Muzzle Me Not

Avijit Roy is dead. The man who wrote passionately against violence, who championed secularism in a country that is becoming deeply conservative, who openly proclaimed his atheism despite his nationality, and who founded an online forum to promote respect and understanding has been taken away from the world. That his passing was brought about by an abhorrent act of violence, born out of hatred and ignorance, shows how valid his concerns were.

The world has taken notice this time and it is refreshing to see. There is a genuine concern of Western-centricism in the coverage due to the focus on his dual nationality, though the media should be commended for taking up the story in the first place. Credit where credit is due – the coverage has also mentioned the similarly brutal killing of blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider in 2013, instead of just focusing on the “American” victim of a hate crime in a developing world. The outcry has been immediate and universal. The hope is that there will be justice.

Yet, that hope has been dangled in front of us before. When Humayun Azad, another prominent writer, was attacked in 2004, we were told there would be a swift response. The seemingly agnostic academic had been an outspoken critic of Islamic fundamentalism and it was the same zealots whom he criticised who ended his life.

Haider was born a Muslim but became an atheist, which in itself can prove fatal in the often volatile arena of Bangladeshi society. His blog helped influence the mass Shahbag protests and, sadly, it was his justified remarks against extremism that signed his death warrant. As with Azad, the authorities put on a show of consoling his family while promising action.

Unlike the other two, Roy had never held any allegiance to Islam, whether the peaceful religion or the warped version that is far too often spouted these days. Born Hindu – the largest religious minority, increasingly facing violent discrimination – the self-identifying lived in the USA but returned to his homeland because of his love for its history and culture, having visited the annual national book fair at the time of his death. Protests erupted after his death, followed by more promises from the higher-ups.

The harsh reality is that the violence meted out to these outspoken individuals was quick, but justice has been painfully slow. The impunity with which these attacks take place is terrifying. The attack on Roy and his wife, who thankfully survived but was severely injured, took place at a popular cultural festival. It was a Thursday, the start of the Bangladeshi weekend, so it was definitely crowded.

Yet, no one has been able to identify the culprits, let alone identify them. Haider’s attackers remain anonymous. So too do Azad’s. It is almost certain that there are tens, if not hundreds, of victims in this same time period who have also gone unnoticed, killed because they dared to speak their minds.

This is a part of the world where security services and the legal system suffers equally from self-created ineptitude and systemic obstacles. So, it is difficult to say whether this inaction is meant to be silent approval by the status quo of the removal of these radical, humanist thinkers or a case of resources being stretched too thin, or a combination of both.

What is certain, however, is that we are being muzzled as much by the ineptitude of the authorities as by the murderers themselves. To face adversity when standing up for a just cause is expected. But to then not be supported by those who claim to be fighting for righteousness, just as we are, makes it far worse. Avijit Roy is dead. As much as I hate to say it, but the ideals and the freedoms he espoused might follow suit.

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