‘Fighting Machetes with Pens’: A full transcript of the 2015 Voltaire Lecture

On 2 July 2015, Bonya Ahmed delivered a very special Voltaire Lecture to an audience of several hundred people at the Hilton Metropole on Edgware Road. In February 2015, Bonya survived an attack on the streets of Dhaka in which her husband, the humanist author and founder of the Mukto-Mona (‘Free Mind’) Bangladeshi blogging platform, was hacked to death. Bonya received a standing ovation for her heartfelt and inspiring lecture, a full transcript of which appears below.


Transcript: Fighting Machetes with Pens

I would like to thank Humanists UK, such a historical and prestigious organization, for giving  me the chance to speak with you.

My late-husband, Dr. Avijit Roy and I were Bangladeshi-American citizens and humanists, and we are the recent victims of Islamic terrorism in Bangladesh.  Avijit and I visited our homeland, Bangladesh, on February 16th, to attend the Annual National Book Fair. The fair is a nationally renowned event, attended by thousands, held through the entire month of February.

On the 26th of February, when we were leaving the well-lit, crowded book fair to get back to our car, Avijit and I were brutally attacked by Islamic fundamentalists. We were stabbed repeatedly with machetes on the side of the road. The area was surrounded by police officers and video cameras and thousands and thousands of people. Nobody came to help us, the police stood by. We owe thanks to a young journalist who did act, and rushed us to the nearby hospital a little later. But Avijit was killed and I was badly injured as a result of four stab wounds, around my head and my thumb was sliced off. I have injuries on both hands, fingers and my body. I’ve had multiple surgeries to repair the damaged nerves and arteries. Just over four months on, I am still undergoing medical treatments.

Avijit was perhaps the most prominent victim of these machete-wielding assailants, but he was neither the first, nor the last such victim. Since his murder at the end of February, Islamist fundamentalists have successfully killed another two humanist bloggers and writers in Bangladesh in very similar circumstances: namely, machete attacks in the street by three or four masked assailants. Blogger Washiqur Rahamn Babu was killed on 30th March. Two men arrested at the scene by bystanders – no thanks to the police – said they killed Washiqur despite never having read his blog themselves, but under orders from someone at their madrasas. I’ll return to this point later.  Then, on 12th May, Ananta Bijoy Das was killed. Like Avijit, Ananta wrote about science and philosophy; and he edited a journal called Reason. He was very close to us, he called me sister and worked with us for a long time. I think they have attacked 8 secular activists, bloggers or writers, including Professor Shafiul Islam in 2014, the blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider in 2013, a failed attempt on the life of Asif Mohiuddin also in 2013, and of course Professor Humayan Azad in 2003.

Those are the facts of recent events. Now, I am going to share with you a little bit more about Avijit and his work and writing and our life together. After that, I will ask, ‘How did it come to this?’

I think that I should present two disclaimers in front of you before I start. First, is a reminder that English is my second language though I have been speaking it for a while. My accent is a weird blend of Bangladeshi English, American  sitcoms exported from the US when I was growing up in Bangladesh, as well as Canadian, Minnesotan, and above all influence from the Southern states of the US, our ‘beloved’ Bible belt.  Please note it if you don’t understand something and ask me afterwards. I would be happy to explain. My second disclaimer: I am very, not sure what the word is, I am very scattered, my life is scattered, my thoughts are still scattered. It has been just 4 months since Avijit’s death; he was my friend, my partner in crime, in happiness, sadness, endless conflicts and love. So let me talk about that, now.

Avijit, well, I used to call him Avi, created the first online freethinking platform in Bangla called ‘Mukto-Mona’ ( which means ‘Freethinker’) in 2001 when he was a PhD student in the National University of Singapore studying biomedical Engineering. Mukto-Mona is not just a blog, it is a platform and a community. Along with other moderators, bloggers, and writers, Mukto-Mona became the name of a secular humanist movement for Bangla-speaking people. It was special for me in more than one way, I first met Avi in 2002 through Mukto-Mona. We collaborated on most of the projects and writings since.  We were united on the principles of Humanism. We also intensely disagreed and debated over some of our core beliefs and ideological stands, as good humanists should! Our debates regarding our writings, especially about socio-economic and political aspects of Humanism, were so passionate that our daughter believed for a while that we fought all the time. It took her few years to realize that most of these discussions, not all, were philosophical debates, and not necessarily marital squabbles!

