Interview with Arifur Rahman on Being an Atheist in Bangladesh

In this interview, Arifur Rahman talks to Scott Douglas Jacobsen about discovering blogging and how this provides freedom of speech to minorities, who would otherwise not be heard. Arifur Rahman also talks about how the Bangladeshi government fails to protect freedom of speech, while atheist and secularist bloggers keep being murdered.

Arifur Rahman is a London-based Bangladeshi atheist, humanist, and secular blogger who has long campaigned for secular values. Dozens of people were killed in Bangladesh since 2013, under accusations of ‘blasphemy’.

*This interview has been edited for clarity and readability.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was your moment of political awakening and political activism?

Arifur Rahman: When we started, we didn’t think of this as a political activity, at all. Now, we realise that in some way it was, but we didn’t see it that way. The definition of political activism we knew didn’t involve what we were doing. To answer your question, how did I get involved? It spontaneously happened. I was in the UK. I was here for the last 12 years. I came here to study. Eventually, I got a job. I stayed back.

While I was here, it was an interesting phenomenon happening across the globe, blogging. People could write their own thoughts, express their own mind, using some sort of internet platform like WordPress or community blogging. To us, that was something new.

Before that, anything we’d see written would be either a newspaper, which was going through an editorial process, or a book. People would reprint some material. It would not be an individual’s thoughts. People would write stuff. When we found out about the Internet, we saw an opportunity to write our own thoughts.

We took it on. We began to express our minds. For us, it was a way to connect like-minded people across the globe. I was an expatriate in of like mindthe UK. There are a lot of people like me. Obviously, being outside of Bangladesh, you don’t get to meet everybody like you used to in person.

We discovered this digital presence. We discovered that if we get involved with blogging we can express ourselves. We could find like-minded people in Bangladesh and other countries across the globe. What made me start writing and blogging is more of a reaction to what we’ve seen in our language and in our country: we saw a rise in Islamist narrative spreading.

“What made me start writing and blogging is more of a reaction to what we’ve seen in our language and in our country: we saw a rise in Islamist narrative spreading”

Islamists were using the power of the Internet to spread their ideas. We see it around us now, but we saw it rising 10 years ago. We started protesting. We started countering their narrative, as it should be. There are lots of details surrounding it. In summary, that is the answer to your question.

Jacobsen: As a platform with blogging, people call you bloggers, but, in essence, you are writers. In a way, it is digital protest when other ways aren’t necessarily available without significant, sometimes physical, harm to the writers. What are some more prominent cases that are more tragic of people who have had physical altercations because of their being a Bangladeshi blogger or writer?

Rahman: This physical violence is something very recent in Bangladesh. It only started in the beginning of 2013. Before that, all sorts of threats were often like death threats. Islamists and extremist Muslims, whatever category you put them in, were doing death threats quite regularly. “What you are writing boils our blood and you are doing it behind the anonymity of the Internet, and we dare you because you would not actually come to meet us in real life, and if we see you in real life, we are going to sort you out.” We used to hear and read this very often.

We never realised that we would ever get really, really seriously hit by that. In early 2013, a colleague of ours, a great satirist, Ahmed Rajib Haider, was murdered in front of his house. Then, we realised something was going to happen. That was the first murder of that year. In 2013, there were more murders, but the government, as a result of Islamist uprising, took a stance of appeasing Islamist methods or strategies. The government initiated the passing of some laws, which criminalised atheist practices; not atheism per se, but vilifying religion or critically talking about religion.

2013 saw a number of brutal murders of atheist and secular bloggers in Bangladesh

Then, 4 of our colleagues were sent to jail. Everything was surrounded by serious media activity by the Islamists because they own a lot of news outlets and television channels. The general view of the people was that they fell for the narrative that the Islamist media were spreading. In 2015, 2 years later, a Bangladeshi-American citizen who lived in America and who was almost like me, was murdered. I was there on that same day.

I met him an hour before, in person, alive, and we were walking around the book fair that he was visiting. Then, an hour later when we all went to the hospital he was dead, as he was brutally murdered by the Islamists. That was surreal. Following that, a month later, one of our colleagues was murdered, at least, in Bangladesh. Niloy Chatterjee, among others, was also murdered.

