Avijit Roy: Writer and acclaimed champion of secularism who was murdered in an apparent attack by Islamic extremists

Roy and his wife were visiting Dhaka's book fair when a group of young men ambushed them and hacked Roy to death in the street with meat cleavers

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The Independent Online

Avijit Roy, the author murdered on a Dhaka street, was an acclaimed champion of secularism who refused to be silenced despite repeated threats against his life by Islamist fanatics.

Born in Dhaka in 1972, Roy was brought up in the Bangladeshi capital, where his father taught physics at Dhaka University. He took a degree in microbiology from the same university and worked as an engineer in his homeland and later in the US. But it was as a defender of his country's secularist principles, enshrined in the Bangladeshi constitution but often betrayed by its politicians, that he attained fame.

Roy emigrated to the US in 2007, obtained US citizenship and settled in Bethany Creek, 30 miles north of Atlanta, Georgia, with his wife Rafida Ahmed Bonya, who was also a blogger, and Rafida's daughter Trisha Ahmed. He worked as a software engineer in the Atlanta area and wrote a series of non-fiction books in Bengali, as well as establishing Mukta-Mona, "free mind" in Bengali, a blogging platform which he described as "an Internet congregation of freethinkers, rationalists, skeptics [sic], atheists and humanists of mainly Bengali and South Asian descent."

Although Bangladesh is an overwhelmingly Muslim country where Hindus, Buddhists and Christians constitute fewer than 10 per cent of the population, it is heir to the pluralist intellectual tradition which was crystallised in the so-called Bengal Renaissance and in the figure of Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali author awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. Secularism was a central issue in Bangladesh's bitter struggle for independence from what was then West Pakistan, a war in which 3m died. Once independence was achieved it was enshrined as one of the four Principles in the new nation's constitution.

But it is a principle that has come increasingly under attack with the rise of Islamist extremism. An early victim of the changing climate was the poet and novelist Taslima Nasreen, whose novel Lajja ("Shame"), published in 1993, focused on the persecution of Bangladesh's Hindu minority. Nasreen's attacks on the intolerance and bigotry of her fundamentalist co-nationals brought death threats down on her head and eventually forced her, first into hiding and subsequently into exile in India.

From his base in Georgia, Roy wrote a succession of books in Bengali dealing with subjects that are anathema to Islamic fundamentalists, including atheism, the theory of evolution, scepticism and rationalism, which led the British Humanist Association to describe him as "the Richard Dawkins of Bangladesh". His two most recent books were Obisshahser Dorhson ("The Philosophy of Disbelief") and Biswasher Virus ("The Virus of Faith").

In The Virus of Faith, Roy adopted the metaphor first popularised by Professor Dawkins that religious faith "can behave", as Roy wrote in a recent description of his book, "like a 'biological virus' in a living organism," arguing, in line with Darrel W Ray and Daniel Dennett, that "religions display behavioural control over people in much the same way that parasites invade organisms. For example, the rabies virus infects very specific neurons in the brain of a mammalian host, later inducing the host to bite or otherwise attack others."

Unlike some of his liberal sympathisers and defenders in Bangladesh, Roy pulled no punches in his criticism of Islam, listing the commandments to kill "infidels" that are found in the Koran. "Isis," he wrote in the essay quoted above, which was published posthumously on the website of the Centre for Inquiry, an American organisation committed to promoting secularism, "is merely following the tradition that its holy prophet established more than 1,000 years ago." He went on, "Of course I know that most Muslims are not terrorists; they are peaceful. The reason is that they do not follow the Koran literally… Those who wish to be factually correct rather than politically correct [in describing the true nature of Islam] may be outcast or even physically threatened… This is exactly what happened to me."

Roy was only the latest Bangladeshi secularist writer to be targeted by fanatics, often with the apparent complicity of the authorities. His peril became clear in December when Shafiur Rahman Farabi, an outspoken Islamist, wrote on Facebook, "Avijit Roy lives in America and so it is not possible to kill him right now. He will be murdered when he comes back."

In February Roy and his wife returned for a brief visit to Dhaka, attending the city's annual book fair. They were leaving an event at the fair by rickshaw when a group of young men ambushed them and hacked Roy to death in the street with meat cleavers. Rafida Ahmed was also seriously injured in the attack.

Roy's supporters quickly gathered near the site to denounce his murder and the authorities' failure to protect him. Taslima Nasreen, the poet living in exile in India, wrote, "Avijit Roy was an extraordinary talented person. He dedicated his life to enlightening people who live in the darkness of ignorance. I knew him since mid-'90s. I admired him so much. It is so painful to accept that he is no more. Bangladesh has become a secret Isis land. Islamic terrorists can do whatever they like. They can kill people with no qualms whatsoever. Avijit Roy has been killed the way other free thinkers were killed in Bangladesh. No free thinker is safe in Bangladesh."

PETER POPHAM

Avijit Roy, writer: born Dhaka 12 September 1972; married Rafida Ahmed Bonya (one stepdaughter); died Dhaka 26 February 2015.

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