The Islamist war on secular bloggers in Bangladesh


Source: The New Yorker

On the afternoon of February 26th, Avijit Roy was in Dhaka, finishing a column for BDNews24, a Bangladeshi Web site of news and commentary. Its title, in Bengali, was “Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?,” and it adapted ideas from his new book, a primer on cosmology. For Roy, who was forty-two, science trumped religion. He took after his father, Ajoy, an emeritus physics professor at Dhaka University and an ardent rationalist. “I don’t bother about whether God exists,” Ajoy Roy told me. “Let him do his business, and let me do my business.” Avijit, even more vocal than his father, liked to compare faith to a virus—infecting human beings and impelling them into conflict. He once wrote, “The vaccine against religion is to build up a scientific approach.”

Roy and his wife, Rafida Ahmed, an executive at a credit-rating agency, lived in Atlanta. They had fallen in love from afar: in 2001, Roy started a collective blog called Mukto Mona, or Free Thinker, and Ahmed wrote to him after reading one of his posts, agreeing with his dismissal of religion as “fairy tales.” In 2006, Roy moved to Atlanta, where he worked as a software architect. But his real interests emerged in his blog posts, and in several books in which he dismantled the dogmas of religious belief—of his own Hindu background, but also of Islam, the state religion in Sunni-majority Bangladesh. “He was an addabaaj,” his father said. He used the word to mean “gossip,” but it also hinted at his son’s love of argument.
Mukto Mona’s comments section often drew irate Islamists, and Roy waded into earnest debates with them. He could seem as inflexible as the people he bickered with, refusing to acknowledge any grace or meaning that religion might grant its faithful. When one commenter claimed that the Koran was a repository of scientific wisdom, Roy asked why the Islamic world was “so behind in science and technology?,” and added, “Even Israel has more scientists than all the Muslim countries nowadays.” His father warned him that he was “too passionate.” On Facebook, one extremist wrote, “Avijit Roy lives in America, so it’s not possible to kill him right now. But he will be killed when he comes back.”

When Roy told his parents that he planned to visit in February, his father tried to dissuade him. “Dhaka is now not a very good place. The law-and-order situation is worsening day by day,” Ajoy Roy said. “I pointed out, ‘You’re a targeted person. Your name has been publicized as an atheist.’ ”

Roy and Ahmed went anyway, staying at her family’s house, not far from the city center. After finishing his column, Roy wanted to visit the Ekushey Book Fair, where hundreds of booksellers and publishers gather every February to celebrate Bengali literature. Ahmed and Roy attended an event hosted by Roy’s publisher before browsing through a section of children’s books. A photograph on Facebook shows them sitting on the ground. Roy, wearing a red kurta, is looking down; next to him, Ahmed reaches into a paper bag for a snack.

At around 8 P.M., as they walked toward their rented car, a young boy asked Roy for a handout. He gave the boy a hundred takas—a little more than a dollar—and an admonition to go home. Ahmed doesn’t recall the men who rushed at Roy and hacked at him with machetes, and she doesn’t recall trying to stop them. She received several wounds to her head and another that severed her left thumb. Later, in photographs of the attack, she noticed that there had been policemen standing nearby; they did nothing to intervene. Roy fell to the sidewalk, face down; his attackers dropped their weapons and ran away. By the time his father reached the Dhaka Medical College Hospital, Roy was dead.

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