We had other murders too. Non-bloggers, like teachers, were murdered. General activists were murdered as well. Most of the time, after every killing, the media would not come out and denounce these killings. The media would be more interested in trying to find the reason why they were murdered. They were trying to find out what these murdered people were writing about. They would target any critique of religion and amplify it in the media to make it okay for the murders to happen in the public mind, whether the prophet was “insulted” or otherwise. So, religion somehow allows that sort of recoil.

Jacobsen: You mentioned two phrases before: “extremist Muslims” and “Islamism”. Are these differentiated terms to you?

Rahman: We never used to differentiate between them, at least in Bangladesh. Recently, I have seen all of these killings happening. In July, there was an ISIS-style attack, which took place in a restaurant where almost 14 people were killed in an ISIS-style murder. Literally a murder; they took over the restaurant. They locked themselves in and slaughtered people. Interestingly, these killings were not of bloggers. These were foreign nationals, like Japanese and Italian expatriates visiting Bangladesh.

This happened inside a diplomatic zone, the most secure area of the country. After that, the government and the whole country seemed to have come to their senses or, at least, pretending to come to their senses. Obviously, the excuse-giving actions were just starting. They said, “Oh, these are some few bad apples”. So, the Muslims who were very much eager unanimously say bloggers should be killed and should be sorted out. Now, they are distancing themselves from these killers.

Now, they’re saying, “These are Islamists.” We can’t really argue with them because we don’t have much media firepower. They are saying some are Islamists. My definition of an Islamist is: One who thinks of Islam as a source of law which can be inflicted in political life and structure of a country; whereas, extremist Muslims are the same people, but who would not violently act upon their belief. That’s how I would vaguely differentiate them.

But, given the chance, an extremist Muslim can become an Islamist. An Islamist is an extremist Muslim, by definition, but an extremist Muslim is not always an Islamist. In the core, everybody wants to believe that Islam is a way of life and Islam is something that needs to shape the existing structure of a society, in general.

Jacobsen: What are the numbers that you know – estimated – of those protesting through blogging about their being ex-Muslims or atheists being in Bangladesh, the UK, or elsewhere?

Rahman: We are always the minority. We are never the majority for a variety of reasons. The predominant religion in the UK is not Islam. Here, Islam itself is a minority. And then, we, apostates and atheists who have an Islamic background, are a minority within a minority. So, the numbers are not visibly high. However, there are a lot of closeted atheists out there who would not voice their opinion or identify themselves because of fear based on ostracisation, recoil, or being chucked out of family or society.

“There are a lot of closeted atheists out there who would not voice their opinion or identify themselves because of fear based on ostracisation, recoil, or being chucked out of family or society”

In the UK, the situation is like that. In Bangladesh, even though it is predominantly an Islamic or Muslim country, the Islamism we face is a new phenomenon. Bangladesh was not like that, even 30 years ago. It was formed in 1971 by kicking out a relation between Bangladesh and Pakistan. We separated from Pakistan; we used to be one country. Surprisingly, it was separated by India in-between Pakistan and Bangladesh, which was something weird the British did. We wanted to be a Bengali nation rather than a Muslim nation.

Bengali is a secular identity. It is based on language, culture, literature, etc. It refers to the more human side of things. Pakistan is more Islamic. It is no surprise that it’s referred to as the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. I don’t have to tell you. You know. Because of global politics and intervention of the United States inside Bangladesh, the situation started to change. Saudi Arabia took an interest of rooting out the cultural element within Bangladesh and tried to terraform Bangladesh into a predominantly Muslim country. It the past 30 years it has become more Islamic.
That is the history of the situation.

Jacobsen: You mentioned a phrase: “minority within a minority.” Those are groups that aren’t necessarily considered by the larger populace in general. They might actually be subject to worse discrimination because if you’re within a minority that is already discriminated against. If you’re in a minority within a minority, your discrimination might be worse based on ostracisation within that minority, and not being considered even within the mainstream discourse. Does that seem correct to you?

