Secularist Activists Are Being Murdered in Bangladesh: An Ongoing Crisis Causes Many to Flee

Protesters in Bangladesh, photo by Faisal Akram,

If you’ve seen any news headline on Bangladesh in Western media over the past 15 months, odds are strong the headline included the phrase “hacked to death”: Writer hacked to death outside a book fairBlogger hacked to death on his way to workLGBT activists hacked to death in their apartment.

These reports illustrate a deep human rights crisis in Bangladesh. Since 2013, violent extremists linked to militant Islamist groups have attacked or killed more than one dozen writers, publishers, and activists. The attacks intensified starting in February 2015, when Avijit Roy, author and founder of Bengali freethought website Mukto-Mona, was murdered as he was leaving a book fair in Dhaka. His wife, author Bonya Ahmed, was severely injured in the attack. Within six months, three more secularist bloggers would be murdered.

In 2016, these attacks have continued and widened in scope. Recent attacks have claimed religious minorities—including Christians, Hindus, Sufis, and Shias—professors, students, LGBT activists, and even the wife of a police investigator.

While the attackers may all claim a common religious inspiration—a Wahhabi version of Islam fomented in the country’s growing number of fundamentalist religious schools—the victims are not necessarily homogenous in their religious beliefs. Attacks in Bangladesh have targeted atheists and apostates, yes, but what victims have generally shared is something more fundamental: a willingness to live according to the dictates of their own consciences, and to pursue an open, pluralistic, and democratic society.

Outrageously, the Bangladesh government has done little to address this emergency, failing to instill the political will or provide the resources to solve and prevent these crimes, and even engaging in victim-blaming—leaving victims, their families, and other threatened individuals to fend for themselves. News reports may create the impression they are stuck. However, behind the scenes there has been an exodus of threatened intellectuals and activists from the country.

Freethought Under Attack

My own organization, the Center for Inquiry, has worked with threatened individuals in Bangladesh since April 2013. Our work started when Avijit Roy emailed me to ask for support in responding to the Bangladesh government’s arrest of four bloggers who were critical of religion. We quickly organized worldwide protests, letters, campaigns, and political pressure that led to their release. Roy also contributed several articles to our magazine, Free Inquiry, including his last published article. Over the years, we would keep in touch regarding increasing threats to free expression in Bangladesh. Roy was our lifeline into the country.

Nearly two years later, I would receive an email from one of those bloggers, Asif Mohiuddin, informing me that Roy had been killed. It was a soul-crushing blow; I’d never had a comrade die in the line of “battle.”

Days later we received information that others close to Roy were at risk and needed relocation. Soon after, we learned of even more threatened atheists and secularists. Several major advocacy organizations, including but not limited to CFI and PEN International and its affiliates, soon began collaborating—with each other, and with various governments—to assist these individuals. In the summer of 2015, CFI launched the Freethought Emergency Fund, an effort to supplement several other secretive funds already in place to assist individuals at risk.

In concert, advocacy groups and governments have had some measure of success in relocating threatened individuals. Most of those who have escaped Bangladesh still live in relative anonymity. But some are willing to share their stories.

“We’ll Have to Keep on Doing What We Do”

In 2015, Raihan Abir was a PhD student at the University of Dhaka, studying biomedical engineering. He was also a writer for Mukto-Mona, co-authored books with Avijit Roy and, in fact, had plans to see his friends Roy, Ahmed, and several other now-slain bloggers during Roy’s fateful visit to Bangladesh in 2015. He was known in Bangladesh. And, after Roy’s death, he was a target.

Immediately following the murder of Roy, Abir took precautions. “Whenever we started out of the house,” his wife Samia told the Globe and Mail, “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.” Abir would drop Samia at work and continue to the university, but would keep his helmet on. “At least I’ll survive the first attack.”

Abir knew this was untenable. His wife was pregnant; how could he raise a family leading this sort of life? He and Samia decided they needed to leave. Soon, Abir found a way to reach Canada; Samia could join him soon after. After reaching Canada, Abir was connected to CFI and its Canadian partner, CFI-Canada, which helped Raihan and his wife settle in a safe apartment.

Weeks later, early in the evening of September 25, 2015, I received an email from Raihan with the subject heading “My daughter is now a pale blue dot resident.” Samia had safely delivered their newborn daughter, Sophie. In January 2016, I would visit Canada and spend an evening with Raihan, Samia, and Sophie. I was welcomed with big smiles into their apartment and soon saw Sophie in her play chair.

Raihan and his family now feel safe. And Abir remains hopeful for Bangladesh. “Because this dark side, this kind of thing, never [wins]. Maybe they do atrocities, maybe they will kill us. But they won’t be winning in the long run. So we’ll have to keep on doing what we do—keep informing people about science, about reason, about humanism.”

There’s also the case of Ahemedur Rashid Tutul. Tutul is co-founder of the publishing house Shuddhashar. Shuddhashar, which began as a magazine, primarily produced books by young freethinkers; by late 2015, they had published roughly 1,000 books.

“The slogan of my organization was ‘To Inspire,’” Tutul told me in an email. “Shuddhashar played an important role of trying to develop Bangladesh as a secular country culturally and socially.” Tutul had received death threats and informed the police of these threats. “I did [go to police] but instead of helping they told me that Bangladesh is not a perfect place for free thinking.”

On October 31, 2015, Tutul was working at Shuddhashar alongside several writers when extremists broke in wielding machetes. They left Tutul and the writers to die. One of the writers, Ranadipam Basu, was able to reach his mobile phone and post about the attack on Facebook, prompting police to respond and help those attacked to the hospital. They would all survive, though with injuries of varying severity. Sadly, another publisher wounded in a connected attack later that day, Faisal Arefin Deepan, would not survive; he was killed in his office, his body found by his father.

Immediately after the attack, brave local activists (who must remain unnamed) informed me that Tutul and his family—Tutul has a wife and children—needed support to immediately leave the country. Within days, we had collectively secured the funds needed, and Tutul and his family left Bangladesh, perhaps forever. Tutul is now safe in Norway thanks to the International Cities of Refuge Network.

Like Abir, Tutul remains hopeful: “I hope for a secular and democratic Bangladesh, where people have secure life and enjoy freedom of speech, freedom to publish, and freedom to express.” Still—what has he and his family lost? And what is Bangladesh losing as a result of this unchecked mayhem?

Who Will Remain? 

As the attacks illustrate a deep problem in Bangladesh, these two stories illustrate a deeper success: since February 2015, more than a dozen writers, publishers, and activists—and, in some cases, their entire families—have escaped Bangladesh and found safe haven. Yet for every public success story, dozens remain threatened in Bangladesh, forced to quit their jobs and public activity and live underground until a solution can be found.

Some particularly courageous writers and activists, including Imran Sarker, have stayed in the country and continue to publicly call for political and social reform and organize rallies after each attack and murder. But this is not an option for everyone.

Now, after last month’s attacks on LGBT activists, aid groups are dealing with an entirely new field of requests for emergency assistance. There are simply are not enough resources to rescue all those threatened in Bangladesh. And even so—who would remain in the country to defend secular democracy?

[A previous version of this article stated that Ahemedur Rashid Tutul posted about the October 31, 2015 attack at Shuddhashar on Facebook. The article has been corrected to reflect that it was Ranadipam Basu who posted about the attack. —The Eds.]