A program of the Center for Inquiry
Every day I try to grow more alive. The wounds on my body stare at me; I don’t want to think of the wounds in my life yet. The life I had built bit by bit for many years, I left that on the sidewalk of the Dhaka Boimela. I awaken at midnight and see Avijit’s bloody body on the street. In the silence of the afternoon I can hear the sounds coming from the injured, semiconscious Avijit lying beside me in the hospital. When the doctor removes the stitches from the cleaver wounds in my head, my forehead, I feel rattled then as well. I’m often startled when I spot my left hand missing my thumb. In the mirror I cannot even recognize my own face.
My wounded brain seeks answers; it seeks causes and sequential progression. Then deep in my heart, from that place of irreparable loss, there is born a strange feeling. I can see again those creatures who looked human, who emerged from the caves of medieval values into the broad avenues of Dhaka wielding naked cleavers, whose roars are gradually drowning out the voices of civilization.
As I write this, their roars and cleavers have emerged triumphant in Dhaka again. They have celebrated the one-month anniversary of Avijit’s murder with yet another murder. The glee of the fanatical small-minded continues to drench Bengal’s soil. [The author refers to the assassination of blogger Washiqur Rahman in Dhaka on March 30. On May 12, after this essay was written, blogger Ananta Bijoy Ras was killed in the northeastern city of Sylhet. Al Qaeda has claimed credit for all three attacks. —Eds.]
But then, as a student of science and history, I am reminded that you creatures were always there. Human civilization has progressed only by battling you, the fanatical forces of religion. Like hordes of hyenas, you have always tried to scavenge the flesh of progress. Intellectual and scientific thought, progressive art and literature—these have terrified you in all periods of history. You have always picked up your weapons to impede the forward march of knowledge and science. But the glass houses you built are shattered at the slightest scratches of pens. Your faith is so weak that it is shaken by the winds of freethought. You rush at us with swords, with cleavers—your faith is saved only by cutting throats.
You always existed.
You were the ones who shredded Hypatia’s flesh. You burnt to death uncountable “witches.” You gloried in sati, burning widows. You found monstrous glee in burning Bruno. Like a frog in a well you punished Galileo and burped in satisfaction thinking, now, now you’ve succeeded in stopping the revolution of the earth forever.
Awhile back Avijit had written an essay on Hypatia. If you are even partially literate, read it and see that there is no difference at all between you and the religion-mad fanatics from fifteen hundred years ago. Just change the time, context, and the weapons, and you will see your own face in theirs. In thousands of years, no matter the time, the country, the religion, the race, you have not changed.
Like the assassination of the intellectuals during the 1971 war, Cyril (the Christian Patriarch of Alexandria) was engaged in a celebration of death, picking out Neoplatonists to murder. On such a day, on her way to work, Hypatia became the victim of the wrath of the fanatics, much like our Humayun Azad of today. But with Hypatia the brutality was worse. A detailed account of Hypatia’s murder can be found in the writing of Socrates Scholasticus of the fifth century:
“Some of them therefore, hurried away by a fierce and bigoted zeal, whose ringleader was a reader named Peter, waylaid her returning home, and dragging her from her carriage, they took her to the church called Caesareum, where they completely stripped her, and then murdered her with tiles. After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them.”
Hypatia was murdered in March 415 A.D. As her murderers, the ones noted were namely the Parabolani of the Jerusalem church, fanatical priests, and the Nicene Christians.
Do not make the mistake of believing that we think you are contained merely in the pages of history. It is impossible to not see that you are stronger in this twenty-first century, engaged in a festival of destruction like wounded, violent beasts. When the ISIS butchers behead, when they force girls of other faiths into sexual slavery, when Boko Haram abducts hundreds of young women and sells them off in medieval style, when the Taliban massacres innocent schoolchildren, we see you again: you still exist, just as you had in the past.
We know the powerful patrons you have across the globe; those who have helped you survive through the centuries, those who have profited from the business of religion. I have witnessed around me, always, examples of your folly, your small-mindedness, and your animal brutality; now I have seen it in my own life.
The cleaver wounds in my head have not fully healed yet. My thumbless hand still startles me. And Avijit’s unmoving, still body is always there, in front of my eyes. And it is then that I realize—no, I cannot even despise you, I cannot. It offends me to despise inhuman creatures like you. You lack even the sliver of humanity I need to be able to despise you. You are not worth my hate.
