seek to unmask its darker passages.
Roy was the son of a retired professor of physics. Avijit himself had a PhD in Mechanical Engineering. His science pedigree was as well established as his credentials as a fighter for secularism and freedom of speech. He was a tireless defender of atheists, rationalist, skeptics and Humanists mostly focused on people of South Asian and Bengali descent. It was his writings on his web site Mukto-Mona that garnered death threats from Islamists. Those same self-styled defenders of Islam were quoted widely saying they could not carry out their threats against Roy as he lived in America but that if he were to return to Bangladesh he would meet his demise.
Winston Churchill famously said that Russia is “… a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”, much the same could be said of Bangladesh. Officially secular in its constitution, it is 86.6% Muslim and 12.1% Hindu. Its history since the country was created in 1971 has been marked by periods of secularism, military rule and religious turmoil. Its leader Sheikh Hasina is a woman and it enjoys a position as a member of The Next Eleven Emerging economies. It has enjoyed a period of relative calm since 1991 but with a population dominated by one religion, it seems to have fallen prey to the extremist elements that seek to impose their worldview as the rule of law. As with Islamists in other countries they will not countenance any questioning or criticism of their faith and will murder anyone who challenges them.
And so, on February 26th 2015, Roy, while returning from a book fair in the capital Dahka was attacked by two assailants armed with machetes, they literally hacked Roy to death in front of his wife, Rafida Ahmed Bonna, who suffered cuts to her head and a severed finger. The little known group Ansar Bangla 7 has claimed responsibility for what it calls retaliation against America for its attacks on ISIS.
And here we have the crux of the matter. ISIS, ISIL, IS, whatever you call them, the first letter is the clue. It stands for Islam, and while it certainly does not speak nor act for all Muslims, there is without a doubt a percentage of Muslims who believe that the penalty for those who insult Islam should be death. What that percentage is has been widely debated but it is not small. Fortunately, the percentage of those willing to carry out the prescribed death penalty is in fact small, but not inconsequential.
And so I mourn for the loss of a man I never met but to whom I am removed by one degree of separation. I mourn for the loss of a brave man who fought for the values I hold, and I mourn for the loss of security for writers who are at risk merely for having an opinion or for telling uncomfortable truths. I am not famous like Roy, I am not as good a writer as Roy but as I read the words in this article I wonder if I am too could be a target. I wonder if you, who may hold similar opinions are safe and I wonder what we, as a society, as a civilization are willing to do to create a safer environment in which ideas and opinions do not result in our deaths.
Am I being overly dramatic, or is my concern real? In the life of Avijit Roy we have one answer, his concerns were real. In Paris and in London in Madrid and in Peshwar we have similar answers. Answers are fine, but when we will wake up and start asking the questions?
Honoring Avijit’s Life, Accomplishments and Values
National Executive Director, Center for Inquiry Canada
September 12th is the birthday of Avijit Roy. Avijit was the founder of the Mukto Mona website, a Bengali blog site whose very name means Freethinkers. On February 26, 2015 Avijit was murdered by religious fanatics who opposed his writings and inquiries. At the time of his murder, Pat O’Brien, CFIC’s Vice-Chair wrote his reaction,
And so I mourn for the loss of a man I never met, but to whom I am removed by one degree of separation. I mourn for the loss of a brave man who fought for the values I hold, and I mourn for the loss of security for writers who are at risk merely for having an opinion or for telling uncomfortable truths. I am not famous like Roy; I am not as good a writer as Roy, but as I hear the words I am writing now I wonder if I am too could be a target. I wonder if you, who may hold similar opinions are safe and I wonder what we, as a society, as a civilization, are willing to do to create a safer environment in which ideas and opinions do not result in our deaths.
This September, Avijit Roy’s family, friends and colleagues will not have Avijit with them for his birthday – but we will honour his life, accomplishments and values. We will also remember and honour the lives and accomplishments of Avijit’s fellow writers, Ananta Bijoy Das, Washiqur Rahman, Niloy Neel who lost their lives to violent intolerance and ignorance. Their murders will not eliminate these thinkers and writers from our lives, nor will their murders undermine their influence on Bangladesh and the world.
Like Pat O’Brien, I never had an opportunity to meet Avijit Roy but I was shocked and hurt by his violent murder. Even the more so when I had an opportunity to meet Rafida Ahmed Bonya in the summer of 2015. Bonya shared with me some of her reactions to the attack – including that she recognized herself as a victim of the violence which claimed her husband’s life. Certainly she has the physical and emotional scars as evidence of religious intolerance that most Canadians can only imagine – that I can only imagine. But I can relate.
Often when I connect with volunteers or members of CFI Canada for the first time, we meet at coffee shops or restaurants. My interlocutors often choose quiet tables away from others in the shop – or indeed, wish to carry on conversations in soft tones. I understand and respect the privacy and vulnerability of the people I meet but I am also un-apologetic about having conversations regarding CFIC’s work to educate about freedom of expression and the harms of religion. I recall one occasion when I received a call on my Bluetooth device while lining up to pay for purchases at a store. In those circumstances, irritating as it may be to those around me, I take the call. Did I get some glares and stares from other patrons in reaction to my conversation? Yes, I did. But I never felt my life was in danger and I was more than comfortable returning those cranky looks with the quick acknowledging nod or lift of the chin. I am comfortable irritating a few people every now and then…just as I know that others are comfortable irritating me in the course of their day.
How do we honour Avijit Roy’s birthday other than carrying on candid and public dialogue about Avijit’s book, The Philosophy of Disbelief or any subject of inquiry we wish to pursue? We can (and do) mourn the loss of a great intellectual and friend, but we cannot regret Avijit’s work. Some people will be irritated – or offended. Such people have the right to be offended and I will acknowledge their irritation – but it does not silence me nor do I expect my occasional irritation to silence others.
