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.

Peter Tatchell: My journey to Humanism – how I made the transition from dogma and superstition to rationalism

Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell writes about the story of his journey to Humanism. This article was originally published in Humanism Ireland under the title ‘My Journey from superstition to rationalism.’

Peter Tatchell: Why I'm...

Peter Tatchell: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is proof that humans don’t need a god to tell right from wrong, and something we as humans can be proud of.

Organised religion is the world’s greatest fount of obscurantism, prejudice, superstition and oppression. It has caused misery to billions of people for millennia, and continues to do so in many countries. So how come I was once in thrall to it?

Nowadays, I am a human rights activist motivated by love and compassion for other people. I do evidence-based campaigning, based on humanitarian and rational values.

But I once had a very different perspective. Indeed, I grew up in a devout evangelical Christian family in Melbourne, Australia, in the 1950s and ’60s. My mother and stepfather (with whom I spent most of my childhood) were prim and proper working class parents, with very conservative views on everything. The Bible, every word of it, was deemed to be the actual and definitive word of God. Their Christianity was largely devoid of social conscience, more Old Testament than New. It was all about personal salvation.

According to our church, some of the worst sins were swearing, drinking alcohol, smoking, dancing, sex outside of marriage, communism, belief in evolution, not praying and failing to go to church every Sunday. All my extended family was of the same persuasion. Naturally, I also embraced God.

But in secondary school, aged 13, I began to think for myself. I remember a rather smug religious education teacher who one day gave us a lesson in faith. He argued that when we switch on a light we don’t think about it; we have faith that the room will light up. He suggested that faith in the power of God was the same as faith in the power of electricity to turn on a light.

Bad analogy, I thought. What causes a light to go on when one flicks the switch is not faith; it is man-made electricity and wiring – and this can be demonstrated by empirical evidence. The existence of God cannot. This set my mind thinking sceptical thoughts.

This nascent doubt was not, however, strong enough to stop me, at the age of 16,from becoming a Sunday school teacher to six year olds. Being of an artistic persuasion, I made colourful cardboard tableaux of Biblical stories. The children loved it. My classes were popular and well attended.

The first serious cracks in my faith had begun to appear the previous year, 1967, when an escaped convict, Ronald Ryan, was hanged for a murder he almost certainly did not commit. At age 15, I worked out that the trajectory of the bullet through the dead man’s body meant that it would be virtually impossible for Ryan to have fired the fatal shot. Despite this contrary evidence, he was executed anyway. This not only shattered my confidence in the police, courts and government, it also got me thinking about my faith.

According to St Paul (The Bible, Romans 13:1-2), all governments and authorities are ordained by God. To oppose them is to oppose God. But why would God, I asked myself, ordain a government that allowed an apparent injustice, such as Ryan’s execution? If he did ordain it, did God deserve respect? And what about other excesses by tyrannical governments? Did God really ordain the Nazi regime? Stalin’s Soviet Union? Apartheid? And closer to home, the 19th century British colonial administration which decimated, by intent or neglect, the Aboriginal peoples of Australia?

I began to develop my own version of liberation theology, long before I had ever heard the phrase. During the 1960s, the nightly TV news was dominated by footage of the black civil rights struggle, led by the Baptist pastor, Martin Luther King Jr. His faith was not mere pious words; he put Christian values into action.

This is what Christianity should be about, I concluded. Accordingly, at 14, I left my parents’ Pentecostal church and started going to the local Baptist church instead. Alas, it was not what I expected – not even a quarter as radical as Martin Luther King’s Baptist social conscience. A huge disappointment.

Undeterred, I began to articulate my own revolutionary Christian gospel of ‘Jesus Christ the Liberator’, based on ideas in the Sermon on the Mount and the parable of the Good Samaritan.

This soon led me into Christian-inspired activism for Aboriginal rights, as well as against the death penalty, apartheid, the draft and the Vietnam War. I linked up with members of the radical Student Christian Movement. In 1970, aged 18, I initiated Christians for Peace, an inter-denominational anti-war organisation which organised a spectacular candlelit march through Melbourne, calling for the withdrawal of Australian and US troops from Vietnam.

At the age of 17, I had realised I was gay. From the first time I had sex with a man I felt emotionally and sexually fulfilled, without any shame at all. This positive experience overwhelmed all the years of anti-gay religious dogma that had been pummelled into me.

Amazingly, I never experienced a moment’s doubt or guilt. I reasoned: how could something so wonderful and mutually fulfilling be wrong? Instantly, I accepted my sexuality and was determined to do my bit to help end the persecution of lesbian and gay people.

By the time I turned 20, rationality finally triumphed over superstition and dogma. I didn’t need God anymore. I was intelligent, confident and mature enough to live without the security blanket of religion and its theological account of human life and the universe.

Accordingly, I renounced religion and embraced reason, science and an ethics based on love and compassion. I concluded: we don’t need God to tell us what is right and wrong. We humans are quite capable of figuring it out for ourselves. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is proof of this. It’s not God-given dogma and intolerance, but a fine example of high moral values, without religion. Bravo!