Avi was an atheist, a blogger, a writer, and above all he was a secular humanist who tried to answer the larger questions in life. Avijit wrote about science, which he loved; one of his last books how the universe could emerge from nothing. He wrote book about the Origin of life, science behind homosexuality, yet another one on Love from the perspective of Evolutionary Psychology.  He even wrote a literary piece regarding the relationship between Nobel Laureate Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore and the Argentinian feminist writer Victoria Ocampo. But two of his books titled Philosophy of Disbelief and Virus of Faith, created far greater attention… On one hand, they made him exceedingly popular among young adults and progressive readers… On the other hand, these books fueled hostility and anger towards Avijit from religious fundamentalists.

We wrote in Bangla because we wanted to popularize the basic as well as the cutting edge concepts of science and philosophy and art in this language. I wrote a book on biological evolution named Along the Path of Evolution a few years ago.  Avi wrote countless articles, blogs, and writing was his passion, his life; to be honest he expressed himself better through writing than talking! In fact he so failed sometimes to meet my demand for verbal communication that we wrote handwritten letters to each other all the time, through all the highs and lows of our beautiful short but beautiful 13 years of life together. Anyway, he did not only write about science and atheism, he wrote in opposition to all kinds of prejudice, injustice, unscientific and irrational beliefs. He protested injustice and intolerance in society anywhere, something which can be demonstrated in the breadth of topics he covered in his writings.  It extended from women’s rights (he wrote a heartfelt piece on Hypatia), nationalism, trying the Islamic fundamentalists who committed war crimes during the liberation war of Bangladesh, he protested the Iraq war, wrote against the torture in Abu Ghraib, massacres in Gujrat, Palestine, even the nationalistic views of the Bangladeshi Government and military actions against the minority ethnic groups in south-eastern Bangladesh. He reacted strongly against the UNC Chapel Hill shootings in the States, earlier this year, in which three students were shot in their apartment by a man who had advocated atheism on Facebook. Avi wrote:

‘Atheism is characterized by an absence of belief in the existence of supernatural gods or goddesses. To me, it is a rational concept to oppose any unscientific and irrational belief. But being an atheist does not automatically make you free from prejudice or hatred, unless you have compassion for humanity. It does not matter if you are religious or not, intolerance is everywhere. History suggests there were indeed many non-religious heartless autocratic rulers who mercilessly killed numerous countrymen. Now we know there is Craig Stephen Hicks who has a hatred for Muslims. These criminals deserve no sympathy or excuses. The NC Chapel Hill killings are inhumane and should be denounced by every human being with the slightest conscience.’

If Frederich Nietzsche were here, he might have said Avijit ‘looked at Science from the perspective of the artist and looked at art from the perspective of life’ – meaning that science was for him a passion and something to speculate about and wonder in, and art was not something abstract or otherworldly but, at its best, a force for change in life.

Avi was also a normal human being who made his fare share of mistakes and had flaws, he was a bad singer, completely out of tune, he was intimidated by the practical and financial aspects of life and very goofy at home. He was also a father, a role model and a friend to our daughter. But above all, he knew what he was doing and where he wanted to go. And he knew the colossal risk he was taking by standing up and being counted. He said in one of his writings:

‘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…’

Which brings us on to this wider context, this deeper history. How did we come to a point, in a supposed secular democracy such as Bangladesh, where humanists and secularists can be hacked to death in the street.

In the American south I get a lot of blank looks when I tell someone that I am originally from Bangladesh. I know you guys are not like that, but I would like to refresh your memory anyway! Bengal was a part of the Indian subcontinent under the British Empire for more than 200 years. In 1947, the colony was divided into two independent countries: India and Pakistan. The hasty boundaries correlated roughly with the divide between Islam and Hinduism. And of course, that divide would lie behind hundreds of thousands of deaths and the displacement of many millions, one of the largest human migrations in history.

But the India-Pakistan divide was not the only divide.. East Bengal (or the Eastern) portion of Pakistan was itself separated from western Pakistan by thousands of miles of Indian territory, and also by differing cultures and identities. In Bengal, a dichotomy of Bengali and Muslim identities was prevalent from the very introduction of Islam in the region. However, the Bengali cultural identity was more deep-rooted and it was inevitable that it would resurface under the political and economic discrimination and oppression of the Bengalis by the ruling Pakistanis.. So the desire for independence began early, starting with the Bengali Language Movement in 1952. When the Pakistani government decided to exclude Bengali as an official language of Pakistan, young Bengalis sacrificed their lives to protest the exclusion. Students died on the streets on 21 February in 1952 to secure their right to use Bengali as an official language. Today, to honor their memory, we celebrate Language Martyrs’ Day (which is also celebrated worldwide as International Mother Language Day now) at the very same Dhaka national book fair where Avijit was killed.

Finally, in 1971, after an arduous nine month Liberation war which killed millions of people, East Pakistan emerged as an independent nation-state called Bangladesh.