Rahman: The term “minority within a minority,” is a term coined by Maajid Nawaz. He is saying that within the Muslim community there is a bunch of ex-Muslims. I am not originally from the UK. If somebody is breaking away from a minority community, and that minority community is a religiously identified community, their becoming an atheist (or even their becoming a humanist or identifying as a human), indicated that they’re becoming part of the bigger pot. If we’re leaving Islam and become atheists, we are not creating our own community. We are blending into the larger community.

Unfortunately for Maajid Nawaz and people like him, for some reason, they want to keep us. We have even broken away from the minority community. They want to keep us tied to the religious identity, which I don’t personally like. Earlier, you were saying about the numbers. In Bangladesh, there is a huge number of people who are of an atheistic disposition. Unfortunately, because of social pressure and peer pressure, and the same fear of recoil from their family and their immediate social groups (even direct threats of dying), a lot of people are closeted.

When we started our movement, our goal was to create a snowball effect. It worked. We saw a lot of young people declaring themselves as atheists. They were losing their fear of religion. It is not love for their religion that keeps them in the religion. It is fear. A lot of young people came out of their closet, it was creating a critical mass of atheists. After that, the deaths started.

The killings started to reverse the effect that our actions had. The killers are successful because the media and the killers together started this campaign against us. They were, and still are, quite successful. Fear is embedded in everybody. Nobody would openly claim that they are atheists. Even if they do, they would be careful to not welcome the wrath. In Bangladesh, there are many atheists, but you can’t just report their number through a census.

Jacobsen: Now, since we’ve covered the terminology and some of the background, and your own becoming politically active, I want to cover some of the content that the writers or bloggers write about, whether based in Bangladesh or elsewhere. What are some of the critical thoughts that they are putting forth about religion in particular?

Rahman: This is a good question. It goes back to the fundamental question: why? Somebody who came from an Islamic background has seen how it works and how in Islam, or in any other religion for that matter, through indoctrination, teaching, and parental teaching, people are guided towards the faith and religion. We have seen that. We can see that religion is actually crippling us. It is taking away a lot of human values and capabilities. Values and capabilities which a human should be allowed to fulfill and pursue.

In Islam, the beauty of love is not allowed or it is heavily restricted and guided. So, Islam would say, ‘You can love your wife, but you cannot fall in love with somebody before you are married.’ That is a restrictive direction. Love is not just platonic. Love has no strict definition, no boundaries.

That is defined as a crime. If you fall in love with somebody, if you express your love more than platonically, then you will have committed a sin, in Islamic terms. It is completely inhuman and medieval. We started talking about those things. That is only the tip of the iceberg. So many injustices happen within this minority community in the UK, or any other pockets of Muslim ghettos throughout the world, because they are autonomous systems. They managed differently than what is in the larger society. We don’t know what goes on inside. It is almost like the mafia.

We saw the way the rest of the world is like. If we use a bad analogy of race and colour, we try to be white. It is a bad way to say this. For example, the white Christian culture that has polished and furnished their own culture, has included all of these human elements. Maybe, they have weaponised them to make the world more capitalist, but that is a different discussion. But it looks like the design was supposed to be that ‘you guys are brown people and Muslims, so you should have a less than human life; whereas, the rest of the world can enjoy the beauty of life, express themselves and enjoy music, art, literature, and poetry, and so on.’

Anything that is about people being creative and happy is a no-no in Islam. Their goal 24/7 is to please their God. They are told by their mullahs that this is their purpose. It is to be partly a human. You can live the life in this world, but your ultimate goal is the afterlife. We saw this, in our terms, as bullshit. We started talking about it. If somebody is maintaining a system, they will not like that sort of divergence.

“Anything that is about people being creative and happy is a no-no in Islam. Their goal 24/7 is to please their God”

Jacobsen: More often, men run the system. Is that correct?

Rahman: Absolutely, all of the time.

Jacobsen: Are the restrictions, therefore, more stringent on women than on the men?

Rahman: Oh! (Laugh) It goes without saying.

Jacobsen: (Laugh)

Rahman:Like the medieval times, Islam is a male-dominated, patriarchal system. In fact, it is so literal in Islam that it reflects in Islamic law. In Islamic law, the so-called Sharia Law, a woman is equal to half of a man. So, that means two women equals one man. If you ask to give evidence in Islamic law, if you’re bringing one male witness, you cannot bring one female witness. You have to bring 2 female witnesses. That is a simplification, but that is the fact.

