A survivor of a 2015 machete attack by al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent told a conference in Pittsburgh this past weekend that she only has to read the Quran to confirm her atheism.
In February 2015, Bangladeshi-American secularist blogger Avijit Roy was hacked to death on a Dhaka street. “The target was an American citizen.. 2 in 1. #America recently martyred 2 of our brothers in #Khurasan & #Shaam. #Revenge+#Punishment,” Ansar al-Islam Bangladesh tweeted afterward.
Roy and his wife, Rafida Bonya Ahmed, lived in suburban Atlanta and were visiting Bangladesh for a month.
“I am a Bangladeshi American writer, blogger and also one of the moderators of the Bengali blog Muktomona – which is the first freethinking blog in the Bengali language,” Ahmed said while accepting the “Forward” award from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. “My late husband Dr. Avijit Roy founded this online platform in 2001 as a Yahoo forum, way before the very, very noisy days of blogging.”
“My husband and I were attacked by the Indian Subcontinent [branch] of al-Qaeda, on Feb. 26, 2015, when we were visiting Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, for a book signing event,” she said. “This claimed Avijit’s life and I barely escaped… I suffered four machete stabs on my head, a sliced-off thumb, and numerous other injuries all over my body.”
“What was our fault? Avi and I were, are atheists, blogger, writer, and above all secular humanists. Avijit wrote and edited 10 books… two of his books titled Philosophy of Disbelief and Virus of Faith, they made him exceedingly popular among young adults and progressive readers.”
But those titles, Ahmed said, “also fueled hostility and anger towards Avijit from religious fundamentalists.”
“The online blogging platform Muktomona also became the name of a secular humanist movement for Bangla-speaking people. I wrote a book on evolution and wrote many other blogs,” she added. “I guess that would be it — a pretty good summary of our crimes in the eyes of the Islamic terrorist groups.”
Before the attack, Ahmed was a marketing director with a computer science background. After the attack, she accepted an offer from a university “to do research work on the rise of Islamism in Bangladesh.”
“My late husband would have loved such an opportunity; he loved to write, that was his life, his passion,” she said. “The reason I think Bangladesh is important because unlike many other Islamic countries, Bangladesh, had a secular history with 90 percent Muslim population… over the last few decades it has slowly moved towards Islamic fundamentalism. I think it will be a unique case to uncover why Bangladesh is embracing the same fate as many other traditional Islamic countries, though Bangladesh had such a different background.”
Reflecting on growing up in Bangladesh, Ahmed noted that “though we have a secular constitution, a secular criminal law, and a secular civil law…the family law continues to follow religious rules.”
“As a Muslim girl, I was allowed to receive half of the property that my fictitious unborn brother would receive. Since we did not have a brother, a quarter of my parents’ property would go to my uncles,” she said. “…Socially and culturally, women face discrimination and injustice everywhere from their family lives to their professional lives.”
She described her parents as liberal — her mother was a lawyer, and her father encouraged her to read texts from all different religions to determine what she wanted to believe.
“Whenever my faith in ‘no faith’ used to get shaky, I would read Surah Nisa from the Quran, which talks about women and women’s rights in Islam,” Ahmed continued. “…I have been grateful to the Quran for making me such a good atheist ever since.”
Bangladesh’s government “continues to arrest, harass and jail bloggers, journalists and activists on the basis” of its blasphemy law, she stressed, but “the government stays silent when atheist bloggers get stabbed to death one by one by the Islamic militants in the broad daylight.”
“The truth is, minorities and progressive secularists in Bangladesh have more to fear than Islamic militants; we must also fear our own government, too,” Ahmed added. “This puts us between quite a rock and a hard place.”
She said it was hard to “blame religion only without blaming the local and foreign powers who use religion as a tool, as a weapon to maintain their power.”
“In Bangladesh, we have seen corrupt governments injecting Islam into our constitution, into our education system, and into our societies in a systemic way,” she said.
The U.S. government designated AQIS as a foreign terrorist organization nearly a year and a half after Roy’s murder.
AQIS, which formally launched in 2014 after al-Qaeda meticulously brought various militant groups from India to Bangladesh and Myanmar under its umbrella, has explicitly detailed why they’ve picked certain writers and activists as assassination targets — those they believe have insulted Islam and stand in the way of submission to Shariah law.
The terror group’s murders have included the April attack on USAID worker Xulhaz Mannan, 35, who previously worked for the U.S. Embassy as a protocol officer and also founded the country’s only LGBT magazine, and Mahbub Tonoy, 25, a magazine contributor.
That same month, AQIS issued an updated list of “who’s next” targeting guidelines. Along with “anyone insulting prophet Muhammad” or supporting the free-speech rights of those who do, “those who don’t allow others to follow the rulings of the Islamic Shariah,” including teachers, political leaders, judges, doctors, etc., are named as targets, as well as “those who intentionally misrepresent Islam in their writing or talks in order to take the Muslim community away from Islam which is one of the major agendas of the Crusaders,” including writers, “so-called intellectuals,” newspaper editors, actors, producers, poets and journalists.
“Those who oppose the Islamic Shariah by their talks or writings or show insolence towards it or insult it” are also named as targets, as are “those who are engaged in spreading nudity, obscenity and shamefulness in the Muslim society.”