The new constitution of Bangladesh had secularity, nationalism, democracy and socialism as its basic principles, but, in reality, none of them were implemented fruitfully.  The country saw an astonishing emergence of the Muslim identity after a coup overthrew the government in 1975. Principles of secularism were replaced with ‘absolute trust and faith in the almighty Allah’ and ‘democracy’ was replaced with autocratic military rule. Despite all that, when we were teenagers during the mid and late ’80s it felt like Bengali Muslims were still pretty liberal, certainly compared to today.  But the political and social landscape gradually changed, religious fundamentalism rose in Bangladesh.

A major player in this rise is the international Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami, Not only has their political influence been rising but – with funding from the Middle East – they have been building a financial and business empire. They have their fingers into politics, into the most religious conservative parts of society, and they wield this financial and demographic might to influence the government. And, all our governments, so called secular or non-secular, have bent their knees to their demands one way or the other.

The ruling political party in Bangladesh is the Awami League. They are supposed to be the largest secular political party in the country. Yet in the name of political expediency, they have repeatedly bent their knee to religious fundamentalists, acceding to their demands and granting their wishes, in a manner that can only be described as bribery, in order to secure their votes.  . Last time they came to power with a mandate to identify senior political figures connected to contemporary Islamist parties and holding them accountable for crimes they committed in the liberation of Bangladesh.

In 2010 War Crimes Trials began. Trials came to a head in late 2012 and early 2013, the Islamists were under extreme pressure, with voter support for Islamist parties declining and senior Islamists finally being found guilty of those war crimes, the Islamic fundamentalists turned their attention to atheists. If Islamist leaders might be put to death for war crimes –that’s the sentence for War Crimes in Bangladesh—then the secularists and atheists who called for justice must themselves meet the same fate.

Fundamentalists in the past few years have therefore produced a number of hit lists, naming intellectuals, writers and bloggers they want to see dead, and making them widely available online. They came up with this infamous ‘hit list’ of 84 bloggers in 2013, backed by these mainstream political parties, who presented it to the government as a list of bloggers they would like to see arrested for ‘insulting religion’ and sentenced to death. They proposed a new blasphemy law that should be punishable by death and they wanted this law (against international standards of justice, of course) to be applied retrospectively to those bloggers that they deemed to have insulted Islam. It named targets that good Islamists could assassinate; we are also here reminded how medieval theologian Al-Ghazali gave all ‘good’ Muslims the right to kill the Muslim philosophers who had different opinions about some metaphysical doctrines. In other words, both political Islamists and extremists are now systematically threatening those who dare oppose them, issuing new death threats and creating a culture of fear in the country.

At this point, perhaps, Sheikh Hasina could have slapped down the Islamists. She could have said that no, people have a right to demonstrate, to write, to question, to criticize. But instead, this is what she said: We do not need a new blasphemy law, because we already have a law against ‘hurting religious sentiments’ and we can prosecute the bloggers under that law! So the authorities received the list of suspect bloggers, officials promised to investigate, and then they arrested four of those bloggers from the list and pursued them through the courts. Avijit campaigned tirelessly to free these bloggers.

So, what happens when you give bullies what they want? What happens when you accede to crazy demands? Soon there were one-hundred thousand Islamists marching on the streets of Dhaka demanding not just ‘death to atheist bloggers’, but for the cancellation of planned new education reforms that would have helped girls into education, and yet the government again made concessions. Since 2013 Islamists have been granted demand after demand, while the attackers of those first victims – Ahmed and Asif – were never found.

To give another example, most pertinent to the anti-atheist violence, is a 2013 amendment to the so-called Information and Communication Technology Act.

The Act produced by the previous conservative government was already oppressive, outlawing any publications, or broadcasts, or websites, that are ‘fake and obscene’ (‘obscene’ already being a highly subjective term, of course) and outlawing any expression which may ‘corrupt’– again an incredibly vague term, and there are echoes of Socrates corrupting the youth, there. Furthermore, the Communications Act outlaws any communications that ‘causes to hurt or may hurt religious belief’. Those convicted of this improbable crime can be imprisoned for up to ten years, and may also be given a hefty fine.

The punishment is indeed severe. But remember that we are still talking about the original act of 2006. In this original form, all the penal sections were ‘non-cognizable’.  This is a term unique to the penal codes of Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan; a ‘non-cognizable’ offence is one that police officers cannot investigate, or make an arrest under, without prior permission of a magistrate. However, the amendment of 2013 made four sections of the law cognizable (so that in future, judicial oversight would not be required to enforce these pseudo-’blasphemy’ law provisions) as well as making them non-bailable. Although section 57 itself is not one of the ‘cognizable’ offences, the police have overcome that! Here is the strategy: In most cases, people arrested under the cognizable section 54 of the law and then also implicated with the offences of section 57. This is how the law is being used in the interest of the religious fundamentalists, such that in principle any complaint of ‘blasphemy’ can now be escalated by any police officer.

