Bangladeshi-American activist Avijit Roy murdered for blogging-while-atheist

On Thursday night, atheist blogger and American citizen Avijit Roy was brutally hacked to death in the street while returning home from a book fair in Dkaha, Bangladesh. Roy’s wife, Rafida Ahmed, was also injured.

Roy was a prominent voice in the atheist blogosphere, having founded and moderated the popular Bangladeshi blog, Mukto-Mona (translated as “freethinkers”), which was nominated for the 2014 Deutsche Welle Bobs award for online activism. He also published numerous books on free thought, skepticism and scientific inquiry.

A previously-unknown Islamic militant group, Ansar Bangla 7, claimed responsibility for the attack, citing Roy’s “crime against Islam” as the reason for his death.

Roy’s killing is the latest in a long line of similar attacks in Bangladesh, billed by the assailants as religious justice for the crime of blogging-while-atheist. In February of 2013, Ahmed Rajib Haider — better known by his online pseudonym, Thaba Baba — was hacked to death with a machete in his own home. Asif Mohiuddin survived a similar attack the previous month. Haider was targeted specifically for his involvement in the Shahbag protests, which called for the banning of the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party due to their involvement in war crimes committed during Bangladesh’s war for independence.

When Mohiuddin sought police protection after being attacked, he was instead advised by authorities to “not write blogs against religious fundamentalism.” His blog was banned in March of 2013.

Haider, Mohiuddin and now Roy are far from an exhaustive list of bloggers who have been attacked by Islamic militants in Bangladesh over their outspoken lack of religious belief, and many more have fled the country to avoid being added to it. And who could blame them? As one such blogger wrote (publishing anonymously after moving to America):

…it’s easy to be ballsy and provocative when your friends aren’t literally losing their heads over it. We’d all like to think we’d stick around and make a stand for what we believe in were it ever threatened. But think real hard: What do you believe in hard enough to have your goddamn head severed over it?

I thought about it, real hard, and I don’t have an answer. If I had a legitimate reason to believe that something I wrote could be used as a reason to kill me in the street, chances are I would stop writing and start binge-watching House of Cards. That Roy continued to advocate for unbelievers in the face of highly credible death threats is one part crazy and three parts brave, and serves as a reminder to the rest of the unbelieving writing community that being able to freely and safely criticize bad religious ideas is a luxury that isn’t available in much of the world.

While Bangladesh’s constitution officially endorses religious freedom, those protections are loosely enforced at best — note the Bangladeshi government’s response to the religious attacks on Asif Mohiuddin mentioned above. Nevertheless, Bangladesh’s nominal protections for irreligious speech actually make it progressive relative to other officially Muslim countries. After all, just yesterday it was reported that a Saudi writer named Raif Badawi, already serving a ten year/1,000 lashes sentence for writing blog posts critical of the government, is set to be re-tried over charges of apostasy. If convicted, Badawi would face the death penalty.

The evidence for Badawi’s status as an apostate? He liked a Facebook page for Arab Christians.

While these cases highlight the freedoms we have as writers in America, where the protections written into the Constitution for speech of this nature are actually enforced, they also serve a reminder not to take those protections for granted. After all, if the religious had their way, we might not be able to speak quite as freely: In the wake of violent religious outbursts of late, we have been continuously reminded that filmmakers, writers and cartoonists who were executed in broad daylight might have had it coming.

Freedom of Speech, via Shutterstock

Freedom of Speech, via Shutterstock

Perhaps most notably, following the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Pope Francis was quick to point out that freedom of speech has its limits, and that those who “provoke” the faithful shouldn’t be surprised when the faithful hit back.

This is a common refrain from those who use the “words hurt, too” defense when religious subscribers do terrible things in the name of their faith. We are told that we need to “respect” religion, the implication being that strong criticism, to say nothing of satire, is “disrespectful.” This distinction is qualified with endorsements of free speech and open debate, but it’s never made clear where respectful difference crosses the line and becomes disrespectful insult. Given the “offenses” that have triggered the murder of far too many unbelievers in the name of faith over the last two months alone, I think it’s safe to say that religious militants are, at the very least, distressingly thin-skinned.

We may find ourselves going through another iteration of this conversation in the wake of Avijit Roy’s death. After all, he organized protests calling for the banning of a militant religious political party and wrote a book entitled “The Virus of Faith.” That may be offensive, but if and when I hear people condemn Roy’s writings in the same breath as they condemn his killers — as all too many religious apologists did following the Charlie Hebdo shootings — they’ll have to forgive my lack of sympathy over the offense they have taken.

I’m not the first to notice that these reminders to “respect” religious beliefs in the wake of religiously-motivated violent outbursts come with clear and threatening undertones. We are told that unrestricted secular expression doesn’t excuse or justify these outbursts, but that it does help explain them. In other words, had those secular filmmakers, writers and cartoonists only trained their creative energy in a different direction, or perhaps softened their tone, they would still be alive today.

That reminder comes with a perverse tradeoff: In effect, those who would speak out against religious violence are being told to exercise their right to free expression on someone else’s terms — namely, the people they are speaking out against — and for their own good, no less. Furthermore, if they violate the discursive terms dictated to them by religious militants, they shouldn’t be surprised when they find out that they need to be looking over our shoulder on their next walk home.

Avijit Roy refused to be told what to do and what (not) to write. He paid for that refusal with his life. We owe it to him to keep writing freely where we can, and advocating for the right to do so where others can’t.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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