The sound of silence: humanists defy extremists in Dhaka

Bangladeshi blogger Isthiak Ahsan writes about the extreme peril faced by those writing about Humanism and secularism in Bangladesh.

Busy streets of Dhaka, like those where humanist bloggers Avijit Roy, Ahmed Haider, and Washiqur Rahman were slaughtered in the open

Busy streets of Dhaka, like those where humanist bloggers Avijit Roy, Ahmed Haider, and Washiqur Rahman were slaughtered in the open

I am just another Bangladeshi seeking to build his life in this country of 140 millions, going through everyday struggle. Struggle – we have had many and they seem endless. However, the people of Bangladesh (once claimed a top place in the global happiness index) are not used to complaining; they never were. They wish for lives full of peace and dignity. They want to see their country run democratically and justly.

This land and its people were famous for decades for communal harmony and respects for all people of different faiths and beliefs. In the past, beginning from the Pakistani period (Bangladesh was the eastern wing of Pakistan), Bangladeshis stood still against oppression, communalism, and fanaticism. Bullets, tanks, bombs couldn’t stop the freedom loving people of Bangladesh from claiming what is legit, what is right, what is fair. The result was amazing and incredible. Today, 21 February is observed as the international mother language day, owing to the martyrdom the young Bangladeshis embraced. And also, most of all, independence, we won it after spending nine months under occupation, rape and genocide. Three million Bangladeshis sacrificed their lives. Yet, we don’t find it too expensive; freedom, dignity, and respect are always earned at a price. To us, this is what it takes for democracy: religious freedom, freedom of speech, and equal rights for every inhabitants residing in this land. Our original constitution never included a state religion. It championed secularism as the pillar of the newborn state of Bangladesh. Because of this, we were well on our way towards becoming a country that would treat its citizens equally regardless of their gender, religion, caste and belief.

‘Our original constitution championed
secularism as the pillar of the newborn
state of Bangladesh.’

With time the paved path faded away. Unfortunately for us, our rulers failed to stick to the motto based on which a great nation saw its dawn. They indiscriminately and incessantly used religion to buy cheap public sentiment. Or, in some cases they behaved as though ‘blindfolded’ to keep political momentum in their favour. When you are detached from your values, your morals you are due to be doomed. That’s what we can see in today’s Bangladesh. In recent months, bloggers who have been written against extremism, war criminals, and expressing their thinking on matters like religion have frequently been attacked. Many of them were hacked to death in broad daylight. Unfortunately, our government, as always, has failed to take a firm stance against these sorts of atrocities. There is no case where the perpetrators were brought to justice or given exemplary punishment. No wonder, then, that extremists do not refrain from carrying on such gruesome killings.

‘The intensity of extremism is gradually
spoiling all our achievements.’

The intensity of extremism is gradually spoiling all our achievements. For instance, as per as the UN index, Bangladeshi women are doing better in all fields including education and employment in comparison with their counterparts in India and Pakistan. Last year, a fanatic faction called Hizb ut-Tahrir raised a demand calling for end of female empowerment! If their demand was met, women would be reduced to little else but machines which give birth and raise children. The fanatics would not dare to think that the GDP of Bangladesh today, the second highest in South Asia after India, could be achieved without the contribution of Bangladeshi women. They work hard all day and night to feed their families, and at the same time, they take care of an entire household. If we refuse their contributions, if we held them back, Bangladesh will never be self-reliant. Grameen Bank, founded by Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, is the only institution in Bangladesh which has achieved the feat of winning the sole Nobel prize for our country. About 90% members of this organization are women from all around Bangladesh.