In addition to the offence of defamation, the Penal Code had something to say about ‘hurting religious belief’ which was applicable for only print media, and the punishment for that was also 2 years of imprisonment. As if the the Penal Code was not already restricting freedom of expression enough, the new amended ICT Act has made the criticism of religion on the internet punishable with up to 14 years of imprisonment. Even more ridiculously, it seems that you could now get 14 years for criticizing religion online, while 2 years if you do so in print media. This means that (just as an example) a Facebook post to friends, could get you a prison sentence seven time longer than intentionally publishing an ‘offensive’ front page news story in a national paper. The ICT act can indeed be used and misused to persecute critical writers, bloggers, and journalists, and we have already seen ample examples of this.

Islamic fundamentalism has spread for many years through Bangladesh via the support of all the political parties, and growing number of mosque-madrasa complexes all over country which have been established and funded by locally influential people or through the funding from a few countries in the Middle East. Islamic fundamentalists use many madrasas as a way of spreading their message of hate and intolerance.

And what has happened since my husband Avi, since Washiqur Rahman and Ananta Bijoy Das have been killed. Almost nothing! They arrested the guy who was threatening Avijit online and the to announce a ‘ban’ on one of the invisible online groups that had claimed responsibility for his murder. In all that time neither the government nor the police have even contacted me. It is as if I don’t exist to them. I heard this morning that the law enforcement in Bangladesh has captured 12 members of the Al Qaeda in Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) various parts of Dhaka on Wednesday in connection with the killing of Avijit Roy and several other writers and freethinkers. I will reserve my comments on this since I have not got a chance to look at the details yet.


Many people have asked me: what keeps me motivated? It’s the overwhelming active support and sympathy (though I have to confess that I am not very good with taking sympathies from people) from family, friends and thousands of known and unknown people, and the whole Mukto-Mona community. The Mukto-Mona moderators and the advisors took up the work and moved it forward.  Avijit not only wrote, throughout his life he attempted to establish a strong platform in our country for the practice of freethought and freedom of speech. Kaberi Gayen, a Dhaka University professor, who has also been threatened to death wrote to me in a personal message right after Avi’s death, ‘I know it has become our legal culture to use cleavers to protest writing.

Still, after Avijit’s murder, the taboo we had of taking a stand for an atheist and practitioner of freethought has broken down. Everywhere people are speaking up. Almost everyday people are writing, holding protest meetings and rallies.’ As a student of history we all know that the world does not move in a linear path, it twists and turns moves backward and forward. Changes do not happen overnight.

Whenever I start to sink in to the deep sense of my personal loss, I realize that for all intents and purposes that I stand before you in a privileged position here today. I have been given a platforms to speak a, I have a comfortable life, a network of good friends and family who will support me through this ordeal. But what about those who have no voice, no agency, no platform? When the thousands of men and women get trafficked through the wild ocean, when girls get gang-raped in a public vehicle, ISIS butchers behead, when they force girls into sexual slavery, when Boko Haram abducts hundreds of young women and sells them off in medieval style, thousands of children die in poverty stricken nations , I see that they do not have a voice. I firmly believe that we need to have a sense of collective responsibility and consciousness. These are not isolated events, we need to understand the global phenomenon, the political, economic and social connections.

I strongly believe that Humanism has come a long way in the west through the heroic age of ancient Greece, influence from the medieval Persians and Moors, revival of classical studies during Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment, French Revolution, Industrial Revolution. But many parts of the world, including Bangladesh, haven’t gone through many of these political, economic and social changes. Think about what the rest of the world was experiencing when the west was going through these changes in last few centuries. Indian sub-continent was a British colony, Africa was oppressed by many European powers, Aboriginals were getting killed systematically in the Americas, we also had slavery and racism backed by many of these powers. So the context was never the same across the board. That’s why, we need to be careful about how we talk about Humanism to a specific cultures, countries. We should not try to impose it like the post-colonial Kamalism on any people. We need to connect the dots of the specific political and economic evolution of a specific nation and culture with the global economic and political influences and plays.

Anyway, 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, it’s so much about me me 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, secular 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. This is the way we can celebrate Avijit’s life, Ananta’s life, and all those who have suffered or are at risk. In Bangladesh they are fighting machetes with pens. Everywhere, we must fight fundamentalism and all oppression, with compassion and rationality and universalism, and with a deeper understanding of the conflicts.

That is the twenty-first century challenge of Humanism.

Thank you.

Rafida Bonya Ahmed
2 July 2015