Early on Tuesday morning, Ananta Bijoy Das was hacked to death in a public street for the crime of not believing in God – and being willing to say so publicly. Ananta had been on a list of atheist bloggers produced by Islamist political parties in 2013. They demanded a death penalty for ‘blasphemy’, and since then Avijit Roy and Washiqur Rahman were murdered in similar circumstances and at the hands of men with identically despicable motivations.
These were crimes committed with the express intention of silencing not just individuals, but the very ideas they argued for. As humanist blogger Bonya Ahmed said of the attack that saw her husband Avijit Roy killed and herself gravely injured, ‘it was a crime not only against a person, but against freedom of speech and humanity’.
Ahmed knows through ineradicably painful experience what most on these pages are aware of only in theory: that when freedom of expression is curtailed, society itself suffers in ways that many of us have been spared from imagining. When we engage in impassioned debate over the best way to manage our society, we do so in the tacit acknowledgement that the freedom to speak remains our most valuable human right, for every other freedom has come into existence as a consequence of it.
Sadly, this has not happened. The plight of the non-religious in many countries across the world remains unrecognised and, only a week before his death, Ananta Bijoy Das’s application for a visa (sponsored by Swedish PEN) was rejected by Swedish authorities.It is not as if the recent killings take place in wild isolation from any wider context, and it is not as if the international community is unware of it. The International Humanist and Ethical Union’s Freedom of Thought report points out that there 55 countries in the world where blasphemy is a criminal offence, and 13 countries that deem it acceptable to sentence Atheists to death. Bangladesh itself is an officially secular state, but through its inaction in protecting those of no religion has effectively condoned a spate of unjust, inhumane and barbaric sentences levied by dogmatic thugs against people who sought only to exercise their basic human right to free expression.
Upon explicitly rejecting a belief in God, humanists are sometimes confronted with the argument that their lives have been somehow devalued. With no afterlife, some say, there is little meaning to be found in our short existence. If there is one service we can perform for the bloggers killed for daring to think too freely, it is to demonstrate that this is not true. We know that when they died, they did not simply disappear, but left a trail of lives affected, and even brought people thousands of miles away into a state of empathy with the plight of those denied the freedom to express themselves.
This year, the British Humanist Association will hear Bonya Ahmed deliver the Voltaire lecture on the struggle for secularism in Bangladesh that has already cost too many of the country’s freethinkers their lives. We now have the rest of our lives to further their cause. We can support the campaign to End Blasphemy Laws, continue to challenge fundamentalist religion and fight more vigorously than ever for greater freedom of expression across the world. When we do so, the advances we make will be because of people like them.