If you need to sign a deed, or a contract, and if you need a witness, you cannot have one male and one female witness. You need one male and two female witnesses. This principle has a lot of various different manifestations. For example, another version of this is if a woman gets raped then it is her fault for getting raped because she was not supposed to be going out of her security boundary, which is maintained by the male guardian. A woman cannot be her own self in the Islamic system, ever. A woman is primarily owned by her father, then when she is ready to be wed, she would be handed over to her husband, who would then literally use her for sexual purposes, for breeding purposes, and for house maintenance purposes.

When she is old, she will become and go under the security boundaries of her son. She cannot be her own person. She is property. Women, in Islam, are just property.

Thousands of radical Islamists often gather in Bangladeshi streets calling for the killings of atheist and secular bloggers

Jacobsen: There’s another system called triple talaq, which is, basically, a one-word say of the man to divorce his wife, within Islam.

Rahman: Yes.

Jacobsen: What are some of the more astute critiques of Islamic law that Bangladeshi bloggers have written that you have seen or have written yourself?

Rahman: I never bothered with debunking Islamic law itself. My focus was primarily about modern life and how Islam does not fit into modern life. Because it was a big team, there were some of us writing in that manner. Some were talking about science. I, primarily, tend to bring the fight in my own daily life. For instance, we talk about how the world should be and how Islam does not fit in the ideal world. One of the critiques I have done of Islamic law is that it does not follow the correct way a law should be created and accepted, in whoever the subjects are, e.g. the common law the world runs on. A law should be formed and then should be ratified through some democratic processes. Ideally, the proposal would go through some system like a parliament, depending on the country. Εventually it should go through a process and become accepted as a law and be enforceable.

Islamic law, fortunately or unfortunately, does not follow this. Its stem or root would be the primary book, the Qur’an, then the hadiths or the sayings of Mohammed, and then the rest would be determined by so-called Islamic scholars. There is an international standard for them and for how an Islamic law can come into effect. It is more of a council-type thing. There is no method. You cannot challenge or question an Islamic law. The choice is always based on the qazi, a representative of the Islamic power culture.

This is how an Islamic law comes into effect. There are other things also. Inside Bangladesh, even though it is not 100% Islamic, there are aspects that govern parts of life. For example, there is a law for family law, as they call it. That is governed by Islamic sources. When somebody dies, and if they have property, and if they have male and female children, the way that property gets divided is decided by Islamic law. It is not equal. Women always get less than men. It is imbalanced.

“The madrassah education is a bunch of people who don’t know how the world works, have zero knowledge of English, history, science, mathematics. All they know is the scripture and different incarnations of it. It is a mullah-production facility.”

We criticise it. To give another example, inside Bangladesh, when the government and people wanted to change the unfair family law, the mullahs, the enforcers, came down to the streets and started protesting. Since they have leverage, they used that leverage to revert the government decision. So, inside Bangladesh, that law is not there. There is the education system too. We have a triple education system: English system, Bengali system (mainstream), and a huge madrassah education (huge Islamic education). The madrassah education is a bunch of people who don’t know how the world works, have zero knowledge of English, history, science, mathematics. All they know is the scripture and different incarnations of it. The madrassahs only work to build another mullah.

It is a mullah-production facility. The only purpose of a mullah is to lead a prayer in a mosque. That is all they are good for, all they can do. They are not trained for other social or national services. For example, anybody coming out of a madrassah are not even accepted in the services. There is a huge number of people who are a worthless piece of junk. Bangladesh is a severely densely populated country. Within 6,000 square miles, we have 117,000,000 people.

If you can imagine that, if you can put that in perspective, it would be shocking. It is one of the most densely populated countries. The Bangladeshi government cannot enforce family and birth control measures. Mullahs come out and say somebody’s life is a gift from God. It is almost like the Christian churches saying to not use contraception. Those are a few examples I can think of right now.