Avijit’s murder was an act of terrorism. Avijit was the primary victim of the crime but the attack was also directed at every person who, like Avijit, is a freethinker, a scientist, an intellectual, an atheist, a humanist, an agnostic or, indeed a person that values freedom of religion and freedom from religion. In Canada we should honour the freethinkers of Mukto Mona by continuing to advance science, secularism, reason and skepticism.
Greetings from Bob Churchill to Avijit and Muktomona
Director of Communications at the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU)
Two years before he was killed, Avijit Roy wrote to us at the International Humanist and Ethical Union. For IHEU, I had already begun monitoring the situation in Bangladesh, and Avijit became a sort of informal advisor.
It was immediately clear that Avijit was passionately, presciently concerned about the threat to his fellow humanist writers. (There was no mention, at first, of any threat against himself.)
In one of his first emails, he was keen to establish his credentials. This was not, to be clear, to big himself up. It was to validate that the risks he was purporting, the threats to life and limb and freedom of expression, were real, that he was someone that I should listen to. Of course, I already knew the situation was grave, and it didn't exactly take long to establish that Avijit was an extremely valuable colleague in humanism, deeply compassionate for his peers, and knowledgeable about the politics. He shared a newspaper interview with himself about Mukto-Mona from 2007, describing how "Mukto-Mona has been fighting for the development of humanism and freethinking in South Asia." In that article, Roy explained that Mukto-Mona "to the best of my knowledge, was the first South Asian Humanist and Rationalist forum on the net [from 2001], and he highlighted from one of his answers: "Our aim is to build a society which will not be bound by the dictates of arbitrary authority, comfortable superstition, stifling tradition, or suffocating orthodoxy but would rather be based on reason, compassion, humanity, equality and science."
When he wrote to me in early 2013, he was reaching out in the aftermath of the first blogger murder, against Ahmed Rajib Haider, and he recalled also the 2004 assassination attempt against Humayun Azad. Now, Avijit Roy was watching from afar (from his home in the United States) as the government, instead of restricting themselves to condemning Haider's killers, instead of acting to politically marginalize those who were calling for "death to the atheist bloggers", were actually siding with them by giving credence to the Islamists' complaints that they were criminally offended by atheist blogs.
Responding to my questions about the cultural and political context, Avijit said, "The government fell for the trap and now is trying to appease these Islamists. Perhaps government think if they put several freethinking bloggers in jail, it will make the fundamentalist happy for time being. The government has taken this easy route to appease a handful of rouge Mullahs whose support they need to win the upcoming election."
He knew that this was a short-termist mistake, with immediate human consequences for those sacrificed on the altar of ostensible realpolitik, and that it would entail even longer-term degradation of free expression and the emboldening of militant extremists. He wrote: "a spokesperson for the government has announced that the government will arrest and prosecute these “errant” bloggers. Although there is no law against atheism in Bangladesh, the government is persecuting these bloggers on charges of offending Islam and its Prophet. The government has already blocked a few popular websites to curtail free flow of information," he lamented, "and promises to do even more to appease the Islamists." The he spoke of the famous arrest of four such bloggers, Asif Mohiuddin and Subrata Adhikari Shuvo, Mukto-Mona Bangla bloggers at the time, as well as Mashiur Rahman Biplob and Rasel Parvez. "They were interrogated by police and further remanded in custody for seven more days."
We worked together on one of IHEU's earliest statements on the post-Shahbag Bangladesh situation, effectively setting as IHEU's position and amplifying for the international humanist community Avijit's fear that the Bangladeshi government was "walking into a trap set by fundamentalists". We have ever since followed the issue closely, until on 26th February this year I had the chilling and heartbreaking experience of having to write—without him—a statement on Avijit Roy's own death.
Four times this year (as of September 2015) we have heard the same awful news, as Washiqur Rahman, Ananta Bijoy Das, and Niladri Chatterjee (aka Niloy Neel) were all slaughtered. Meanwhile much of the Bangladeshi media, the police, the so-called Rapid Action Battalion, and government officials, seem almost to be competing with one another to see who can confuse and muddy the situation as much as possible, to see who can cast the most unnecessary aspersions on the humanists living under direct threat of machete assassination, while intermittently proclaiming that progress has been made yet failing to render justice in a single one of the murder cases.
Even in the past week, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina says with reference to the blogger murders, "you can’t attack someone else’s religion. You’ll have to stop doing this. It won’t be tolerated if someone else’s religious sentiment is hurt." She said that "secularism does not mean impiety". Not as such, no. But secularism does protect impiety. It does permit impiety. In fact since someone will always cry "blasphemy" if free speech exists, secularism essentially cannot be decoupled from "impiety"! Freedom of thought, conscience and religion for everyone depends on being able to be impious, to cause offence, to risk hurt feelings.
To decree, as Hasina said, that "There will be no religious divide in Bangladesh", is not secularism either, nor is it the model for peace and social harmony she was aiming at. "No religious divide" is simply a naive wish, which even if it were attainable, would mean no true freedom of religion or belief, it would mean rather that no one can truly voice their views at all. Division of opinion and of belief is not the death of security or of society; on the contrary, the death of security and society begins in the suppression, the prosecution and the murder of those who simply express their differences. To chill free expression on religion, as our recent joint letter to the Prime Minister said, "is a recipe for a theocratic state in thrall to the most extremist members of society."
How many more humanists, atheists, freethinkers, will be murdered on Sheikh Hasina's watch while she willfully sides with the suppression of free debate, appeases Islamist thugs calling for death sentences against those who criticise them, and lends a warped legitimacy to the butchers of human beings?
