Atheists among Us

Published on Wednesday, April 10, 2013

By: Mohsin Siddique

It has been speculated  that until recently obscure outfit named Hefajat-e Islam, yet another self-appointed protector of Islam, succeeded in intimidating the government into arresting four (may be more) alleged atheists associated with Shabagh Moncho; if true, it is deeply disturbing. This is such an aberration for a country where overwhelming majority is desirous of being liberal, aspires to a vibrant intellectual life, and appreciates freedom of thought and speech. The medieval practice of accusing as heretics those with critical opinions is contrary to the progressive legacy of our people who fought for the right to their mother tongue, liberated themselves from colonial exploitation, and now celebrates secularism, joyous revival of diverse & colorful cultural life, and striving to be a modern democratic society.  Yet we are witnessing emergence of religious fanatics who are unapologetically anti-intellectual, obscurantist, communal & misogynist.  Bangladesh has been eager to be known in the post 9/11 world as a moderate Islamic country. But, with the proliferation of militant Islamist able to paralyze an elected civilian government, force it to vacate individuals' fundamental rights of privacy,  thought,  & speech, the façade of a 'tolerant' Islam will not remain intact long. While it is reassuring that the Prime Minister has rejected the demand by this Taliban surrogate to introduce blasphemy law, Awami League's appeasement to these reactionary elements on any ground is deplorable. Unfortunately, it seems to fit into a pattern:  AL's overall tendency has been to stray from the premises and promises for which millions sacrificed their lives in 1971. The most egregious of its policies is its acquiescence to the illegitimate anti-secular changes to the Constitution by undemocratic regimes. The secular progressive factions within AL leadership and among its coalition partners seem to have been marginalized. By acts such as the cowardly submission to the whims of a group of dishonest merchants of religious politics, AL continues to betray the legacy of the Liberation War. Today's AL can no longer claim to be secular & liberal. Increasingly, it is hard to see how AL is any different from BNP.


The modus operandi of Islamists is fear mongering & spreading the falsehood that Islam is in danger in Bangladesh! How is Islam in danger in a country where nearly 80% of the people are followers of this religion? Even if the four arrested bloggers actually advocated atheism, do these self-appointed religious gestapo suggest Islam is that weak, or believers' faith so shaky that bloggers would be able to turn 80% of the country's Muslims into atheists? It is essential to challenges the fraud they keep pushing.  Putting up with the fear mongering is insanity.


Unlike Catholicism, Islam has no provision of a Pope! Yet the leaders of these cult like groups act like one. So, who appoints these protectors of Islam?  Uncontested, they assume the role of religious-police that decides what is and is not permissible! They enforce the rules they make up, if necessary by slaughtering people like sacrificial animals.  There seems to be push for standardization of what it means to be a Muslim and the life- style to be followed, contrary to how throughout history Muslims actually have dealt with the diversity in their backgrounds. While the basic obligations of every religious Muslims is same, everywhere they have also adjusted to the geographical-climatic-historical-cultural and other specificity of their existence! Thus, in addition to their core faith, Muslims of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Europe, North America, etc., have adopted diverse life-styles! Doesn't a Muslim of Bangladesh deserve the right to be a Muslim as well as a Bengali with all that it entails? Only the insecure sectarians keep insisting that Islam has no adaptation capability. It is high time to consider legal measures to prevent individuals and groups from appointing themselves the protector, i.e., authority on who is a Muslim and who is not, what is permissible and what is not. The ongoing anarchy must stop.


The fundamentalist Islamists are trapped in an unwinnable conflict with modernity. On one hand Muslims live in a world of advances in science & technology, widely accepted ideas of freedom of thought & expression, freedom to choose how one wants to live while being responsible for the consequences. At the same time they are subject to supposedly religious dicta restricting freedom based on convenient interpretations suited to the political agenda of the fanatic fringe. In the real world, accumulation of experience, knowledge, and understanding of that world is making people increasingly aware that in reality, in living their 'material life'  they are wholly dependent on the rational & and not so much on faith. In consequence, there has been a steady decline of interest in religion. Even among those who subscribe to the basic tenets of organized faith, more and more reject arbitrarily imposed restrictions that serve no useful purpose, parochial or secular.


This is more prominent where advancement of science and technology has made conscious acceptance of the empirically- enabled cause & effect paradigm an objective necessity, at least for practical affairs, occasional detour to the irrational notwithstanding. This cannot be stopped by intimidation, threat or violence. Faith is no longer a substitute for education, nor can people be dissuaded from asking questions or challenging ideas.  Our need to survive has made learning to question the prevailing integral to our evolution; it is the foundation of what we call civilization; it is a unique attribute of human nature. Some alert minds will recognize the incongruity between the rational & faith, and people should have the right to reconcile the conflicts in their own ways. It should not be surprising or a crime for some to opt for the rational. Accepting faith as a fundamental right need not debilitate society, but denial of the same right to the rational will. In Bangladesh, atheism does not threaten Islam, but the opportunist hucksters using Islam to gain political power, might.


The situation with the freedom of speech is not very different. We have to be able to make the simple distinction that one can say what one wants (normally filtered by the need to be credible to ones audience), but not what they are able/allowed to do. There is a virtual entity called the market place of ideas: one brings what he/she wants to 'sell', but remains in business only if there are interests in what is being offered. One cannot force another into accepting ideas unless they want to. Neither can any one stop another from thinking what they wish to. In the year 2013, we should not be jailing people because of what they believe or don't, nor because what they say. This does not preclude responsible authorities from restraining those who advocate & practice murder and mayhem!


Problem for Bangladesh is that while objectively, like all societies, it is in the midst of modernization process, there are forces within who have decided to get stuck in times long gone.  Every society has variations of them, even in the most advanced countries including the USA. They are often viciously single minded and similar in their efforts to turn back the tide of progress; they can and will do a lot of damage to the society. Restraining them is essential for the overwhelming majority to go on with their normal lives.  Jailing atheists among us will not stop people from becoming atheist, just as faith cannot be banned.  The government has made a serious mistake by detaining these so called 'atheists',  as a tactic to divert attention from the militant demands by the Projonmo Chottor; hope it is not a fatal (to the arrestee) one.  They should be exonerated and the government must guarantee their protection as long as the terrorist Taliban surrogates in Bangladesh, pretending to protect Islam, are running amuck.

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