By Adeeb Chowdhury
on April 17, 2017
The name has rapidly ascended to fame throughout Bangladesh. It has seized headlines and dominated discussions about human rights, freedom of speech, and the growing threat to secularism in this nation. This name has become synonymous with the rising presence of activists and bloggers in Bangladesh, combating injustice and theocratic dogma while living under the constant threat of attack.
For many, the name is an icon of the hopeful revolution in Bangladeshi society. The objective of this revolution is to protect politics and legislation from the tendrils of religious fundamentalists and theocrats, preserving democratic principles and freedoms necessary for social advancement. These principles and freedoms, as the revolutionary writers and bloggers realise, have come under fire from religious leaders for far too long. Religion has overplayed its role in politics and has harmfully impacted legislation to far too large an extent. Vital human rights, such as the right to free speech, have been dangerously compromised. Fundamentalist, conservative attitudes in society have fuelled violence and degrading views of women, LGBT communities, and minorities. The secular constitution, framed by the Father of the Nation Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, is being trampled underfoot by hordes of narrow-minded conservatives, marching proudly and flaunting their intolerance towards diversity, pluralism, and basic human rights.
Democracy in Bangladesh is dangling precariously on the precipice of collapse. This is the harsh reality recognised by the activists of this social revolution. Yet at the same time, they remain confident that this reality can be reversed – through effort, education, and reformation, from political and social levels. Avijit Roy was one of the activists who preserved these values in his heart, relentless and unwavering in his support for the movement against fundamentalism.
However, in some circles, the name “Avijit Roy” became notorious, its infamy rising after he passed away. The name is seen as an icon of evil and moral bankruptcy, according to such mind-sets. This name conjures thoughts about the immorality of atheism, the folly of the faithless, the sin of scepticism. Avijit Roy is regarded to be a nuisance, a troublemaker, a vain and conceited fool. His writings are dismissed as crude insults to Islam and other faiths. His work and efforts are spat upon and tossed aside, seen only as a ticket to eternal hell. His critical, thoughtful questions probing the innards of religion and investigating the basis on which they place themselves, are mangled and maligned by fundamentalists whose goal is to put an end to people asking such curious questions. Avijit Roy’s values – free speech, democracy, equality, tolerance – are believed to be a pathetic façade, a weak attempt to overthrow Islam as a tenet of Bangladeshi society.
This is the revolting image that many people across the nation had of Avijit Roy, and continue to do so. This is, in fact, the image that many Bangladeshis have of almost anyone daring to challenge the position held by religious conservatism in politics. Anyone criticising the damaging impact left by fundamentalism on Bangladeshi governance and society is branded a “heretic” and a “nastik” – a derogatory slang word aimed at secular citizens. Avijit Roy suffered a hailstorm of such insulting remarks and nasty names. What set him apart was the fact that these insults did not weaken him – in fact, it only fuelled his efforts, allowing him to witness first-hand the persecution nonbelievers face in this country, and devoting himself to combat this issue.
In honour and memoriam of this revered figure of freethinking, let us explore the life of Avijit Roy and his lasting legacy in Bangladesh and across the world. Let us take a glance at the struggles he overcame to fight intolerance and superstition.
Early Life and Influences
Avijit Roy entered this world on 12 September 1972, in the city of Dhaka, Bangladesh. He was born into a nominally Hindu family but did not retain the faith – early in his youth, he took an interest in atheism and logic, as well as writing about such topics. He described his father as an enormous influence on his early journey to secular humanism.
His father, Ajoy Roy, was no stranger to such progressive values. He was the Professor of Physics at the University of Dhaka, and was at the forefront of the Bangladeshi campaign for promoting rationalism and humanism. Ajoy Roy is founder and president of the Shikkha Andolan Mancha (“Platform for Education” Movement), chairman of Shamriti Mancha (“Platform for Peace, Harmony, and Tranquillity”), and an Honorary Associate of the organization Rationalist International. He was awarded the Ekushey Padak in 2012, the highest civilian accolade in the nation. As Avijit Roy spoke of his father, “It is Baba who taught me to be an atheist. He trained me to question everything and seek an answer.”
Though Avijit Roy would later achieve widespread fame for his powerful words and articles, he did not take much interest in writing during his early childhood. He had been an avid follower of cricket instead, displaying keen skill in playing the sport. His father recounts a story from Avijit’s youth: “Once when he was in Class 7 or 8, I bought him a rather expensive cricket bat. His eyes shone bright as he exclaimed, ‘Baba you are great!’ ”.
His father also remarked that one of Avijit’s cricket bats still remains in their house, tucked away in a corner, alongside his engineering tools. Ajoy Roy sweetly reminisced that these objects serve as a reminder of his son.
So what brought about Avijit’s intrigue in writing? It was a family trip to east India in the 1990s. He and his family visited Shantiniketan, the hometown of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, also known for humanist themes in his works. Visiting the home of “the Father of the Bengali Renaissance” had a profound influence on Avijit. According to his father, “It helped him come out of the mechanical attitude engineering students develop. As he came closer to nature and Tagore’s peaceful and spiritual establishment, they instilled a literary mind-set within him.”