Again, as Avijit Roy defined Mukto-Mona's mission, "Our aim is to build a society which will not be bound by the dictates of arbitrary authority, comfortable superstition, stifling tradition, or suffocating orthodoxy" — these being the backwards and oppressive demands that Hasina is still caving into, even as the demands keep mounting, even after repeated failure, even after multiple murder. Instead, Avijit looked ahead to a society that "would rather be based on reason, compassion, humanity, equality and science" — these being the positive humanist values not only adopted by the Mukto-Mona platform and its South Asian writers, but echoed in the international humanist movement as a whole, and sorely needed everywhere around the world.
A Man Who Changed An Organization, and Me
Michael De Dora
Director of the Center for Inquiry's Office of Public Policy and the organization's representative to the United Nations.
The date was April 2, 2013. It had been slightly more than one year since I moved to Washington, D.C. to become director of the Center for Inquiry’s (CFI) Office of Public Policy, a position tasked with overseeing efforts to advocate for reason, science, secularism, and humanist values at all levels of government. This included lobbying not just in legislatures across the United States, or even just Congress and the Administration, but also in international venues, especially at the United Nations.
In the year since I had arrived in D.C., I’d spent most of my time learning the ropes on Capitol Hill and at the UN, where CFI had been a formally accredited as a non-governmental organization in 2006. In this process, I was drawn in particular to international freedom of conscience issues. I had started to learn about cases of dissidents who had been jailed in foreign countries. Two I recall hearing about earliest were then little-known imprisoned activist Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia, and threatened blogger Asif Mohiuddin in Bangladesh. To help promote awareness on these and other cases, CFI would soon launch the Campaign for Free Expression.
But, still, we lacked direct connections to many of the individuals in focus. For instance, were in no way connected to people on the ground in Bangladesh.
And then, on April 2, 2013, my email inbox dinged with a message I’d never heard before: Avijit Roy. Writing on behalf of Mukto Mona, and linking to this Mukto Mona post, Avijit wrote:
“We are drawing your attention to an ominous development that is taking place right now in Bangladesh. To appease a handful of fundamentalist preachers the government has embarked on a campaign to squish freedom of speech. To this effect, the police under government dictate have rounded up three bloggers in Dhaka. They were interrogated by police and held for indefinite period. Bangladesh’s police routinely mete out physical punishment to extract statement from political internee. This time, 3 hapless bloggers are at the receiving end of government’s wrath. The government claims that these young bloggers have defamed Islam and Muhammad, Islam’s prophet. It is worth noting that Bangladesh has no blasphemy law and the nation’s constitution allows full freedom of speech.”
I immediately replied with questions regarding Avijit’s level of involvement, and what CFI could do to help. Avijit responded that “It would be highly appreciated if you can issue a statement on behalf of CFI and create pressure to stop Bangladesh Govt. to take atrocious steps against its valuable citizens.”
Recognizing this was an important issue, my office did more than simply issue a statement: we sent a strongly worded letterdirectly to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and then Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Suzan Johnson Cook, urging them to raise public awareness of the situation in Bangladesh and pressure the Bangladeshi government to protect the individual rights to freedom of belief, religion, and expression. Then, we followed that letter with an action alert urging our followers across the U.S. to message the State Department and press them to take action as well.
Still, Avijit pushed; more needed to be done. So, we began to work on something much bigger than statements and letters: we began to work on connected protests in different cities around the world.
After working tirelessly for days and nights — and I stress nights, as Avijit was completely devoted to the situation and replied to emails at all hours — Avijit and I organized what would later be referred to as “Worldwide Protests for Free Expression in Bangladesh.” (as you might guess, Avijit is the primary author of that Wikipedia entry). Essentially, this was a weeklong series of protests across the world, including Washington, D.C., New York City, London, several cities in Canada and, thanks to some passionate students, even the University of Missouri. Amazingly, there was also a protest held in Dhaka, outside the prison where bloggers were being jailed.
And yet, the problem remained: atheist bloggers were imprisoned in Dhaka. This is where Avijit’s involvement with CFI was perhaps most important: in connecting me, and us, directly to the rest of the Bangla-speaking secular community. Within days, I was speaking on the phone or exchanging emails with relatives of the jailed bloggers, and working on plans to free their brothers and partners and husbands. And, with enough pressure, eventually those men were freed. Without Avijit’s efforts, this likely would not have been possible.
In hindsight it is incredible to reflect on the change Avijit accomplished in the short amount of time he worked with CFI. Within a couple of weeks, my office went from having zero contacts working on or in Bangladesh, and only initial plans for action, to speaking directly with threatened dissidents and their families, and coordinating international advocacy efforts. And, with a couple years, we went from doing zero formal work on Bangladesh, to having it as a central part of our international work.
And that is just one organization. It should be noted that Avijit pressed many organizations into action on Bangladesh that April 2013, including the International Humanist and Ethical Union. Without their help, our efforts may not have succeeded — for which, of course, you can thank Avijit.
Unfortunately, the situation for secularists and atheists in Bangladesh has worsened. I remain heavily involved in efforts to assist secularists and atheists, and promote freedom of thought in the country. It feels strange that Avijit is not involved in these efforts. Yet, he created so much of the foundation for these efforts and, in a way, he is still involved. Avijit’s influence did not die with his body.
It is true atheists, such as myself and Avijit, do not believe that individuals have immaterial selves that exist forever. However, individuals can leave ann impact on the material world that remains for millennia. Avijit almost certainly accomplished this. He will long be remembered as a prolific author and blogger, a defender of freedom of thought, an advocate for critical thinking, and an activist for secular democracy. But Avijit was even more than that. He was a loving husband, a trustworthy friend and, above all, a decent human being committed to helping others. If only all of us were so fortunate to have someone like Avijit come into our lives. I thank good fortune everyday that Avijit came into mine.