Jacobsen: That segues into something personally important: women’s rights – international women’s rights, empowerment, and general advocacy, when I think about it, many of the cases that you’ve noted are mostly run by men. Men are the religious leaders. The madrassahs are training mullahs, who will be men. The restrictions in marriage, social, and personal life are more stringent on women than on men. In that sense, at least within the Muslim community in Bangladesh, and based on what you’re saying, international women’s rights are not well-respected or implemented in those areas.

Rahman: Interestingly, Bangladesh is trying to keep its image. It is a highly advanced chameleon, at least the system. It has recently become a dictatorship. What I mean is that it is not the military dictatorship that you know. It used to be a bipartisan system, but now, the majority party has made ties with the majority Islamist party. Thereby, they gained a lot of support and power by supporting Islamists. This highlights the power of the media. Another Islamic state, Saudi Arabia, owns a lot of media throughout the world, and the power of lobby is not something I need to explain to you. A good example is the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Saudi Arabia is a member. At some point, it was the chairperson of that council. It’s an oxymoron that Saudi Arabia can become a chairperson of the Human Rights Council. The reason I say Bangladesh is highly supported by Saudi Arabia is that in the whole world there are only two countries that declared the day King Abdullah died a national mourning day. One was Bangladesh. The other was the United Kingdom, which is quite unusual. All of the reasons I am saying this is the image of Bangladesh as highly managed by media in the rest of the world.

There was a report recently that said Bangladesh has achieved, among all of the other South Asian countries, better gender equality, as they call it. However, the reality is more and more women are getting raped because the male psychology inside of Bangladesh is predominantly becoming a rapist psychology. Historically, because Bangladeshi women were not always having to wear the burqa or Islamic veil, they did not have to go to school – not all of them – but Bangladesh did a better job of having women going to school and getting educated. This has all changed.

Violence against women is becoming more prevalent. There are activists inside of Bangladesh who are working for women’s rights, such as Sara Hossain, who also works for human rights and women’s rights. She is a well-known, renowned lawyer. In our generation, Marzia Prova, in India, is working on having girls use sanitary napkins, and also to have them used in the garment industry where most of the workers are women. With women being there, they tend to use unhygienic methods for this. That is another good thing, I would say.

Jacobsen: Is you work causing trouble?

Rahman: We are causing trouble. We thought we were causing trouble, but society thinks of us as troublemakers because the majority of the people are actually, in some form or degree, Islamic-minded within our societies. They don’t think much. They don’t want to think much. They haven’t been taught to think. Most of the people are subject to the Islamic system. We thought the businesses and the modern world might help us free them from the shackles. But we realised the Islamic system has become today’s monster because of the help from the bigger system.

That is a revelation for us. No matter how much we try to break free or change, we will always be seen as fringe. Even if we want to become the mainstream, the whole system with enough firepower came down so hard on us that we became completely scrambled and a lot of our friends have to hide, seek asylum in other countries, and deactivate their social network accounts and completely rethink and reshape their life.

So, inside of these communities, and inside non-Bangladeshi communities where Islam is not the main problem, it is even more difficult because of the white Christian or the secular white societies, as I mentioned earlier. They have been trained to see Muslims or ex-Muslims and other cultures as just brown people rather than different shades and cultures. It is an Islamic way of looking at people, Brushing them with the same Muslim stroke makes things even more difficult. Even if we come out, we are seen as ex-Muslim. I don’t like the term. Some see it as a temporary strategy. That means, even if we left Islam, that hangover still haunts us.

Even if we try, we will still not be able to be a human without any colour of background. The system is still very interested in cutting people up by colour and religion. Even if you just want to become a human, they are still getting a lot of help from the world.

Jacobsen: In a way, you are playing by the religious fundamentalist rules by having the label “ex-Muslim.”

Rahman: Correct, correct, I fight with some of the ex-Muslim leaders sometimes because I come from Bangladesh. When we came out of Islam, we became gnostics. Gnostic means atheist. Unfortunately, those in North America and Europe that come out as ‘atheists’ come out as ex-Muslims, as if the divide is still continuing. I don’t know for whose benefit.

Jacobsen: In a way, some of that might reflect fear relative to the country’s quality of life, and so on, from reprisals in the country.

Rahman: Right.