This literary mind-set would soon pave the way for Avijit’s future and success, allowing him to blossom as a writer and effectively express his thoughts, beliefs, and views. His writings encompassed a vast array of topics and issues – varying from science, cosmology, origin of the universe, origin and evolution of life, to sexuality, LGBTQ+ freedom, free speech, faith, fear, superstition, and politics. One of the minds that greatly influenced Avijit was the Austrian-British philosopher Sir Karl Popper, known for his brilliant work regarding different branches of political theory as well as his analysis of the foundation of science. Some common recurrent themes visible in both Avijit and Karl Popper’s writings include describing the importance of democracy, open society, free speech, and criticizing conservatism. While at university, Avijit closely followed the works of fellow rationalists such as Taslima Nasreen and Paul Kurtz.
A remarkable feature noticeable in Avijit Roy’s work is the fact that he did not place his full, unwavering, undoubted faith in anyone. This is exactly what made his writing so sharp and brilliant – he was not afraid to criticise anyone, regardless of their status in history or position in society. Remarkably, he even penned his criticism of one of his heroes, Rabindranath Tagore, pointing out his personal shortcomings. Other notable figures he critically analysed include the famed communist Karl Marx and Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda.
This incredible bravery to criticize even globally respected figures reflects the spirit of Avijit Roy’s own popular quote: “Our aim is 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.” Avijit was a man who did not bow down to authority figures. He did not blindly follow leaders like sheep. He did not cast his eyes away from the errors of adored celebrities. He was a man who made his own path, fearlessly and objectively offering a clear, cool analysis of the facts.
An article in Mukto-Mona summed up Avijit’s approach clearly and concisely: “For Avijit, there were no prophets, only heroes. Unlike prophets, heroes make mistakes.”
Blossoming Into a Fearless Freethinker
Avijit Roy attended Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), receiving a Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering. During his time as a university student, his passion for deep discussion and debate flourished. In a posthumous tribute to Avijit in the newspaper Al-Jazeera, the Bangladeshi writer Shabnam Nadiya described the memorable experiences shared with him while studying in Dhaka.
There was no topic that was off-limits for Avijit. He and his friends would spend evenings seated on a sidewalk near their campus in front of the British Council Library. The sun would descend below the horizon, but the intensity of their discussions would only rise. Nadiya recalled an amusing moment shared with Avijit on the sidewalk: while debating politics with a deeply conservative fellow student, the argument grew so dynamic and powerful that their friend Dubal humorously commented, “Shalla, I can’t tell who’s singing louder – you folk or the crows.”
Nadiya also noted the great diversity of topics Avijit engaged in discussions about. Everything from international policies to the Dhaka film industry could be conversed about. But most of all, Avijit is remembered and revered for one particular trait: his ability to debate with someone he strongly disagrees with, yet still respect and appreciate his opponent. For Avijit, disagreement did not equal enmity.
In 2005, Avijit grew close to Rafida Ahmed Bonya, who expressed interest in his writings. She lived in Atlanta, Georgia with her daughter from a previous marriage. At the time, Avijit had been residing in Singapore, where he had earned a Master’s and a doctoral degree in Biomedical Engineering at National University of Singapore (NUS). In 2006, he moved to Atlanta, to marry Rafida and worked as a software engineer there. Every year, he returned to Bangladesh for the prestigious annual Ekushey Book Fair, where his books were often featured.
His first book was published in 2005, titled Alo Hate Choliyache Andharer Jatri (A Traveller of Darkness With A Lamp In His Hand). His most famous literary work is often considered to be the 2008 book Bishasher Virus (The Virus of Faith), which serves as a goldmine of rational thought, witty quips, and thought-provoking discussions.
Avijit Roy also fought long and hard outside of blogging. He contacted the Center for Inquiry and the International Humanist and Ethical Union for assistance regarding the arrest and mistreatment of secular bloggers in Bangladesh. Luminaries such as Salman Rushdie, Taslima Nasrin, Hemant Mehta, Maryam Namazie, PZ Myers, Anu Muhammad, Ajoy Roy, Qayyum Chowdhury, Ramendu Majumdar and Muhammad Zafar Iqbal joined Avijit’s campaign against abuse. He also spearheaded international movements and protests against the arrest of Bangladeshi bloggers, held in Dhaka, New York City, Washington, D.C., London, Ottawa and other cities.
His vigour for debating and discussion manifested itself in his most popular accomplishment: the establishment of the famed website Mukto-Mona. This name is Bengali for “freethinker”, and aptly reflects the values on which it was founded. The story of this site’s evolution is a story of gradual but impressive progress. Mukto-Mona began as a short and simple email list between interested Bangladeshis, discussing political and religious matters. Soon, it became a small, closed Yahoo group – a larger platform but not quite large enough to make a meaningful impact. In 2001, Avijit established Mukto-Mona as a free website open for all. He described it as the very first South Asian open forum for humanism and rationalism.
