A program of the Center for Inquiry
Thanks to the Internet, Avijit Roy is now more famous than ever. Islamic zealots killed him in February 2015 outside a book fair on the streets of Dhaka and brutally assaulted his wife, Rafida Bonya Ahmed. Yet these fanatics have achieved the opposite of what they ultimately wished for: obliterating Avijit forever. Now, Avijit will leave a lasting legacy.
In fact, the name “Avijit Roy” is now synonymous with reason, science, and courage. This is accurate: for Avijit, it was important that the world know Bangladesh not simply as a struggling Muslim-majority democracy but as a secular and free land where people could think independently and celebrate critical, evidence-based thinking. And he was willing to speak out in the face of death threats to spread this truth.
Avijit was a dear friend of mine. We first began communicating in 2000, when I was new to the Internet and searching for information about religion and secularism. At that time, I came across an online forum called “News from Bangladesh,” where a handful of Bangladeshi secular writers—most notably the late A. H. Jaffor Ullah, Syed Kamran Mirza, Jamal Hassan, Fatemolla, Sabbir Ahmed, and the late Narayan Gupta—were debating a large group of Islamists eloquently and relentlessly. I met Avijit on that forum. (In fact, he and I were the youngest members of that Bangladeshi secular group.) We immediately connected. At that time, we did not have our own website—although Avijit did have a personal page where he gathered the translated writings of Aroj Ali Matubbor, a self-educated Bangladeshi philosopher.
Then, in May 2001, Avijit formed a Yahoo group titled Mukto-Mona, which translates to “free mind.” It was meant to bring together people like us: secularists, rationalists, and atheists of Bangladeshi origin. We debated issues related to human rights, secularism, humanism, and the rise of religious fanaticism—especially Islam and Hinduism—on politics in Bangladesh and other South Asian countries, including India and Pakistan.
Initially, this group consisted of a dozen people from Bangladesh. We were soon joined by others from India and Pakistan. Eventually, we felt the need for a website of our own. With web hosting help from Alan Levin, a humanist from Canada, Mukto-Mona was born as an online platform in 2002.
Within a few years of its formation, Mukto-Mona began to draw the attention of secularists, rationalists, and atheists not just inside and nearby but also outside of Bangladesh. Its contributors would include Professor Humayun Azad, a Bangladeshi iconoclast—who, much like Avijit, was also brutally assaulted in 2004. It also drew the praises of such globally known names as Ibn Warraq, Taslima Nasrin, Austin Dacey, the late Victor J. Stenger, and the late Paul Kurtz.
In time, we initiated the first Bengali celebrations of Darwin Day, Rationalist Day, and International Women’s Day on the Internet. On each occasion, we received dozens of thought-provoking essays and articles related to the celebrations. Darwin Day was especially significant for us. Although there was plenty of information on Darwin and his theories in English, on the Internet there was almost nothing on Darwin for a Bengali reader. As in many other parts of the world, misconceptions about Darwin and his theories abound in Bangladesh. Mukto-Mona filled this void and broke down those misconceptions. In fact, one of the first comprehensive Bengali books on the history and scientific basis of evolution was written by Bonya Ahmed, Avijit’s wife.
But Mukto-Mona was more than just an online forum. We also worked on a number of social issues, from undertaking humanitarian projects to speaking out against the repression and killings of religious minorities and secular writers and activists in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan. We even joined with formal organizations, including the International Humanist and Ethical Union and Rationalists International, to organize protests against the arrest of Dr. Yunus Shaikh in Pakistan. Similarly, we raised our voices against the arrest of journalist Shahriar Kabir and the brutal attack on linguist and secular writer Professor Humayun Azad in Bangladesh. We condemned the killing of Muslims in Gujrat, India, and the atrocities committed against the minority Hindus in Bangladesh.
It is not an understatement to say that the advent of Mukto-Mona on the Internet was monumental, both historically and culturally. Until then, there were no platforms for freethinkers of Bangladeshi origin—especially those who came out of Muslim backgrounds—to discuss and exchange opinions about topics such as the existence of God, the claims of religious scriptures and leaders, or LGBT issues. These are taboo topics for most Muslims in Bangladesh.
