FFRF’s inaugural Forward Award – Even after deadly attack, the fight continues: Rafida Bonya Ahmed

Rafida Bonya Ahmed’s speech was delivered on Oct. 8 at FFRF’s 39th annual convention in Pittsburgh. She was introduced by FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor:

I consider Wisconsin’s motto, “Forward,” a perfect motto for the freethought movement.

The original “Ms. Forward” statue was sculpted by Jean Miner in the early 1890s. FFRF has commissioned a statuette replica of Forward to bestow as a new and important award, for those freethinkers who are significantly moving society forward.

Rafida Bonya Ahmed is an American citizen who was born in Bangladesh, and married Avijit Roy, meeting him through the award-winning Bengali blog, Muktomona, which means Freethought.

Bonya and Avijit were set upon by machete-wielding Islamist militants on Feb. 26, 2015, which left Avijit dead and Bonya critically wounded. Bonya, thankfully, has made amazing progress recovering from major wounds and has not backed down. In fact, she has become an even stronger proponent of secularism and freethought. Today, she is moderating Muktomona, and working very closely and generously with international and local communities to help save other Bengali bloggers and activists, including working with Nonbelief Relief, FFRF’s new humanitarian charity.

I have been privileged to spend a little time with Bonya and can think of no one braver and more deserving of our first “Forward” award. We also dedicate this award to the memory and works of Avijit Roy that have moved society forward.

By Rafida Bonya Ahmed

Thanks to the Freedom from Religion Foundation for the Forward Award. Thanks for being a partner at this critical time, helping the freethinkers in Bangladesh from half the world away.

I am Rafida Bonya Ahmed. I normally write with my middle name Bonya Ahmed. I am a Bangladeshi-American blogger, author and also one of the moderators of the Bengali blog Muktomona, which is the first freethinking blog in the Bengali language. My late husband Avijit Roy founded this first online platform in 2001 as a Yahoo forum for atheists, freethinkers, humanists and the secular Bengali-speaking community.

I was born in Bangladesh, but I came to do my undergrad here in the early 1990s and have been living here since. My day job used to be in the corporate world, and I was a senior director of marketing at one of the credit bureaus. My husband was also born in Bangladesh, earned his Ph.D. in biomedical engineering in Singapore and then moved here in 2006.

Last year in February we were visiting Bangladesh, our home country, for a book-signing event. When we were leaving the well-lit, crowded book fair to get back to our car, Avijit and I were attacked by Islamic militants. Al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent claimed responsibility for this attack. We were stabbed repeatedly with machetes on the side of the road. Avijit died in the hospital, and I was gravely injured as a result of four stabs around my head, and my thumb was sliced off. I have injuries on both hands and my body.

I’ve had multiple surgeries to repair the damaged nerves and arteries. I continue to suffer from constant headaches and back issues and I have been put on PTSD watch.

After the attack, it did not make sense to continue my job in the corporate world, so I decided to take leave from work. When the University of Texas at Austin, with a very strong South Asian Institute, offered me a visiting scholarship to do research work on the rise of Islamism in Bangladesh, I gladly took it up. I thought this would finally give me the opportunity to work not for a paycheck, but for something I always craved to do.

Let me take a minute to show how my husband and I factor into this situation in Bangladesh.

Avijit and I are, or were, atheists, bloggers, writers and, above all, secular humanists who tried to answer the larger questions in life. We wrote in Bengali because we wanted to popularize the basics — as well as the cutting-edge concepts — of science, rationalism, philosophy and art in this language. I wrote a book on evolution named Along the Path of Evolution a few years ago.

As I said, Avi founded the first online platform Muktomona. We wrote about science, rationalism, atheism, freethinking, literature. He wrote and edited 10 books. He wrote books about the origin of life, the science behind homosexuality, and about love from the perspective of evolutionary psychology.

His larger passions were science and reason. They acted as a gateway for his curiosity about our world. Still, art acted as a force of change and inspiration in his life. But two of his books — Philosophy of Disbelief and Virus of Faith — created far greater attention than his previous works. On one hand, they made him exceedingly popular among young adults and progressive readers. On the other hand, these books fueled hostility and anger toward Avijit from the Islamist fundamentalists.

I guess that would be it, a summary of his “crimes” in the eyes of the Islamic terrorist groups, “crimes” that led to him being hacked to death.

No government outrage

Bangladesh is a small country surrounded by India on three sides and the Bay of Bengal in the south. The attack on us is not the end of the story, but rather the start. Avijit was perhaps the most prominent victim, but he was neither the first nor the last such victim. After the attack on us, Islamist terrorists killed another two humanist bloggers and writers in Bangladesh in the same manner within couple of months. They vowed to kill one a month.

In August 2015, as our government stayed completely quiet, the militants walked into the apartment of another atheist blogger and stabbed him to death in front of his partner. In October last year, they targeted two of Avijit’s publishers in their office. They managed to slaughter one in his office, while the other publisher barely escaped along with two other writers. Many of these secular bloggers, writers and publishers had to flee the country to save their lives.

