Honor Avijit Roy by working for freedom of conscience

Avijit Roy

Today, on the fourth anniversary of the brutal slaying of Bangladeshi-American atheist and author Avijit Roy by Islamist terrorists, the Freedom From Religion Foundation commemorates his life and his work as an activist and author promoting freethought, science and human rights.

Following the unspeakable machete street attack during a book fair in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 2015, which killed Avijit and severely wounded his wife, Rafida Bonya Ahmed, other attacks and slayings against secularists escalated in that country. A secular diaspora has been formed by those lucky enough to get out, which has required international aid by secular groups such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation and its adjunct, Nonbelief Relief. But that aid has been inadequate: Even now targeted secular activists often stranded, or displaced with few resources in the handful of countries that will accept them.

It should go without saying that individuals should not fear for their lives or livelihood because they advocate freedom of thought and make known their dissent from primitive thought or oppressive religious dogma. Yet around the world it has become increasingly dangerous for secular activists identifying openly as nonbelievers and atheists, especially in Islamist nations. But even in India, with the rise of Hindu nationalism, there have been four murders in recent years of seculars, mostly prominent intellectuals.

Twelve nations make “apostasy” (specifically leaving Islam) punishable by death: Afghanistan, Iran, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, Yemen. Seven nations make apostasy punishable with a prison sentence and many other countries persecute apostates. Even many European nations outlaw blasphemy, although the Irish people laudably repealed Ireland’s blasphemy law last fall.

The rise of fundamentalism is ravaging societies all over the planet. Pakistan, for instance, is roiled by intolerance, as witnessed by the national furor against an illiterate Christian, Asia Bibi, falsely accused of blaspheming Islam. Raif Badawi languishes in prison in Saudi Arabia for expressing his nonbelief publicly, along with many other theopolitical prisoners. (His warrior wife Ensaf Haidar, working valiantly to free him, received an award last year from the Freedom From Religion Foundation.) We see Saudi Arabian women such as the teenaged atheist Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, fleeing Saudi Arabia under harrowing conditions, and the sad case of Dubai’s Princess Latifa, who spent seven years planning her escape from a nation denying her autonomy and freedom as a woman — only to be recaptured

To recognize those who work for freedom of conscience despite dangers and persecution, FFRF and Rafida Bonya Ahmed have inaugurated the annual Avijit Roy Courage Award, with the first award accepted by Rasel Ahmed, an LGBTQ activist who had to escape from Bangladesh after his co-editor and another activist were hacked to death in 2016.

Please join FFRF in working for a world where freedom of conscience flourishes— and that requires keeping religion out of government.

In honor of Avijit Roy, please read a little more about him in this newly posted Freethought of the Day by FFRF’s Freethought Today Editor Emeritus Bill Dunn:

On this date in 1972, Avijit Roy, author, atheist/social activist and martyr to the secular cause, was born in Bangladesh to Ajoy and Shefali Roy. Ajoy, his father, was a physics professor at the University of Dhaka. Avijit Roy earned a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology and a master's and doctorate in biomedical engineering from the National University of Singapore. While working in his field, Roy in 2001 started a Yahoo group named Mukto-Mona (Free Mind) for Bangladeshi secularists, rationalists and atheists to discuss issues related to human rights, secularism, humanism and the impact of religious doctrines — especially Islam and Hinduism — on politics in South Asia. Mukto-Mona was born as an online platform in 2002 and expanded its reach worldwide.

Roy moved from Singapore to the U.S. in 2006 to work as a software engineer. He'd met Atlanta resident Rafida Ahmed Bonya, his eventual wife, on Mukto-Mona. They settled in Alpharetta, Ga., with Bonya's daughter Trisha, and Roy became a U.S. citizen. He wrote prolifically on many varied subjects, including religion, atheism, cosmology, homosexuality and Rabindranath Tagore. Seven of his books were published in Bangladesh.

In a 2013 column in Free Inquiry magazine, he and Trisha Ahmed, then a high school senior, wrote an essay defending Bangladeshi atheists: "Nonbelievers are not only valuable contributors to society; they also constitute a large fraction of the world’s intellectual and academic community." (Baltimore Sun, March 2, 2015.) As a free-speech advocate, Roy took an active role in protesting the arrests of atheist bloggers and the murder of others in Bangladesh. His writing and activism brought him the ire of fundamentalist Muslims, and on Feb. 26, 2015, he was hacked to death with machetes by militants at a book fair in Dhaka. Bonya was severely injured but survived.

Trisha wrote on the day he died: "He and my mom started dating when I was six years old. In the twelve years that followed, he became my friend, my hero, my most trusted confidante, my dance partner (even though we're both terrible dancers), and my father. Not once did he tell me to simmer down or be more polite; he taught me to be informed, bold, and unafraid." (CNN column on the first anniversary of Roy's death, Feb. 26, 2016.)

In 2019, the Freedom From Religion Foundation and Bonya announced the first recipient of the Avijit Roy Courage Award: Roopbaan, the first gay magazine published in Bangladesh. One of its founders was murdered by Muslim fundamentalists. FFRF established the $5,000 award in 2018 to recognize "a person who has been working toward the spread of rational and logical discourse, toward diminishing the influence of regressive fundamentalist religious thinking, toward building a society based on humane laws and without discrimination."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

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