Let Us Celebrate Avijit’s Life and His Courage
Boris van der Ham
Chairman, The Dutch Humanist Association. Former Dutch House of Representatives for Democrats 66
Today we celebrate the birthday of Avijit Roy. But it is the first time that he is no longer among us. Violent fundamentalists ended his life this year. Yet we celebrate his life. His views on individual freedom and the courage to fight for them are indeed still alive. That freedom is everyone's right, is vulnerable and worthy of protection. Many brave individuals fighting every day in the most difficult conditions for human dignity and freedom. In celebrating the anniversary of Avijit we celebrate their efforts. They are not alone. Their fight does not go unnoticed.
The Young Champions
Professor of Geology at the University of California, Riverside, and a former student of Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, India.
This year’s gruesome death of four bloggers has been widely reported around the world. These shocking incidents, the backgrounds and beliefs of those killed, and shifting justifications for the killings, have all been commented upon. As within Bangladesh, the foreign press has made much of the fact that those killed were “free thinkers”. Here in the United States, where the right to think freely has been elevated to near scared status, no-one who embraces the vision outlined in the US constitution could condone these terrible acts, no matter what the claimed provocation. But viewing the deaths of these four, and those killed previously, purely in terms of defense of free speech muffles acknowledgment of the broader issues for which Avijit Roy, Wasikur Rahman Babu, Anonto Bijoy Das and Niladri Chattopadhyay died.
These four persons all shared a commitment to the value and beauty of viewing the world and our place in it naturally, as opposed to relying on a supernatural explanation for our origins. All human cultures have their own authoritative story of supernatural creation. But over the last couple of millennia, humans have engaged in a collective quest to find a natural explanation for the question “where do we come from?” This approach demands that we explain what we observe through understanding of processes that operate naturally today, meaning processes that we can both witness and understand mechanistically. This approach is called “science”, and the application of this method of knowing has resulted in extraordinary advances in human welfare that almost everyone living now benefits from in some real and personal way.
Science does not account for all aspects of what it means to be alive, or guide the moral choices we make on all issues. But it does provide an observationally based history of our universe and planet, and locates our place within it. Science chronicles how the ways in which our planet has experienced changes in the past. For those who accept that what the Earth says of itself is literally true, interpreting Earth history offers the opportunity for us to learn from the past as we face a future that, by definition, is unknown.
Advancing science is a collective enterprise to which the whole world has contributed, including many from the Indian subcontinent, from China, and from Arabia, particularly at a time when free thought was fettered in Europe. Scientific knowledge has developed in a stepwise fashion, with favored ideas repeatedly tested. In contrast, creation stories are tied to human experience at the time the authoritative scripture was enshrined. Abrahamic creation stories are interpreted by scriptural literalists to require a short Earth history of about 6,000 years duration. The Hindu Puranas, on the other hand, speak of cycles of Earth history in the order of trillions of years, far exceeding the scientific estimate of the age of the Universe as 13.8 billion years and Earth as 4.6 billion years. No consensus emerges from scriptures alone, but a short timescale particularly invites rejection of the opportunity to learn from the geological past because it assumes there is so little of it. Although science views the world differently than religious traditions do, it would be a mistake to consider that accepting the scientific view requires atheism: many persons of faith consider the scientific history of nature as complementary to their personal religious conviction. However, scriptural literalists do require that the particular creation narrative of their faith is factually true.
On the day that Roy, who was also a US citizen as well as a native Bangladeshi, was bludgeoned to death yards from where he was signing copies of his latest astronomy-themed book at the Boi Mela, a fellow American stood on the floor of the US senate holding up a snowball, and claimed that what his instinct told him was a better basis for preparing for the future than the scientific contributions of thousands of individuals the world over, accomplished over multiple generations: individuals who have built an understanding of what nature is itself telling us about how it operates, about our planet’s past, and about using that knowledge to predict how we can successfully navigate the future. Senator Inhofe claimed this because of his professed scriptural literalist faith as an evangelical Christian, which he feels is better informed than views based on scientific evidence, the views of other religious traditions, and those of most non-scriptural literalist members of the Abrahamic faiths. Senator Inhofe’s view is shared by scriptural literalists in the other Abrahamic faiths.
Accordingly, with respect to attitudes towards the history and fate of the Earth, a matter of grave concern to all humanity as we consider our own impact on the planet, the senator and the many in the USA and the world over like him, who deny scientific understanding, stand not with Roy, Rahman, Das and Chattopadhyay, but with those who opposed them. They would prefer to plan for the future based on supernatural providence rather than the Earth’s natural chronicle of its own experience. In the USA religious fundamentalists in sympathy with Senator Inhofe are primarily active in opposition to the teaching of evolution, the core explanatory framework of biology, and in the denying human-induced climate change, phenomenon whose veracity was generally accepted by the scientific community some 15 years ago. Science tells us that ignoring human-induced global change will have severe consequences for collective futures of humanity and much of biological diversity on our shared home, planet Earth. In this sense, the deaths of Roy, Rahman, Das and Chattopadhyay are global harbingers of the dangers of abandoning science as a basis for sound environmental policy making.
This is why the deaths this year of these four advocates for science, one of whose supposed transgressions included the translation of a book on evolution, is consequential the world over. The significance of their deaths goes beyond the free speech concern of any particular country: they also died because they understood that the risks of ignoring what science tells us is a matter for the whole of humanity, wherever we happen to be located on our precious shared sphere.