A victory for universality: UN Human Rights Council adopts resolution protecting LGBTI persons

Amelia Cooper reports again from the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, where she speaks on behalf of the British Humanist Association

Amelia Cooper reports again from the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, where she speaks on behalf of the British Humanist Association

‘There is no justification ever, for the degrading, the debasing or the exploitation of other human beings – on whatever basis: nationality, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, age or caste.’

This statement was made by the new High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, in his introductory remarks to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva: a powerful, timely reminder of the universality of human rights. Notable in this statement is the inclusion of ‘sexual orientation’, which has faced numerous attacks and denunciations as being outside the remit of the Council, despite the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ emphasis that there will be no distinction ‘of any kind’ in the application of human rights. However, it is with great pleasure that I write to say that last night, following fierce debate, tense votes, and years of global advocacy, the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution based on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI), only the second of its kind.

The past year has been a tumultuous one for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex (LGBTI) people, with great successes regarding equal marriage taking place in the US and the UK, while elsewhere, such as in Russia, Nigeria, and Uganda, a spate of anti-homosexuality legislation has criminalized certain types of love, or made it impossible for LGBTI people to live openly. The global increase in homophobic aggression led one gay man to remark that ‘a hunting season is open, and we are the hunted’[1].

Without direct experience, however, it is easy to forget the rampant homophobia, both state-sanctioned and carried out by vigilantes, that permeates every aspect of daily life for LGBTI persons throughout the world – including in Europe.

Last week, I attended a side event hosted by ARC International, a leading advocacy group focused on achieving equality for LGBTI, and was shocked and heartbroken in equal measures to hear of the brutal violence that individuals suffer because of who they love.

Jabulani, from the South African Iranti Organisation, detailed innumerable cases of corrective rape and attacks carried out with impunity, ending by saying ‘The fact is that loving someone of your same sex is a direct threat to your bodily integrity’.

In Latin America, there are ‘curative clinics’ where LGBTI people are taken, abused and violated to ‘normalise’ their bodies. In the psyche of the perpetrator, this is not sexual abuse: it is a method by which people be ‘cured’ of their identity. The suicide rate among LGBTI youth in Latin America is 50% higher than their peers; in Central America, the life expectancy for transgender individuals is 24-28 years old. Transgender people do not have the benefit of ‘the closet’, due to their gender expression, and are therefore visible and oft targeted.

In Europe, Nori Spauwen of COC Netherlands said that the protection of LGBTI persons remains ‘a patchwork of national policy and Council of Europe recommendations’, and emphasized that having a legal, pro-equality framework is an indispensable precondition to elimination discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. In the EU, more than half of all lesbian women have faced violence or verbal abuse in the past year, while crimes committed against LGBTI persons continue to be grossly underreported, due to the victims’ belief that nothing will change, or because they fear a homo/transphobic police reaction.

Any of these cases, on an individual basis, would suffice to show that discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity must stop; when together, they illustrate that this is a global scourge that must stop now.

Yesterday’s adoption of the resolution ‘combating violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity’ is a critically important achievement in upholding the universality of human rights and creating a global framework to combat discrimination against LGBTI persons.

Introduced by Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Uruguay, and subsequently co-sponsored by an additional 42 states, the resolution expresses grave concern at acts of violence and discrimination suffered by LGBTI, calls for an updated study to be carried out by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and ensures that the issue will remain on the Human Rights Council agenda.

The resolution faced a number of hostile amendments, including a proposal by Egypt (on behalf of ten states) to delete all references to sexual orientation and gender identity from the text. The Brazilian ambassador remarked that ‘Deleting all reference to sexual orientation and gender identity from this resolution would be the same as eliminating all references to women from the resolution on violence against women’. However, given that Egypt formed part of the core group who proposed the pernicious Protection of the Family resolution in June, their hostility to this resolution was hardly surprising.

A number of states spoke during the voting process, with impassioned statements from the resolution sponsors, including Chile’s statement that ‘this resolution does not seek to create new rights…there are some whose rights are more violated and need more protection’. Pakistan, speaking on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Conference, framed LGBTI equality as a danger to the country, saying ‘The wider connotations of the term ‘sexual orientation’ can be extremely detrimental and inimical to our Muslim societies in particular, and to our youth as a whole’.

Thankfully, the resolution survived the persistent attempts to undermine it and was passed with by a vote of 25-14 (with seven abstentions, including from China and India) to huge smiles, happy tears and close embraces in a rare moment of emotional diplomacy.

While the resolution alone will not bring an end to discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, it is a remarkable achievement in enshrining LGBTI equality as part of the international agenda, and provides a framework for further discussion of the issue. As the final regular session of the 2014 Human Rights Council has now closed, the resolution is an enormous step forward in terms of LGBTI equality, undermining the national legislation that criminalizes love and proving that human rights are truly universal.

 


 

For further information, see the joint NGO statement following the passage of the resolution.

[1] Dima, a Russian man who was left blind in one eye after an armed group stormed a gay community centre. Quoted by Channel 4, and featured in their documentary ‘Hunted’. http://www.channel4.com/news/gay-russian-sochi-hunting-season-we-are-the-hunted