You would think the Bangladeshi government would be outraged by now. Instead, it remained largely silent as the killing spree continued. And while this supposedly secular and democratic government did eventually speak out, the criticism was undercut as it shamelessly blamed the victims for their own deaths for crossing “boundaries” and warned against writing anything that could hurt so-called “religious feelings.”

We are now seeing the inevitable results of encouraging a culture of impunity in Bangladesh. The systemic pattern of assassinations and attacks have extended from atheist bloggers to minority Shiite, Hindu or Christian groups, foreign nationals, progressive, secular university professors, intellectuals, activists.

The machete-wielding terrorists marched into the apartment of the editor of the first Bengali gay magazine in April this year and stabbed him — along with his friend — in front of his mother and safely got away. Their crime? They were homosexuals. The terrorists assassinated six people in that month alone.

Claiming responsibility

Al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent and ISIS have been claiming responsibility for these slayings. ISIS, meanwhile, has featured Bangladesh in its magazine Dabiq multiple times. Recently, ISIS’s publication again vowed to kill the atheists and minorities in Bangladesh.

The government’s response has been unbelievable. While it is condemning these killings, it is also arresting bloggers, writers and publishers, closing down publications under the guise of the “semi-blasphemy” law — a very old British colonial law which has been enforced in recent times with an increased amount of severity. Believe it or not, this new amended act has made the criticism of religion or hurting so-called religious feelings on the internet punishable with up to 14 years of jail. The government has been systematically harassing and arresting bloggers, writers and journalists under this law.

Let me give an example. The Bangladeshi government banned a secular progressive blog site called Istition recently under this law. Its moderator, Nur Nobi Dulal, has been in hiding for almost a year. The Islamic militants as well as the Bangladeshi government are looking for him. He is living an inhumane fugitive life with two teenage kids and his wife.

Thanks to Freedom from Religion Foundation for helping these people at the critical moments of their lives. The truth is that the liberal progressive secular community and minorities of all sorts in Bangladesh now don’t just have to fear Islamic militants, we must also fear our own government, which shows no regard for its secular beginnings and chooses instead to appease the religious fundamentalists to secure its vote banks.
You can say we are caught between a rock and a hard place.

The government was finally forced to respond once the ISIS-supported militants took over a restaurant in the affluent diplomatic area of the capital city on July 1 of this year and slaughtered 20 people with machetes. Most of them were foreigners, working in Bangladesh.
Afterward, the Bangladeshi government claimed to arrest quite a few of these militants from a couple of Islamic terrorist groups. But, we are also hearing that many of them are getting killed in so-called crossfire by the police before bringing them to justice in the judicial system. There has been an uproar about these crossfires in Bangladesh.

Raising awareness

I have been continuing to work to raise awareness in the international community, such as the European Union, United Nations, and the U.S. Congress. I’ve also helped out the threatened and displaced bloggers and writers in different ways. We have built a few temporary shelters and migrated a few bloggers to the safer places.

To be honest, Europe has been pretty open to take some of these bloggers. Awareness about the rest of the world is greater there, too. I am still waiting to get some positive response from our government here. The Freedom from Religion Foundation, PEN America and Center for Inquiry have been great partners in this journey.

I know most of the mainstream national and international media covered the attacks on us and others as an attack on freedom of expression and freedom of speech. But I really think it is more than that. As my good friend Professor Nigel Hughes from UC-Riverside wrote in Huffington Post right after the attacks on us last year:

“They did not die only for the cause of free expression. They also died because they believed that the natural explanation of where we come from is the correct explanation; that it is factually right, that it speaks the truth. They died because they understood, what science has to tell us about the past, has direct consequences for choosing how we face the future, and that science has repeatedly proven to be the surest way to do this successfully.

“Yet, on the very day that Roy, a U.S. citizen, was bludgeoned to death, another American [Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.)] stood on the floor of the U.S. Senate with a snowball in his hand and claimed that what his gut told him was a better basis for preparing for the future than the scientific contributions of thousands of individuals, accomplished over thousands of years.

A matter of consequence

“This is why the deaths of these science advocates in Bangladesh is a matter of consequence the world over. The global significance of their deaths must not be obscured behind a veil of free speech concern. They died because they understood that the risks of ignoring what science tells us are too serious to indulge political ambition clothed in a supernatural mantle, wherever it occurs.”

Beyond the direct implications such as Sept. 11 or the killings in San Bernardino, we are seeing a concerning rise of assaults on our rational way of life here at home in America. We see presidential candidates rejecting the well-established theory of evolution, denying the impacts of climate change or attempting to deny women’s right to choose. The list can go on. These are all done in the name of politics and religion.

We’ve come a long way

I think secular humanism is more important now than ever in the history of our species. In last few hundred years we have come a long way. We are demanding equality for all people, regardless of racial or ethnic background, sex, gender, religious views or political leanings.

The increase in global wealth is outpaced only by the widening income inequality. With this much global wealth, strangely enough, we still have a large population in the world living under extreme poverty.

Climate change is beginning to transform life on Earth. Around the globe, seasons are shifting, temperatures are climbing and sea levels are rising. We need a deeper understanding of science and reason to deal with the challenges of the 21st century.