Some bloggers who have been killed for raising these issues were blamed for blasphemy attributed on them by the extremists. There have even been attempts to justify these killings claiming that the bloggers crossed a line by hurting the religious sentiments of les gens. OK, I take it that many of their ideas might be hard for others to consume; sometimes they are sensitive. But, is it really permitted to kill someone for their writing? Leaving aside freedom of speech, what does Islam itself tell us about it? I think a story from Prophet Muhammad’s life should be a reminder to the faithful. During his cumbersome days in ancient Arabia, when the prophet first began to preach Islam, he was being tortured and laughed at. One day, an old woman spread thorns all over the way he would travel. The prophet on his way found it very difficult to keep walking and his feet were hurt. But he didn’t utter a word against the old lady, who vehemently opposed Muhammad’s preaching of Islam. The story goes, this continued for days and the prophet never did any harm to the old woman. One day, he saw that the path he would walk on was clear; there was no sign of thorns. Instantly, he rushed to the old lady’s house and found her sick in bed. There was no one to take care of her. The prophet could have killed the woman instantly to avenge all the miseries imposed upon him. But he didn’t do so. He took care of the woman like his own mother and made her stand on her feet again.

There is a saying that you can kill a person but not his ideas. The more you try to suppress an idea, the stronger it becomes. Students, intellectuals and freethinkers are uniting to defy threats and torture. The extremists thought it would be enough to kill someone to bury the ideas he or she conveys; but what they miss is that by doing so, they are igniting the spirit of secularism more than ever.

Isthiak Ahsan is a student, freelance writer, and humanist.

Bigger fish to Fry?

Forget the problem of evil, argues Matthew Hicks. Why aren’t we getting more het up about injustice and human suffering?

Last week saw a media storm over an interview with Stephen Fry. During the interview (embedded below), Fry was asked: ‘What if you’re wrong? What would you say to God if you found you were at the pearly gates?’ Fry said that he would ask this benevolent, compassionate, all-knowing God what bone cancer in children was all about before becoming reservedly enraged about the level of suffering on this planet against a backdrop of a supposedly benevolent, compassionate, all-powerful, and all-knowing being.

Fry’s response was by no means novel, but he articulated himself sufficiently well that people either identified with it or took disagreement with it strongly enough to result in millions of shares and retweets . What stuck out to me however, was not his articulacy or verbosity, but rather his rage at injustice and suffering in the world today, an emotion which was almost palpable.

The question posed to Fry was a narrow-minded, both philosophically and spiritually, and Fry very eloquently answered back in those same terms. But it was the narrowness of Fry’s response which has led to people from both ends of the belief spectrum rushing in to claim an intellectual or spiritual high ground.

With Fry’s rage about suffering so effectively bypassed by those responders, I would like to ask a question. If we are so concerned with the nature of this dilemma, and so many of those with faith or lack thereof are, then why can’t we find it in ourselves to stand alongside Fry in this rage regardless of our belief?

The realms of the supernatural and the rational can fight all they want, split verbal hairs and claim immaturity and narrow-mindedness on the other’s part.  Any one of us can detail the insides of our navels over this issue and wait sneeringly for a response. If we do that however, and jump on the difference of opinion rather than share in the rage of injustice, then we are no different from an allegedly all-powerful, all-compassionate God who sits on his divine derrière.

We live in an age where we who have access to Fry’s interview (and the ability to share it) have a comprehension of the world and its affairs that is unprecedented in history. We are as close to an all-knowing animal as we can get right now! And through the Internet, we also now have the ability to change so much that which is unjust. We are not ourselves all-powerful but as men and women, we have countless opportunities to effect change through democratic activity.

‘For me the evil of inactivity is so much more malignant than the evil of difference of opinion.’

My point is that rage spent on attempting to reverse injustice and suffering is much more productive than rage spent on pointless debate. Are we not better off expending energy on real issues at stake in the world today through channels such as scientific research, foreign aid, and the promotion of human rights? Surely that is a more worthwhile display of our better human qualities than arguments which have no benefit except to fuel the ego of those arguing their point.

Whether there is a divine being is irrelevant to the point in hand. What Fry’s response encapsulates is a sense of anger that we all feel and identify with at some level regardless of belief.  Of course highlighting our differences is so much easier than seeking common ground. To do the latter would open up a whole can of worms with regards our sense of responsibility toward our fellow humans. For me the evil of inactivity is so much more malignant than the evil of difference of opinion.

As Martin Niemoller said:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Matt Hicks can be often found touring Devon with a bag full of songs and his ukulele. He blogs at The Wooden Duck.