Jacobsen: Atheism does not have a positive valence in any country. It might be tactful in one’s family, community, and country to label oneself gnostic rather than explicit atheist (though gnostic means atheist). How did the fundamentalist religious leaders view countries in Western Europe, in North America, compared to their own? What is their perspective there? You did mention white seculars and white Christians in Western Europe and North America, say, viewing much of the world as simply brown people rather than different colours, different ethnicity, different religions, and so on.

Rahman: The Islamic leaders class them as kafirs, which means non-Muslims. They don’t differentiate between America or Europe. To them, they are all kafirs. When the concept of discussion about these countries comes up, they focus on the social life of a white person, and on their interpretation of how life should be; so they are more focused on drinking, premarital sex, or fornication, and they have a very dim view of alcohol altogether. They have trained their disciples and subjects’ minds towards Western and white people saying that these people are kafirs. These kafirs drink, have sex with people they aren’t married with, and these things combined are used to portray a picture of the devil or near-devil.

Islamist groups in Bangladesh have issued a ‘Bloggers hit list’, which also includes Arifur Rahman

That’s the social discussion, but when they obviously blend in with political aspects. The Middle East comes into the narrative. They have killed Muslims in Palestine. They have bombed a lot of countries. In that discussion, they blame the whole of the Western world in one sentence or container. It doesn’t matter if the USA, France, or the UK has bombed. They say, “The Western kafirs have bombed a Muslim country.” They simplify things for their subjects. Most of the time, the mullahs are more interested in managing the minds of their subjects.

They aren’t interested in a mindful discussion or the content of the debate. Their interest, most of the time, is in how they can present the discussion in front of their subjects so that the subjects respect them because their system is based on authority. The mullahs are in a position of authority. Whatever they say, their subjects consume and adhere to.

Jacobsen: I notice another thing as well, which has had, at least in America and the UK, been thrown around: “Islamophobia.” Of course, there’s anti-Muslim, anti-Christian, anti-atheist bigotry. Even when individuals critique particular ideas within Islamic doctrine, they will be termed racist. There is a confusion to me between criticising a set of ideas and a group of people. If one critiques a set of ideas, then this becomes a critique of people. Do you notice this?

Rahman: Oh yes, it is part of the system. It is not by chance. It is by design. It is a defence mechanism of the idea itself. A defence mechanism being that it would infect their subjects with the ideology, and then, thereby, multiplying in numbers. When the ideology is under scrutiny, it would hide behind the subjects and would declare that the subjects are being targeted. It is a very smart way of defending itself. Essentially, it is using the subjects as its shield against criticism. So, there’s a parallel narrative between racists and them.

There is a number of uneducated people in the population who are subject to the same type of simplification. There is xenophobia against migrants in the white population, cheating benefits, taking our jobs, and so on. I did the Rubin Report once. In that interview, I said it was my suspicion that the Christian white supremacists may be working behind the screen together with the Islamists to feed the hate between the two silos. My suspicion was that nobody is trying to set the record straight.

Everyone is creating more and more confusion, then gaining political benefit and other benefits from it. Islamists are interested in hiding behind Muslims and then anybody criticising the ideology, they call them Islamophobic. But, then again there are people like Donald Trump in America or UKIP in the UK, and Pegida in Europe. All of these are white supremacists. They are not worried about Islam. They are more annoyed and critical about other races because their narratives are not defined properly; they blend them together. Muslims become either brown people or brown people become Muslims.

Jacobsen: For a last question, we talked at length of Sharia Law/Islamic Law. In the UK, there are segmented areas with Sharia courts. What are your own thoughts on this? Do you see this as a problem? What are some solutions, if so?

Rahman: It goes back to what I said earlier about it being by design. The government and the state wants to keep the Muslims inside of the ghetto. Maryam Namazie and a few others like her did a petition to repeal or investigate the Sharia courts inside of the UK. Unfortunately, Theresa May, who is a very Christian person, decided that she is going to investigate and employ the very same people who are behind the Sharia courts and who are proponents of the Sharia courts to investigate the Sharia courts. As you can see, the government and state have not changed their mindset and are going ahead with their own strategy of empowering the very same people who are not just part of the problem, but they are the problem itself.

Jacobsen: Thank you for your time, Arif.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere.

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