When I came into contact with Avijit, I was new not only to the Internet but to the United States as well. Philosophically, I was going through a major transition. I grew up a pious Muslim but had started to lose faith in organized religion. The beliefs that I had held dearly for years began to disappear before my eyes. And it was a hard topic to talk about with friends or family. If a Muslim friend or relative knew that I was questioning the existence of God (Allah), he or she most likely would jump to the conclusion that I had been brainwashed or even might have been proselytized by another religion.
I vividly remember how thrilled I was when I discovered the websites for the Center for Inquiry and its programs, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and the Council for Secular Humanism. What a relief it was to learn that I was not alone in asking questions about religions and scriptures—and that, in fact, at least one-fifth of the world’s population didn’t believe in any religion! The Internet opened a new world before me, an ocean of information on topics in which I was interested.
In particular, I was glad to have met Avijit. Although we came from different religious backgrounds, I found quite a few things in common with Avijit, culturally and ideologically. We exchanged opinions on a regular basis. Years later, we would finally meet in person. He was rather quiet and soft-spoken, and he did not look exceptionally imposing. But he was as brilliant as I had expected.
Avijit was a prolific writer. “An engineer by profession and a writer by passion,” is how he described himself on his Facebook page. And that passion ran deep. Avijit authored four books, coauthored five books, and wrote countless articles. The uniqueness of his writings lies not just in the challenging topics he addressed—Avijit published many heretical articles debunking popular Islamic and Hindu myths and refuting misconceptions about biological evolution, the origin of the universe, and homosexuality—but also in that almost never before had anyone written such rich and well-researched material in Bengali on such topics. With his beautiful Bengali prose and penetrating analytical ability, Avijit received enthusiastic responses to his articles.
But Avijit was not only a writer; he was also a successful organizer and supporter of others. Mukto-Mona became the largest and the fastest-growing collection of contemporary freethinkers in Bangladesh and within South Asia, leading to many collaborative initiatives. Moreover, a group of talented, spirited young writers has emerged around Mukto-Mona, writers who have learned to think outside the box and not to allow doctrines, social or religious, to dictate their sense of good and bad. Rather, they are guided by reason, science, and humanist values.
Avijit was at heart a staunch supporter of the right of people to speak out freely and fearlessly. When Islamic extremists attacked bloggers in Bangladesh for writing critically about Islam and its prophet Muhammad, Avijit spoke out in national and international arenas. One of these bloggers, Ahmed Rajib Haider, was murdered in 2013. That same year, in an attempt to appease Islamists’ demands, the so-called secular government of Bangladesh jailed seven atheist bloggers. Avijit responded by touching base with his contacts at the Center for Inquiry and the International Humanist and Ethical Union to coordinate protests and political advocacy both nationally and internationally. Due to widespread pressure, the Bangladeshi government eventually released the jailed bloggers.
Such was Avijit Roy—an undaunted advocate of the secular and scientific outlooks, and of equal rights for all.
Like anyone, Avijit was not flawless. At times, Mukto-Mona got bogged down in discussions that sounded more like preaching to the converted than promoting freethought. But we all have flaws, and Avijit was still special. So, what’s Avijit’s most important legacy? I cannot help pondering.
In my opinion, it is that he impelled many minds, both young and adult, toward freedom—toward the courage to question convention, authority, tradition, the “sacred”—toward a world free from all kinds of shackles and superstitions. Indeed, as Avijit described Mukto-Mona’s mission in 2007: “. . . 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.”
That mission will live on as a legacy in the others who found him through it. As summarized by a Bengali Avijit fan who posted on social media after his killing: “He was Richard Dawkins of Bangladesh. . . . Today I know what is the philosophy of science, what is evolution, what is freethinking, what is logic. Today I can dare to dream of writing popular science in my mother tongue only because of him. He was a true master of modern thinking and writing. He, literally, was and is a hero of mine and, for sure, of many youngsters.”
What else could a man wish for as a legacy?