A World Free to Think: Best Birthday Gift to Avijit
The author of The Colonel Who Would Not Repent: The Bangladesh War and its Unquiet Legacy (Aleph Book Company, 2014; Yale University Press, 2016)
On 14 December 1971, two days before the Pakistani army surrendered in Dhaka bringing to an end the nine months of war that led to Bangladesh’s independence, members of the pro-Pakistan militia began rounding up academics, and professionals who would have formed the backbone of the new nation. They were taken to Rayer Bazar and murdered. It was a planned move to cripple the new nation at its birth.
When I started research for my book, The Colonel Who Would Not Repent: The Bangladesh War and its Unquiet Legacy, many Bangladeshi had told me to go there and see the monument. When I did so, I saw families with children walking around the monument, its solemnity reinforcing the story, reminding them of the pain and sacrifices a generation ago.
There is a plaque at Rayer Bazar, left by Projonmo 71, which carries a verse from Asad Chowdhury’s poem. ‘Tomra ja bolechhiley, bolchhey ki ta Bangladesh? (Is Bangladesh saying what you had said?).’
It is a profound question, asked to the freedom fighters who had died – is Bangladesh today speaking in your language? And that language is not only the language itself – Bengali – but the ideas of freedom, of liberty, of self-determination, and of independence. The Bangladesh War of Independence had begun on March 25 that year, when the Pakistani army unleashed Operation Searchlight. Its first targets then were intellectuals – professors and students, at the Dhaka University campus. One by one, they went after academics and scholars, and students who would have become doctors, professors, physicists and mathematicians. The war ended as it began – with an attack on those who dealt with ideas.
Bangladesh is facing another challenge today – about the kind of country it wishes to be. Those who would like a multi-religious, tolerant, inclusive Bangladesh are being attacked by those who would like a different type of Bangladesh. As in 1971, thinkers are being attacked – these are free thinkers: Rajeeb Haider in 2013, and this year Avijit Roy, Washiqur Rahman, Ananta Bijoy Das, Niloy Neel.
It is Avijit’s birthday. I never met him; I have read some of his writing. He was a free thinker, willing to argue and challenge, keen to debate and advance his own and others’ knowledge. In attempting to silence him, and others, his enemies have attacked the idea that there is no one single view, one single interpretation, of what is right and what is wrong. We must all challenge our assumptions, question our beliefs, and keep challenging. Salman Rushdie once wrote: “A poet’s work? To name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.”
The question that the monument at Rayer Bazar poses continues to resound across the bleeding rivers and sighing valleys of this land, awaiting an answer: ‘Tomra ja bolechhiley, bolchhey ki ta Bangladesh?”
Peter Yarrow, who sang Bob Dylan’s famous song, “Blowin’ in the Wind” many times, once said that the answer is not elusive; we will find that answer. Avijit was looking for that answer. He was full of questions. Now others have to continue that search; that would be the best birthday gift for Avijit Roy.
Salil Tripathi is the author of The Colonel Who Would Not Repent: The Bangladesh War and its Unquiet Legacy (Aleph Book Company, 2014; Yale University Press, 2016). His recent articles about freedom of expression in Bangladesh can be read here:
“I was asleep, and I was fine, / When I woke, I saw the day was done, the day was done…” -- Kangalini Sufiya
My dearest friend,
September 12th is your birthday; the first we shall celebrate since you have died, since you were murdered.
I had never thought I would have to write a sentence like that. No one does.
We met first during those gold years when the path ahead is yet undefined but singing with possibility; when we learn and unlearn the persons we are, and the persons we can become.
We met when we were young.
We became friends in those heady days when we had begun to figure out the world. We read and talked and laughed and ate and roamed our Dhaka streets and then did it all over again. We shared our time long enough to have found a certain rhythm of our own: evenings had to be spent on the footpath in front of the British Council Library. Kala Bhaban steps were for hanging out in the late afternoons. Lemon tea and shingaras at the TSC cafeteria while we bickered seated at formica-top tables. Peyajus had to be snarfed standing by the TSC walls. Puran Dhaka during the puja season. And the whole of February had to be spent walking the Boimela and breathing words and books and ideas.
Boimela was where they hacked you down. It’s been six months.
I’ve never been one for anniversaries. Yet month after month now, I seem to keep count.
Every week there is news that points to how deeper and deeper we are, collectively, digging ourselves into this hole of blind and ignorant intolerance. The extremists kill; the state threatens imprisonment; the so-called progressive civil society responds with silence or support. They are careful to say that murder is wrong, but. There is always that ‘but.’ That word, what it really means is this: Keep your mouths shut. Tamp down your questions. Do not explore or examine. Today’s newspaper reports that young bloggers and activists are trying to leave Bangladesh in droves.
I wonder what you would have said about all this. I wonder how hard you would have fought. Just as hard as the other Mukto-Mona folks are fighting right now.
The stretch of road from Bangla Academy to TSC, from TSC to Shahbag—I walked it for years with you and other friends. I know exactly where the metal barriers are put up to stop vehicles from entering during Boimela. I know exactly where the police boxes are set up so that they can, ostensibly, secure the Boimela premises. I know that part of DU campus well enough that from photo after horrific photo on Facebook I could tell where it was you were attacked, where it was you had fallen.
I remember walking that stretch quietly, the year after Dr. Humayun Azad had been attacked in that same stretch, in the same way: a group of young men, with bone-cleaving chapatis held aloft. Dr. Azad’s terrified face covered in blood was etched in our collective memories. And now I have to make space amid those memories for you, and so many others. The list, my friend, keeps growing.
There is so much that I've left unsaid over the years, and I cannot fathom why. I cannot fathom why I didn't make more time to talk more often, or force you to do the same. I cannot fathom why we let the thick cord of friendship and reason that bound us together grow thinner the way we did. But I'm grateful that no matter the time, and distance, and circumstance that obtruded at times, the bond between us existed, for sure. I cannot think of a moment when I wondered twice before writing to you or calling you, I cannot think of a moment when I worried that our disagreement over any issue, whether personal or political, could damage our friendship.
