Bonya Ahmed has delivered the 2015 Voltaire Lecture, hosted by the British Humanist Association, in London tonight to a packed audience of fellow humanists and free speech advocates. Bonya is a Bangladeshi blogger and writer who alongside her husband Avijit Roy was attacked by Islamists with machetes in Dhaka in February. Avijit was murdered and Bonya suffered serious wounds. A number of other bloggers, including Washiqur Rahman and Ananta Bijoy Das, have also been killed in similar attacks.
Bonya gave a moving speech in which she outlined her life with Avijit, who set up Mukto-Mona (‘Freethinker’), the first online humanist community in Bangladesh; the attack on her and her husband which took his life; and the grave situation that the humanist community in Bangladesh faces, as Islamists work their way through a list of bloggers, murdering them on the streets one by one.
In her lecture, Bonya repeatedly asked, ‘How did it come to this? How did we end up with murders in the streets, and what is the wider context for this series of assassinations of humanist intellectuals, writers and bloggers?’ She took the audience through the history of Bangladesh, the laws used to persecute the humanist bloggers, the repeated caving in of the Government to the demands of Islamists, and the need for bravery in the face of attack. She quoted one of Avijit’s blogs, where he wrote ‘Those who think victory will be realized without any bloodshed are merely living in a fool’s paradise. We risk our lives the moment we started wielding our pens against religious bigotry and fundamentalism…’
Closing the speech, Bonya said:
‘Sometimes, especially in the past few months, I have thought about my own feelings — my own loss and outrage, so real and important to me — and how these feelings contrast with the careless, indifferent, value-less universe in which we live. This contrast between human value, and the careless universe, is of course one of the great challenges of, and to, Humanism. How can we cope with this paradox in our own minds?
‘In two ways, I believe! First, is to realize that this weightlessness, this valuelessness of “the view from nowhere”, of the careless universe, is a nothing! A zero! And therefore, it is nothing to worry about! What we are left with is us, ourselves: my thoughts and feelings, my losses as well as my triumphs, the meaning in my life, these are all important, because they are all that counts.
‘And it makes no sense until we extend this realization as far as it will go in the human family. It is not just ourselves, but each other, every trafficked slave, every murdered writer, every lost and lonely mind, that are important and have value. We know this in theory, but we must, right now, in this world on the brink of so many extraordinary outrages, reach out across international borders, extend our personal circles of care and empathy to include everyone — every human being — fully and confidently as a person of moral worth. In Bangladesh they are fighting machetes with pens and this is the only way we can celebrate Avijit’s, Ananta’s life. This is one of the twenty-first century challenges of Humanism.’
The speech was followed by a discussion with the Chair, BHA President Jim Al-Khalili, and questions from the audience.
Reacting to the speech, BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented, ‘Freedom of thought, speech and expression is one of the most fundamental human rights that we enjoy and yet it is also one that is most consistently under attack all around the globe. Bonya’s powerful and moving testimony speaks to the bravery that is needed in many parts of the world to be able to speak out as a humanist in a way that we take for granted here in the UK. We will continue to support individuals like Bonya, Asif Mohiuddin and their fellow bloggers, and work with our international partners to end blasphemy laws worldwide.’
For further comment or information contact BHA Director of Public Affairs and Campaigns Pavan Dhaliwal at firstname.lastname@example.org or on 0773 843 5059.
Support the End Blasphemy Laws campaign: http://end-blasphemy-laws.org/
The Voltaire Lectures Fund was established by the legacy of Theodore Besterman, biographer of Voltaire, for lectures on ‘any aspect of scientific or philosophical thought or human activity as affected by or with particular reference to humanism.’ The British Humanist Association now oversees the fund. Previous Voltaire lecturers have included: Professor Sir David King, Professor Anthony Grayling, Professor Steven Pinker, Professor Brian Cox, Professor Richard Dawkins, Baroness Wootton, Professor Robert Hinde, Kenan Malik, Natalie Haynes, Lord Taverne, and Sir Ludovic Kennedy. It is always chaired by the President of the BHA.
The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.