By Halima Begum
Nazimuddin Samad, a 28 year old law student, was brutally murdered on 7th April, 2016 by Islamists in Bangladesh. His ‘crime’ – being critical of Islamism. He is the sixth Bangladeshi atheist/secular blogger to be killed in the last 15 months. The horror of what happened to Nazimuddin has sadly become the norm these days. It is almost an accepted form of hatred and resultant crime because he was provoking the delicate Islamists in his nation.
Some asked, what did he expect in return? He was being a grand provocateur as he dared to air his blasphemous views on the internet laid bare for the world to see, for the world to see that the he dared to reject a God and a state religion. In the grand scheme of things this is such a small gesture; a simple proclamation of his right to free speech. Yet the response was so loudly reactive and sadly cost his life.
He was a brave and courageous man. When told by his peers that his words might bring his demise, he boldly stated: “I am also scared, Sir, scared of getting killed. But what else can I do? It’s better to die rather than living by keeping my head down.” Sadly, what was feared became a reality.
The case of Nazimuddin Samad reminds me that, for Bangladeshis (and perhaps for many other atheists and secularists of Muslim heritage), the cost of rejecting God and Islam is so high. He paid with his life and some of us here pay with our alienation and banishment. While I may not have been born in Bangladesh, (I live in the West) nor visited it for a very long time, I feel his pain and some of that fear.
My parents are Bangladeshi and I grew up in a household where views such as Nazimuddin’s are the most hated and seen as disgraceful. I am acutely aware of what the cost is. When I did speak up, I was ostracised and emotionally abused. Of course, my fate is different from Nazimuddin’s, yet his sorrow is felt so deeply. I mean, that could very well have been me. I have been thinking much about this and we cannot let another one of us be murdered in vain.
In Bangladesh, atheist and secularist bloggers get killed — in the UK we get ostracised and abused. Many of us may be breathing, but we have experienced alienation and abandonment. Therefore to me, this is a global problem and requires a global response. It is not simply restricted to Bangladeshis within Bangladesh. I mean no disrespect at all, and of course I realise the problems here do not have the same grave consequences (thus far), but the lived realities are very similar within Bangladeshi households.
Let me give you an example. When Avijit Roy was horrifically killed, I remember discussing this in my uncle’s living room. I remember being told by my uncle: “He got what he deserved”. It was clear to me that in his eyes those who blaspheme, deny God and provoke the masses deserved to die. I was horrified upon hearing this. Back then I wasn’t an “out of the closet” ex-Muslim atheist, and I could not declare my real feelings. However, even under the guise of being a “secular Muslim”, I mustered the courage to say a few things. I told them that Avijit Roy had the right to free expression and disbelieve — I mean surely only the great God can judge and know what truly was in this man’s heart, right?
I told him that Avijit was not harming anyone with his views – he wasn’t trying to “convert” people away from Islam either. In any case my view was rejected and found to be deeply abhorrent. I did not say any more, lest I lured the wrath of my uncle. I found it hard to keep quiet as well but, back then, I felt afraid of rocking the boat and losing my family.
All the while, I was just thinking to myself: he’s my uncle, he’s not abusive and he would never kill me. But the attitudes he held and promoted are the very same ones which inspired the killers. The intolerant belief that one deserves to be killed for blaspheming is horrific. It is a terrible disease permeated in the Bangladeshi communities (inside and outside Bangladesh’s borders). Until these beliefs are challenged, we have a very big problem on our hands. Atheists and secularists within Bangladeshi families face an uphill struggle to even express slightly different views, let alone views from a markedly different worldview. The positive attributes prescribed to religion and religious values is so potent, that anyone on the other end of the religiosity spectrum is instantly devalued and perceived through negative lens. We simply don’t benefit from the positive attributes enjoyed by the religious ones within our families.
So what can really be done about this? Well, we have to speak up. While the costs are high, the long-term benefits outweigh the costs in the present. As I hear every other month that someone is charged under ridiculous and convenient blasphemy laws or is killed for failing to adhere to norms espoused by supporters of blasphemy laws, I am reminded that the time is ticking away for atheists and secularists. It is significantly becoming more difficult and to remain quiet is not an option. We have to resist and we have to challenge views.
I know it is much harder done than said, but even by challenging views in a very mild, and incremental, manner you are planting the seeds of a different thought process. While at first they may disagree, in the end they have two choices. Either the opposition becomes so angry and dangerous, or they take on board the views and acknowledge the view. They probably won’t agree, but even through basic awareness or acknowledgement of a different opinion is a change towards the right direction. The truth is that often an alternative view is not given out of fear of ostracism and thus opportunities for change go amiss.
The likes of Nazimuddin died because they alone bore the burden. If the burden is shared widely with courage then they will have to kill us all — and, trust me, that will not be met with silence. To be courageous isn’t being fearless; it is feeling the fear and still continuing in the face of adversity.
Halima Begum is a feminist ex-Muslim researcher and blogger. Following her decade-long journey of exploring both the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam, as well as Islamism, Halima is now an outspoken advocate of secular liberalism.