This was the one thing that time had taught me about you: your heart was as large as I could imagine.
And now you're gone. You leave the world a better place than you found it, dosto.
One afternoon there were three of us scrunched in a rickshaw, in that uncomfortable but fun way, with one of us sitting on the seat back. Not me—fortunately you guys were usually taller, and bigger than me back then, so I got to sit in relative comfort on the actual seat. It was evening, and we were going somewhere or maybe we were coming back. We were singing Bob Marley’s Buffalo Soldier at the top of our voices. All three of us. There was another rickshaw, with three more friends, sometimes behind us, sometimes ahead, sometimes parallel. They were singing too. Was it then that we discovered that you couldn’t carry a tune? That you were terrible? I remember laughing so hard I could hardly sing or even breathe. We all were. You were that bad, my friend, you were that bad. You were laughing too. And then you tried telling us that it was fine because after all I was the only trained singer among us, and when that didn’t work to calm us down, you yelled, Shut up, you, you turn even Bob Dylan into Rabindra Shangeet when you sing!
Which was true. It’s still true.
You shared with us a tape—you had the rare treasure of some songs of Suman’s (before he became Suman Kabir; before he embraced his noya-Muslimhood with such zeal) that had not yet been released commercially. The words and tunes of Gonohotyar Naam Bhupal (Bhupal is the Name of a Genocide) and Bangladesh Ghire Bera Deya Hobe (Bangladesh will be Fenced In) kept us in a daze for days: we talked and talked of the sonorous beauty of those songs. Remember standing in line for hours to see Suman perform live at the Engineers’ Institute? We paid 250 taka per ticket—we were all students with not much to spare, but for this we would scrimp and save.
I also remember our disillusionment.
I laughed on my way home recently when I remembered arguing with you about Dylan vs. Baez. You liked Dylan but were firmly in the Baez camp. I was blind about Dylan back then, and you said (and I couldn’t deny), The numskull sings well, but why does he mewl so? I didn’t want to know about his betrayal of Baez; I didn’t deal well, back then, with discovering clay feet.
I’ve grown up. I know better now.
I’m listening today to Kangalini Sufiya; those six dacoits of her song have indeed poured ashes on our hopes. But not for long.
One evening we stopped a skutar—a three-wheeler. Memory is a funny thing, my friend. I remember exactly where it was: midway on the stretch of road between the TSC roundabout and Charukala. But I cannot recall at all whether it was those old fashioned yellow scooters, or the green CNGs that were safer for the environment. Or was Dhaka at the point of switching then, and perhaps at that point there were both kinds on the streets? Perhaps the one that stopped at our desperate shouting was a yellow one, because the whole event was etched in my memory when the driver shook his head refusing to let you sit beside him--and the yellow ones barely had space in the front for the driver. I remember riding in those, and the arm of whoever was sharing the tiny seat with the driver reaching behind his back to hold on desperately to the metal frame of the scooter.
We were off on a biryani run that night. Star Kabab in Kawran Bazar! Those low steps, those oddly placed pillars in the middle of the restaurant. The mamus who would bring us extra jhol because they liked us and they'd known us forever.
There were four of us probably. Which is why you couldn’t squeeze into the back, and tried to sit beside the driver. And the driver jumped out shaking his head vehemently. No, no, no! He said. You’re too big! And he spread his arms upwards and sideways to show how big you were—so tall that he reached skywards, so wide that his arms wanted to engulf Shahbag on one side and Chankhar Pul on the other. We laughed and teased you relentlessly (we were ruthless at teasing, weren’t we!), and you yelled at the scooter-wallah, Oi miya, Oi miya! And we jostled each other and somehow fit ourselves into the scooter and the driver was laughing too; he thought we were funny.
I read the account of the photographer who took you and Bonya to the Dhaka Medical College Hospital after the attack, when no one else would help. He said you were so tall, they couldn’t fit your legs into the scooter. The scooter had to go slow so the driver could make sure you weren’t hit by some passing vehicle. Some nights I lie awake thinking of these men. The men who are your murderers, and the men who tried to save you, who did, indeed, save Bonya. I wonder what pushes us to help sometimes, and what makes us turn away. I am never in doubt, though, about which impulse makes us human.
Dhaka was so different that evening when we stood impatiently on the sidewalk waiting for an empty scooter. Dhaka was already changing then, but we didn’t see it, not yet. That evening was so long ago; before the scooters had turned themselves into little cages—one cage for the driver, one for the passenger. The little metal grill, and the little gate you can lock, all of it green, keeping us safe, keeping us separate. I think of the scooters, and I think of our Dhaka: How the passengers are just as afraid of the drivers as the drivers are afraid of them. I've often thought of how those CNGs are such a living and fundamental metaphor for our state of existence.
How many cages, how many separations can we create to keep ourselves safe? Will we ever find out?
