Guest post by Pat O’Brien
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 and 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 the country 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 Bangala 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 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.
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?
Pat O’Brien is a member of the Board of Centre For Inquiry Canada. His article was published in the March 2015 edition of Radical Desi.
Avijit Roy’s article, “The Virus of Faith” is available on line.