Now our world is connected and intertwined way more than ever before. We are all a part of a complicated web, where all actions contain global consequences.

I pause sometimes to consider what really happened in Bangladesh in such a short period of time, and what is happening in many parts of the world? We are seeing a shift toward religious fundamentalism and conservatism in many parts of the world, including here at home. Maybe Bangladesh, a Muslim country with a secular beginning, can act as a test case for us.

Believe it or not, I was openly an atheist since the age of 13. Not here, not in Europe, but in Bangladesh. My liberal Muslim parents did not discourage my lack of religion. We hosted open debates during dinner about religion, human rights, politics and history.

As a teenager, I was openly an atheist, with my left political stand. It was a little uncommon at that time, but not a punishable act like it has been now. I attended medical school in Bangladesh right after my high school in the late ’80s. It was only a matter of time before I dropped out of med school and worked in a garment factory for a year — first as a helper, and then as a machine operator. My parents got really worried and they forced me to leave the country. They were worried about my safety. That is when I came to do my undergrad here in 1991.

Plight of women workers

Some of you may be familiar with the tragic fatalities that occur in garment factories in Bangladesh. We hear about the fatalities from the building collapses and fires every now and then. The country has an export-oriented ready-made garment industry, which employs more than 4 million workers. About 90 percent of garment workers are women.

The plight of garment workers is something I have thought about for decades. I worked with these people side by side, an opportunity that kids from my socioeconomic class do not get. In part, they have shaped my worldview forever.

During my time as a garment worker, I discovered firsthand that the whole industry is governed by inhumane working conditions, long hours, extremely low wages, lack of building safety, child labor, repression, corrupt government policies, you name it. It continues the same way, even now.

By sacrificing the livelihoods of these female workers, brands like Old Navy, Walmart, H&M and Gap can provide us with clothes at competitive rates here.

Even now the minimum wage for these workers is less than $70 a month. The workers protested a while back to get it up to $100 a month, but they had to settle for $70 at the end of the negotiation with the garments factory owners.

Does it remind you about the workers and the sweatshops here in the 19th century?

Annie Laurie reminded me of this quote from a 19th-century feminist freethinker, Helen Gardener, when she heard about my experience in the garment factory. Helen said, “I do not know of any divine commands. I do know of most important human ones. I do not know the needs of a god or of another world. . . . I do know that women make shirts for 70 cents a dozen in this one. I do know that the needs of humanity and this world are infinite, unending, constant and immediate. They will take all our time, our strength, our love and our thoughts; and our work here will be only then begun.”

Many people ask me what gets me going after everything that has happened to me. This is what gets me going in this careless, indifferent, valueless universe in which we live: Because the universe is indifferent, we create our own purpose during our tenure in this little planet. We try to create a better world every day with every bit we can.

Whenever I start to sink into the deep sense of my personal loss, I realize that, for all intents and purposes, I stand before you in a privileged position here today. I have been given a platform to speak, I have a comfortable life, a network of good friends and family who will support me through this ordeal.

But what about those who have no voice, no agency, no platform? When thousands of men and women get trafficked through the wild ocean, when millions of people get displaced in wars, when ISIS butchers, beheads, and forces girls into sexual slavery, when Boko Haram abducts young women and sells them off in medieval style, thousands of garment workers fight for their basic rights as human beings, millions of children die in poverty-stricken nations — I see that they do not have a voice.

These are not isolated events. We need to understand the global phenomenon, the political, economic and social connections. I firmly believe that we need to have a sense of collective responsibility and consciousness.

World is interconnected

Today’s world is connected in ways we cannot conceive. The Islamists are asking for a world of Islamic Ummah, something that goes beyond the shores of any national boundary. Today’s powerful nations coin their political and economic strategies keeping the global economy in mind. The big corporations innovate thinking about the global markets.

We — the humanists — cannot be confined only to the issues related to our islands. It is easy to place the entire fault on religion. Within almost all religious texts exists justification for heinous intolerance, discrimination, hatred, terrorism and violence. But I think religion is only one piece of this big puzzle.

Religion is more than a belief system, more than a cognitive, social and anthropological phenomenon. It’s a tool which humanity sharpened into a political weapon throughout history. We should be able to navigate this complex dynamics with proper knowledge and reason.

But we also see a concerning trend among modern liberals and humanists who are scared to criticize Islam or any religion and its extremist views because of political correctness.
I think we have come to a point in history where it has become our responsibility to condemn imperialistic, political and economic discriminations and exploitation globally and locally.

We should also have the courage to call out the ingrained religious fundamentalism (including Islam) and defend secular beliefs, science and reason. We should stand up against both, not one or the other.

As humanists, as people free from any religious dogma, we need to go beyond the notions of national concerns or only political or religious concerns and understand the complicated web of global connections. This can facilitate a better understanding of today’s world, transmit and mingle ideas, form a global bond of resistance to build a better world.

Socrates said, “I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world.” We all also need to strive to become the citizens of the world.

Freedom From Religion Foundation