Source: The Globe and Mail
For writer Raihan Abir and his pregnant wife, Samia Hossain, the morning commute by motorcycle meant weaving through the clogged roads and crawling traffic of the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka – dodging cars, rickshaws and rickety buses crammed with workers.
But there was another reason to constantly scan the road over the hour-long trip: They worried that among the teeming crowds of commuters lurked vicious assassins.
“Whenever we started out of the house,” Samia recalled, “he used to ride the motorcycle and I used to look backward all the time to make sure no one’s following us or going to do anything to us.”
Since February, religious extremists have tightened the net around atheist and secular writers in Bangladesh. They have picked off the young couple’s closest friends in gruesome machete attacks carried out in the street, in the home and in publishing offices – leaving five dead and four others seriously injured.
The victims had been challenging religion in blogs and in books, and Raihan, prominent in that circle, feared he would be next. After dropping Samia off at work, he would often continue on to the university where he was studying, parking his motorcycle but keeping his helmet on despite the 30-degree heat. The attackers – if they did come – would likely use machetes to target the head.
“At least I’ll survive the first attack,” Raihan said.
He thought he could evade the extremists – and salvage his life in a city of more than 15 million people.
He would be wrong.
This is the story of how Raihan and Samia escaped the fate of their friends, and of the Canadians who helped them find safety.
As an undergraduate student, Raihan was drawn to the burgeoning online spaces like Mukto-Mona – meaning “free thinking” – a website that became a hub for atheist and secular writers. Its main online moderator was a Toronto-based real-estate agent and Bangladeshi ex-pat, Farid Ahmed.
The people Raihan met became his co-authors, publishers, editors and fellow bloggers. They met over chai and lunch of rice and chicken curry in the capital Dhaka. There was laughter and passionate debate.
The tradition of atheist and secular thought in Bengali culture goes back more than 100 years. But in the modern push-and-pull between secular and Islamist camps, atheists have increasingly become targets in officially secular Bangladesh.
He and other writers have tried to debunk parts of the Koran, Bible and Hindu sacred texts and described religious faith as a virus that breeds extremism and threatens freedom.
The backlash from Islamic extremists began to build in recent years with hit lists and attacks. In 2015, the violence spiked dramatically – and, for Raihan and Samia, started to hit home.