Secretary, Board of Directors, Centre for Inquiry, Canada
Do you believe in fate? I used to, and I’ve spent so much time pondering my destiny that it’s embarrassing. I’ve followed two religions, and in both I obsessed over my role in the greater meaning of life. In both, I felt a spiritual force, felt loved by it, tested by it, judged by it, and I let those feelings define my life, my identity and my “fate”. Like most people born around this time I was raised by my parents to be religious and, although my parents are Christian, they’re generally pretty accepting of other religious beliefs, as long as that person believes in some form of God. As such, when I switched from wanting to study Theology (I originally planned to be ordained as a Minister when I “grew up”) to following a Pagan belief, my parents were content to live and let live. The point I’m trying to make is that my parents were VERY liberal by comparison to most passionate followers of a religion, and yet despite this I still find my religious upbringing to have been very harmful in my life. I was never raised to discriminate against others, but I was raised with the belief that faith, above all things, is what matters. By believing that the strength of conviction is more powerful than reason, one opens themselves up for a life of choices made based on gut instinct and ambiguous “signs”. For those not raised to believe in gods: when you believe in the existence of such, you believe that you hear, or rather feel, its voice in your mind, and the more steadfast you are in that belief, the more admired you are in the religious communities (that agree with you, of course). That’s what I believed, until I didn’t anymore. The change wasn’t overnight; I think a lot of Theists doubt (what other reason is there to get so defensive, but insecurity?), but the instinctive desire to stay faithful, or “strong in spirit”, kept me afraid of exploring my doubt for the first 30 years of my life. It’s hard for me to say exactly when I stopped rejecting evidence and started being able to ask myself difficult questions, but do remember the catalyst that sparked a lot of the critical ones: stars. When my parents sold the suburban family home I grew up in, and moved to the middle of nowhere, I was excited at the thought of what their star view would be. Stars have always been a rare sight in the night skies where I’ve lived and, though it took several visits before the first clear night, the view did not disappoint: I was mesmerized. There were so many stars! It’s one thing to accept the vastness of the universe, but another thing entirely to perceive it. With all of the stars in our galaxy alone, I couldn’t help but think of how insignificant our entire species was in the greater scheme of things, let alone myself, so why is our planet the center of everything, according to every religion I’ve ever studied? Why are we so special in the eyes of gods, when we’re relative specks of dust on a speck of dust? The view sparked questions that led to more questions. Why did they bother to make us? Why is every single creation story in every religious text dead wrong? If an all-powerful, all-knowing, and omnipresent entity created us and told us how, then it couldn’t possibly be wrong, and yet not one of these myths describe anything close to evolution, which is what we know to have happened. It seemed far more likely that we wrote the creation myths, so what about the rest of the religious texts these stories are in? I came to the conclusion that no god(s) made us, we made them.
It was a hard pill to swallow; no gods meant no moral superiority to guide/judge, that life had no meaning, and that this life is all I'm ever going to have....no reincarnation. No heaven. Not even hell, just.... nothing. I became very depressed, to the point of a nervous breakdown, but with it (ironically) came relief; no gods and no destiny meant my life was mine to live, for better or worse.
I needed more information. There were still a lot of questions I had, so I read a lot, and watched a lot. I wanted to learn more about the nature of the universe, so I turned to lectures on the life of Albert Einstein and books by Carl Sagan, among others, but Sagan in particular really struck a chord with me. His outlook seemed so compassionate, and he reveled in just being alive and sentient. The feeling of liberation and sense of clarity took the place of melancholy. The arbitrary nature of the universe, especially life, is now something I'm amazed by and revel in.
Sentience is something I hope never take for granted again, both in myself and in everyone else. Our ability to conceptualize, and to communicate our thoughts and feelings in such detail is a mixed blessing: we are capable of unspeakable acts of cruelty that are not necessarily negated by our compassion, but these cruelties are usually brought on by archaic instincts based on an "us vs. them" mentality. To be a Humanist is to recognize there is no "them": We're all human...we're all "Us". It's to appreciate the gift of being human, to recognize that our species is more important than any individual or idea, and to give the best of ourselves in the hopes of ensuring a better future for those that follow.
Avijit in His Father's Eyes
According to his matriculation certificate, Avijit's birthday was recorded as 12 September 1972. Although it is generally assumed that his birthplace was Dhaka, in fact, he was born in a small town named Nazira in the district of Shibsagar, Upper Assam in 1971. The history of his birth story is closely associated with our liberation war.
My name is Ajoy Roy; I am Avijit's father. I am a professor of physics at Dhaka University, currently retired and 80 years old. I participated in all democratic movements in Bangladesh from 1952 (the language movement) to 1959 anti Ayub Khan mass movement. Its inevitable result was my participation in the liberation war of Bangladesh as a freedom fighter.
Following the Pakistani Army crackdown on unarmed population of Dhaka, including the assault on the Dhaka University campus, especially on the Jagannath and Iqbal Halls it became impossible for me to stay in Dhaka. Ultimately, along with my wife, Shefali, and my mother, I crossed into a small Indian town in Sonamura Hills, Tripura from the border town of Comilla, Bangladesh. My wife was born in Comilla, and her father, Sashibhusan Roy, was a well-known lawyer at the Comilla Bar.
The main objective of crossing into India was to participate in the war of liberation. There, in Sonamura, Khorshed Alam, M.P, who was my colleague in Comilla Victoria College, and I formed a group of freedom fighters consisting mainly of college and university teachers, students and young farmers. Two retired army officers trained the freedom fighters totaling about 25 people. They were given all sorts of military training so that they could handle most military equipment, including the use of explosives for destroying small bridges and culverts.
The leader of the group was a trained student leader. The newly trained freedom fighters carried on a few operations against the invading Pakistani Army in the border with Comilla in which the Pakistanis suffered a great loss; about 15 of them were killed. The Free Bangladesh Radio broadcasted this operation.
Later, I was called to the western war front. Before I joined the western front I moved my wife and mother to a small town called Nazira in the district of Sibsagar, upper Assam, in the residence of my elder brother, who was an engineer with the Oil and Gas Company in Sibsagar.
When Tajuddin Ahmed formed the first independent government of Bangladesh, popularly known as ‘Mujibnagar Government’, I was given many responsibilities in the administration. I was appointed member secretary of the Planning Cell with Professor Muzaffar Ahmed of Dhaka University as its chairman. I was also elected as the General Secretary of ‘Bangladesh Teachers Association’, an association of teachers of all categories from Primary to University who took shelter in India.
