A prominent writer with a known disdain for religion was hacked to death on the streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh on Thursday. Avijit Roy was leaving a large, national book fair with his wife when the two were attacked by assailants wielding machetes. His wife, a blogger, suffered a blow to the head and is in critical condition.
Roy, who lived in the United States for fear of just this sort of attack, was aware of the risks he faced by returning to Bangladesh to sell his most recent book, Biswasher Virus or “The Virus of Faith” at a the book fair.
“As soon as the book was released, it rose to the top of the fair’s best-seller list,” he wrote in an forthcoming article to be published by the secular periodical Free Inquiry. “At the same time, it hit the cranial nerve of Islamic fundamentalists. The death threats started flowing to my e-mail inbox on a regular basis. I suddenly found myself a target of militant Islamists and terrorists.”
Roy concluded the piece, “If one thing is certain, it is that the virus of faith is dangerously real.”
He was no doubt aware of the “dangerously real” nature of the threats Islamist organizations and individuals made against him. Roy ran a blog called Mukto-Mona, or “free mind” where he and others wrote extensively on secularism and what they believed the perils of religious extremism. He was well aware of the risks such work posed in Bangladesh — a country where several prominent secular, atheist writers have been attacked in recent years.
Rajib Haider, another Bangladhesi atheist blogger, was hacked to death by attackers in 2013. That same year, at least 27 people were killed in clashes between police and Islamist hardliners who called for anti-blasphemy laws to be enacted in Bangladesh. In 2004, Humayun Azad, a secular writer and professor was attacked by militants while leaving the same book fair Roy and his wife had attended. Azad died from his wounds.
The media environment in Bangladesh started to become less open in 2012, according to Freedom House, which tracks such figures. Bangladesh ranks 146 out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index.
Religious hostilities appear to be on the rise around the world. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, they hit a six year peak in 2012, the most recent year studied. Bangladesh was found to have “very high” social hostilities related to religious practice in 2012 — a designation it did not have in 2012.
Bangladesh is a secular country with a Muslim majority. Activists claim that the government appeases militant groups by arresting and suppressing secular and atheist writers.
“Islamic terrorists can do whatever they like. They can kill people with no qualms whatsoever,” Taslima Nasreen, a prominent Bangladeshi writer wrote in a blog post mourning the loss of her friend. “Avijit Roy has been killed the way other free thinker writers were killed in Bangladesh. No free thinker is safe in Bangladesh.”
Just days before Roy was attacked, Nasreen posted a fictitious obituary for herself.
“Bengali writer Taslima Nasreen was beheaded yesterday by Islamist terrorists at her home in New Delhi where she had been living in exile,” she wrote. “It was inevitable.”