What do you say to someone who tried to stab you to death?
The unlikely opportunity to find out presented itself to Asif Mohiuddin not long ago in a jail in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Taken into custody for a second time for allegedly posting “offensive comments about Islam and Mohammed” on his blog, the outspoken atheist blogger and anti-Islamist political activist found himself in a cell next to one of the three assailants who had been waiting outside his office building when he arrived for the night shift on the 14th of January 2013. Without a word, they had come from behind with knives and machetes, attempted to slit his throat and rained down lacerating blows on his back and neck, one of which missed his spinal column by half an inch.
“The 19-year-old boy’s name was Kamal,” Asif explained to me in English over a Skype chat. “I talked to him very politely, trying to understand what they want from me. We had a little chat about religion and humanity.”
What Asif learned is that his would-be murderer, ten years his junior, did not want anything from him in particular, declining even a neighborly offer of food between the bars. Kamal and the other young incarcerated members of Bangladesh Islami Chhatra Shibir—or Shibir, the youth wing of Jamaat-e-Islami, the leading Islamist political party in the country—seemed genuinely to enjoy their captive colloquies, seemed to like Asif “as a human being.”
It was nothing personal. But as an atheist, he would have to be killed.
The worst crime ever
Asif’s story first came to me over the BBC World Service when the attack made international news. During his subsequent persecution by the authorities, he had been in communication with some of my colleagues and friends with the Bengali freethought website Mukto-Mona and the D.C.-based Center for Inquiry, with whose help we eventually connected.
Although he said that there were some things he could not discuss, Asif embraced the opportunity to explain his predicament and raise the alarm about what he sees as a degradation of Bangladeshi civil society. Having committed to paper a few words on the subject of human rights and religious dissent, I knew I could learn much from someone who had committed everything to it.
By the time we connected, it was close to midnight in Azimpur, an old quarter of the city where he had sought out a secret location for internet access. Earlier that day, August 25, he had returned home from a court hearing at which his trial was again delayed. Originally arrested on April 3, he was granted one month’s bail on health grounds in late June but then taken into pre-trial custody again from July 29 to August 7. Charged with “hurting religious sentiments” under the Information and Communication Technology Act of 2006 (recently amended so as to limit due process rights), Asif faces a possible 10-year jail sentence and fine of roughly $130,000.
“It is not very safe to go outside of home nowadays as my name is on the hit list of some fundamentalist groups,” Asif told me. “Our prime minister said that they will arrange some police protection for the bloggers and activists of the Shahbag movement; my name was on that list also. But no one contacted me about it.”
The Shahbag movement (named for a political center in the Bangladeshi capital) brought to new intensity longstanding calls for the prosecution of the perpetrators of atrocities committed during the 1971 war for independence of what was then East Pakistan, many of whom went on to become leaders in religious parties such as Jamaat, bent on sabotaging the country’s strides towards secular democracy.
In February 2013, after the long-sought International Crimes Tribunal convicted Abdul Quader Mollah and others of war crimes, mass protests denounced the sentences as overly lenient and demanded death sentences and the banning of Jamaat-e-Islami from politics. Jamaat-aligned counterprotests resulted in violent clashes. On February 15, one of Asif’s fellow bloggers, Ahmed Rajib Haider, fell to the militants’ machetes.
Asif, who told me that he opposes capital punishment on human rights grounds, faulted the government for co-opting the movement to curry favor with secularists even while attempting to mollify the powerful forces of conservative religion. A highly visible atheist, he suggested, made for the perfect sacrifice: “They told me, be a murderer, be a rapist, be a war criminal, but never be an atheist. That is the worst crime ever from their point of view.”
The theology of witness
But what was their evidence? I asked.
“They don’t have any evidence against me. They just searched some blog posts that were written by some Jamaat-Shibir activists and put it in the charge sheet. The links were fake and few of them were photoshopped. They just edited my sentences and made a screen shot. I told them my blog account has been blocked by [Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission], but they were asking me again and again, thinking I hid it somewhere.”
What opinions did they attribute to Asif?
“The prosecution claimed I wrote that each and every mosque should be destroyed and a public toilet and library built in its place. But actually I wrote that we don’t need so many mosques in Dhaka city; maybe we need some more libraries and public toilets for women, especially those who work in the streets.”
They also claimed, he said, that his blog promoted homosexuality and promiscuity when in fact it defended equal rights.
“How can someone just read a blog post and become gay?” he quipped.
However, the focus of the charges, he said, was the allegation that he had declared himself God. In fact, he says, he had been reflecting on a notion of the tenth-century Sufi mystic and martyr al-Husain ibn Mansur, or al-Hallaj: his famous ana ‘l-haqq, “I am the Truth” or “the Real.”
This notion, as explicated by the French scholar Louis Massignon, author of the four-volume The Passion of al-Hallaj, forms the heart of a complex theology of witness—wahdat al-shuhud, the oneness of witnessing—wherein the entire being of the believer becomes a witness to the reality of the divine:
God witnessing to Himself in the heart of His votary. This union with God leads to a unification which is not a unification of substance, but operates through the act of faith and of love, which welcomes into the emptiness of oneself the Loving Guest, ‘the essence whose Essence is Love,’ as al-Hallaj expressed it.’shi
Perhaps, I ventured, one could argue that this is a logical consequence of the traditional Islamic doctrine of tawhid—the unity of God. If God is truly one, then all must be one with God. “Yes,” replied Asif. “I told them that when I was in the interrogation, but they don’t have any idea about Sufism either.” Nevertheless, he added, he only discussed, but never endorsed the ana ‘l-haqq, a purported blasphemy for which al-Hallaj himself was tried and executed.
They like me, but they have to kill me
The punishment for al-Hallaj, philosopher of mystical unity, was dismemberment—his hands and feet and, finally, his head. According to one story, he prayed for his executioners to be forgiven even in the midst of the act.
Asif Mohiuddin has written that he harbors no hatred for his assailants. Where does he—as a nonbeliever—find the source of this forgiveness? I wondered.
Kamal is an innocent, he said, innocent of the world.
“He thinks that Allah will love him if he can kill an atheist, that this is the shortest way to heaven. He told me he will try again if he gets out of there because that is their religious duty. They liked me, but they have to kill me some day.”
I know they don’t have any idea about me or my thoughts. They have no personal problem with me. They just have been told to do so, in the name of religion or Allah. I just have to criticize the root, not them—they will understand later. They are just following their duties. And I have to go to their roots.”
And what is Asif’s hope for the future—to resume his blogging?
“I hope some day I’ll start my blogging again and can speak proudly about my thoughts, my belief or nonbelief, my thoughts about everything like religion, politics and philosophy. And that will only be possible in a truly secular Bangladesh—freedom of speech, equal rights for everyone. I know we have to suffer a lot for this dream. But we have to fight for it.”
According to another legend of the martyrdom of al-Hallaj, he smiled when his feet were cut off, saying,
“With these feet I used to travel the earth. I have other feet that are traversing both worlds at this very moment. Cut off those feet, if you can . . . ” At the hour of evening prayer, he was decapitated. As the crowd surged, from each of his limbs came the cry, “I am the Truth.”