One day, a volunteer informed me that I was blessed with a son. I left my rifle and traveled to Nazira, it took me a few days to reach there. I remember seeing Shefali lying with a male baby about 15 days old. That was my first glimpse of Avijit. He was watching, as if in amazement, the surroundings, the new world around him. "This is my Avijit," I said to myself with emotion. We also gave him an affectionate name, Gullu. The Birth Certificate said he baby was born on 12 September 1971 (26 Bhadra, 1378 Bengali Calendar), Sunday at 11:42 AM.
I stayed there in Assam till Shefali and the baby became fully recovered. Then I took them to Calcutta, Bhavanipore placing them under the care of my maternal aunt and then I returned to the war front.
After the end of the liberation war, on 11 January 1972, I landed at the Dhaka airport with Shefali and baby Gullu in my lap The freedom fighters and comrades of the Bangladesh Teachers Association received me with warm welcome. Professor Ahmad Sharif was also at the airport to receive me. I remember his warm embrace. Dr Sharif took us in his car and dropped us at the house of a student of mine in Kakrail.
After seven days I moved to my own flat in Fuller Road. I joined the university immediately. Thus began a new life of teaching for me in DU. The little Gullu started growing with the love and affection of his parents. At the age of 4 years he was admitted to Udayan Kindergarten. His class teacher was McArther. Then gradually he moved to upper classes, and finally set foot in class ten in 1987. He passed his SSc examination with good results in 1988.
Little Avijit with his younger brother Anu.
Gullu was very popular in the Fuller Road area and the locality of British Council. He was never tired of chatting with his friends on the pavements near the British Council. He was also interested in games. Cricket was his favourite game. The day I presented him a cricket bat bought from the New Market, he was overwhelmed with joy. He said, ‘Baba you are great.’ Avijit in his own memoir wrote, ‘I have requested my father for a good cricket bat. I still remember the day Baba brought me a cricket bat from the New Market, I was so overwhelmed with joy that I almost cried out.’
From the very childhood he developed attraction for books, his favourite authors were Satyajit Roy and Satyajit's grandfather Upendra Kishore Roy Choudhury. Later I introduced him to the writings of Bankim Chandra, Madhusudan, Hem Chandra, Kaikobad, and of course Rabindranath. Soon he became a Tagore fan. I also introduced him to the works of great Shakespeare.
Avijit’s mother Shefali with Anu, Avijit's younger brother.
In his memoir, Avijit wrote, “Baba did not brought me up like a ‘prince’, but it is Baba who introduced to me the world of books. In our home library shelf I found interesting books of science for young people published by Muktodhara, Jafar Iqbal’s ‘Mahakashe Mahatras’, ‘Swati’s Kirti’ written by Swapan Gain...It is my father who introduced to me the write-ups of Sukumar Roy’s ‘Hajabarala’, ‘Pagla Dashu’, ‘Diary of Hersjoramer Hushiari’…. It is again my father who put in my mind the seeds of ‘freethinking and inquisitiveness’. Baba taught me to recite from Tagore, such as
And meanwhile I see secretive hatred murdering the helpless
Under cover of night;
And Justice weeping silently and furtively at power misused,
No hope of redress. " *
In 1990, Avijit passed HSc with additional credits from the Dhaka College. In 1994, he graduated with B.Sc (Hons) from BUET. After graduation he worked at BUET as a lecturer for some time. Before that he worked with the Otobi Products, established by Nitun Kundu.
Avijit married Ratanti, daughter of a Sanskrit professor of the Dhaka University. It was probably in 2001 that he moved with Ratanti to Singapore National University (NUS) with a scholarship. His field of research was Biotechnology in the Mechanical Engineering Department. Unfortunately, Ratanti died in a tragic accident in Singapore.
Avijit was shocked. Eventually, he managed to resume research and obtained his Ph.D in 2006. Avijit's research supervisor was Professor Eng Hock Tay and the title of his thesis was Construction of a Physics-Based Brain Atlas and its Applications.
Avijit moved to the USA in 2007. He joined a computer company as a software engineer and was a JAVA expert. He was in a very high position at the time of his sad death.
I, in 2000, started a website named Mukynwesa in a small scale. When Avijit moved to NUS and developed a keen interest in Internet, I handed over the responsibility of the website to Avijit to take it further. In 2001, Avijit renamed the site as ‘Mukto-mona’ and soon it become a very popular one for its discussion on freethinking and naturalism. There was nothing like this in Bengali before. Through Mukto-mona the initial contact was established between Bonya and Avijit that soon developed into a romantic relationship. They got married in 2007.
In February of 2015, Avijit and Bonya came for a visit to Dhaka despite my advice and request not to. The condition in Dhaka for liberal and freethinkers were never so unsafe. On 26 February, ten days after their arrival, Avijit was brutally killed on the pavement just the outside gate of the Book Fair near Raju Sculpture, Bonya was gravely injured but survived. The saddest event in my life. We wish the Sheikh Hasina and her government will do their best to bring the killers to justice.
Professor Ajoy Roy was also founder Director of Dhaka University Computer Centre. After retirement from the Physics Department of the Dhaka University he joined Savar Gana Biswabidyalay as a Chairman of Medical Physics Department to organize the department at the invitation of Dr. Jafarullah Choudhury, the Director of Ganashaysta Kendra. Later he returned to the Dhaka University as a UGC Professor for a few years. During this period he mainly devoted himself to research in medical field. In addition to being a distinguished educator and scientist, he is well known for his strong secularist and humanist positions. His voice can always be found against injustice and oppression. Prof. Roy is now 80 years old.
* "Question" by Rabindranath Tagore, English translation by William Radice