The website grew rapidly, earning followers and contributors at an unprecedented pace. It drew the attention of leading freethinkers such as Ibn Warraq, Humayun Azad, Taslima Nasrin, Victor Stenger, Austin Dacey, Paul Kurtz, Richard Dawkins, and more. Mukto-Mona was also named a nominee for of The Bobs (Best of Blogs) Award in the “Best of Online Activism” category. The site also hosted the first Bengali celebration of Darwin Day, Rationalist Day, and International Women’s Day on the internet.
Alongside the fame grew hatred and notoriety. Hate mail from fundamentalists sadly became all too common. In 2005, Mukto-Mona was banned in the UAE for its explicitly secular message. In 2013, the Islamist tribe Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) released a list of 84 freethinkers that it sought to kill – and it contained the names of multiple Mukto-Mona contributors.
However, the fears of violent retaliation rose with the murder of fellow Bangladeshi writer Ahmed Rajib Haider on 15 February 2013. He blogged under a pseudonym at Mukto-Mona, and his writings elsewhere contributed to the 2013 Shahbag protests (which had been directed against Islamist war criminals of the Liberation War of 1971). Haider was “dragged from his home” and fatally hacked by militants.
This pall of terror and intolerance made publishing books on science and philosophy even more difficult than it already had been. Publishers lived in fear of being attacked for selling these books, hence pulling them off the shelves. In 2014, the online store Rokomari stopped selling books written by Avijit Roy, citing their fears of violent retaliation from extremists. This was spurred by a death threat issued by Farabi Shafiur Rahman, an Islamist linked to the fundamentalist party Jamaat-e-Islami.
The death threat was issued in the form of a Facebook post, directed at Rokomari chairman Mahmudul Hasan Sohag. Farabi accused the store of “promoting atheism” by selling Avijit’s books, and promised to slaughter anyone facilitating such publications. He invited “his Islamist friends” to “bring justice” to the nonbelievers for such writings – in other words, kill them. The fundamentalist memorably stated that atheists are “nothing but bugs” and “it is best that bugs should die.”
In 2015, these threats manifested as violent and bloody attacks. Faisal Arefin Deepan of the Jagriti Prokashoni publishing house was slaughtered in October on the same night that Ahmedur Rashid Chowdhury was brutally attacked by Islamist militants. Ahmedur, the founder of the Shuddashar Publishing House, had one thing in common with Faisal, one thing that drew the ire of fundamentalists – they both published the works of Avijit Roy. While Faisal lost his life, Ahmedur was hospitalised and later forced into exile with his family. He received the International Writer of Courage Award in 2016.
This trend of fear continues to this day. Books by Avijit Roy and other notable secular writers have been banned from the Ekushey Book Fair, due to rising concerns about Islamist violence.
Death and Afterlife
Avijit Roy lost his life on 26 February 2015. He and his wife were visiting the 2015 edition of the Ekushey Book Fair when they were abruptly attacked, resulting in Avijit’s death.
Avijit and Rafida were ambushed at the doorstep of the book fair, on Suhrawardy Udyan on the other side of Milan Chattor. Assailants armed with machetes left a corpse, a traumatised woman, and pools of blood behind as they fled the scene. However, those were not the only losses of the night. As the screams of the couple pierced the evening air, as the frightened crowd gathered around the scene, as one of Bangladesh’s icons of freethinking lay dead, another element of this nation’s future had been slaughtered.
The dream of a progressive future for Bangladesh had also been killed. Avijit Roy’s dying dream of an advanced nation – one that abides by the secular and liberal principles of the constitution, one that prioritises evidence above blind faith and demagoguery, one that prizes reason and science above tradition, one that cares for human rights, freedom, and dignity – had been slaughtered on that night.
Avijit Roy was brought to Dhaka Medical College and Hospital, but he was pronounced dead a little before 11pm. His body was donated to the college for educational and scientific purposes.
You may wonder why the header for this section includes the term “afterlife.” Avijit Roy did not believe in an afterlife; he did not place his faith in heaven or hell. But the afterlife mentioned here is not the divine afterlife; it is a reference to his legacy, the eternal impacts of Avijit Roy’s efforts and works.
Avijit has spearheaded both national and international movements against the wrongdoings of theocrats and fundamentalists. He had led the outrage against mistreatment and abuses of minorities. He has ignited awareness in the shortcomings of Bangladesh’s political system, instead calling for strengthened democracy and enhanced constitutional rights.
“As brutal as his death was, I don’t think my dad would have wanted to live any differently. By dying for his cause, he gained worldwide attention to the oppression and murder of scientific thought in Bangladesh – a country that claims to be governed by secular principles,” proclaimed Trisha Ahmed, Avijit’s daughter, in a heartfelt CNN tribute to her father.
It is vital that we keep in mind the great sacrifices made by the soldiers of science and reason. The blood spilled on Dhaka streets is a relic of Bangladesh’s war against logic. On one side, this war is fought with machetes and guns; on the other side, this war is fought with words, essays, thoughtful arguments, and civil discussion. Both sides mark a significant epoch in Bangladeshi history – the epoch of the social revolution against superstition. The revolution against darkness, regression, misplaced traditions, Bronze Age customs. The revolution that promises to replace such unfounded values with substantiated science, evidence-based claims, research, liberty, and critical thinking.
This revolution has only begun.