Avijit, Washiqur, I, and thousands like us who are in the pages of history today and yesterday—we bear witness to your evil. Human civilization will shiver when it discards you in the trash pile of history, when it sees your barbaric insanity; from there it will vow to forge ahead.
Let me speak of another issue. I’m amazed when I think that we have not yet heard a single word from the government of Bangladesh. Even in the country where we are “naturalized” [the United States], citizens made some noise; the government of the country we were born in said nothing, cowering in fear! Tell me, what are you afraid of? Or is this just a political game?
I heard that the prime minister quietly called Avijit’s father. A few ministers came to meet him. They made sure that the news was kept on the down-low. The country we were born in; the country where we grew up; the country for which we wielded our pens instead of thinking of ease in our life abroad, of a good job, cars, a house; the country to which we returned again and again for love—did the government of that country have nothing to say?
The blogging world and mainstream media, internationally as well as in Bangladesh, have protested strongly; several platforms have begun translating and disseminating Avijit Roy’s writings. In many towns and cities in Bangladesh, as well as outside—in London, Washington, D.C., in Florida, in Toronto, New York, Berlin, Sydney—there have been protest rallies and human chains. Not a single word emerged from your lips protesting the hacking to death of a writer such as Avijit in the crowded, well-lit, flawlessly secure Boimela. Yet you are the ones who, giving in to the demands of your religious fanatic friends, imprisoned atheist bloggers. I don’t see an atom now of the energy that was displayed in jailing them!
There are times when silence speaks volumes. Shall we assume that the murders of Avijit or Babu, the assault on me, all of these have your quiet acquiescence? That you are telling us to succumb to a national culture of machetes retaliating against pens?
As I write this, a month has passed. Even the slight urgency to the investigation in the beginning has dissipated. We do not hope for sympathy from you; we have abandoned hopes of support a long time ago. We understand your politics has to take into account votes; you have to indulge many forces. But we truly want to know the reason for your silence.
We all know that religious fundamentalism has gradually rooted itself in Bangladesh. It’s not unknown who act, nationally and internationally, as their patrons. Avijit’s murder was not accomplished by one or two. Behind them is an organized, Islamist fundamentalist terrorist group; that was proved immediately. Otherwise, a group such as Ansar Bangla 7 could not claim responsibility for the murder so fast. Isn’t it time to think where our future is headed unless these forces are uprooted now? Is it our destiny to be pushed along the same path of ISIS, Boko Haram, or al-Qaeda?
At a time when human civilization is figuring out how to build settlements on Mars, we have begun our journey backward, riding on the back of a strange medieval camel. The powerful have always used religion and religious fundamentalism as a weapon to stifle progress. Sometimes they have won. But no matter how long it took, human civilization has always defeated them and moved forward.
Avijit did not only write; throughout his life he attempted to establish a strong platform in our country for the practice of freethought. Kaberi Gayen, a Dhaka University professor, wrote to me in a personal message, “I know it has become our legal culture to use cleavers to protest writing. Still, after Avijit’s murder, the taboo we had of taking a stand for an atheist and practitioner of freethought has broken down. Everywhere people are speaking up. Almost every day people are writing, holding protest meetings and rallies.”
Without going into the logic of attaining this gain at the cost of Avijit’s brutal murder, let me say this: society does not move ahead in a straight line. Sometimes it stumbles; sometimes it moves step by slow step; sometimes, empowered by the strength of the people, it forges ahead. Today, in the wake of countless injustices, murders, anarchy, and corruption, the people who gaze uncomprehendingly at the immobile body on the sidewalk hacked by cleavers, the people who cannot even think of stepping up to help, perhaps one day they will awaken. History tells us we too will move ahead; perhaps time will tell us how many steps back we need to take before we can take two forward.
Rafida Bonya Ahmed was attacked along with her husband, Avijit Roy, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on February 26, 2015. They were leaving a book fair that was featuring Roy’s latest book, Biswasher Virus (The Virus of Faith). Ahmed is also a leading freethinker: she is closely involved with Mukto-Mona.com, a Yahoo group for freethinking Bengalis, and she is the author of Biborton Er Poth Dhorey (Treading in the Path of Evolution), considered to be the best book in Bengali on evolution. This article was translated by Shabnam Nadiya.