Avijit Roy’s friends had told him not to return to Bangladesh.
In an online chat last month with moderators of Mukto-Mona, the atheist website established by the 42-year-old almost 15 years ago, he was told that heading back to Dhaka was too dangerous.
“He didn’t listen. He said ‘I’ll go quietly,’” Mukto Mona’s co-editor Farid Ahmed told the Guardian. Roy, a US citizen, returned to Dhaka, primarily to visit his elderly mother. “The only mistake he made … [was] he went to the book fair and signed autographs,” Ahmed said from his home in Canada.
Threats against the author and blogger, along with other members of the Mukto-Mona site, had been commonplace since its establishment in 2001. But at around 8.45pm on 26 February, Roy was hacked to death as he returned home from the Ekushey Book Fair in the country’s capital.
His impromptu appearance at the festival coupled with his celebrity status had alerted the assailants, believed to belong to the extremist group Ansarullah Bangla Team, to his presence in the country. His wife, Rafida Ahmed Bonna, was at his side as he was pulled from a rickshaw and killed. She was also wounded.
Roy’s death led secular activists to take to the streets in Dhaka to demand justice and to refocus international attention on freedom of speech in Bangladesh. As violence and political tensions in the country re-emerged after a year of relative calm, the murder has exacerbated existing rifts between the country’s secular incumbents the Awami League and its rightwing opposition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Jamaat-e-Islami, its Islamist ally.
“I think we lost not just a person, but an institute. He was a movement,” said Jahed Ahmed – a New York based co-founder of Mukto-Mona. “He created an online renaissance.”
‘So many people lost a big, big personality’
It was a family trip to the small town of Shantiniketon in West Bengal that first inspired Roy to write. The east Indian town was where the humanist author and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore, the so-called “father of the Bengal Renaissance” had penned many of his most important works at the turn of the 20th century. The visit had a profound impact on the young man in his third year of an engineering undergraduate degree.
“It helped him come out of the mechanical attitude engineering students develop,” Ajoy Roy, Avijit’s grief-stricken 80-year-old father told the Guardian in Dhaka. “As he came closer to nature and Tagore’s peaceful and spiritual establishment, they instilled a literary mindset within him.”
“I encouraged him to write … about world identity, keeping Rabindranath’s views on background,” said Roy – himself a noted physicist and human rights campaigner.
But it was the internet that would allow Avijit’s talent to flourish. In 2000, while studying for a PhD in software engineering in Singapore, Roy would spend hours in Bengali expat forums, discussing (among others) the prose of the secular humanist poet and philosopher Taslima Nasrin, exiled from Bangladesh in 1994 and the works of prominent American atheist philosopher Paul Kurtz.
Extremism took prominence in Bangladesh in the middle of 2004 when militants belonging to the banned extremist group Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami launched a grenade attack on the British high commissioner in Bangladesh, killing three people. The next year another extremist group, Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, waged a countrywide bombing on 17 August 2005, leading to growing intolerance against secular forces.
It was in this hostile climate that atheists and secular groups found themselves limiting their movement and spread of thoughts to the internet and closed-door discussions.
“The internet opened a wide ocean of information. It was like all our questions those days that nobody could answer, I found the answer to,” recalled Jahed Ahmed.
Ahmed and Roy along with six other expatriate Bangladeshis, would go on to form Mukto-Mona. It started originally as a small, closed Yahoo group but Roy transformed it into an open website by late 2001.
“Our aim is to build a society which will not be bound by the dictates of arbitrary authority, comfortable superstition, stifling tradition, or suffocating orthodoxy but would rather be based on reason, compassion, humanity, equality and science,” Roy described the founding mission during a 2007 interview. By its creator’s description, it was the first South Asian humanist and rationalist forum on the internet.
Ajoy Roy stated that his son steadily grew to a more pronounced atheism, which “enraged extremist groups”, exacerbated further by the fact that Roy was born a Hindu.
In 2004 he wrote a now highly cited series of articles under the title “Does the Qu’ran have any scientific miracles?” in which he argued: “If one insists that the verses of scriptures are literally word of Allah (God) who is omnipotent and omniscient then one is forced to conclude that Allah as perfect being is even a worse science writer than humans …”
His acerbic style and impassioned advocacy of scientific rationalism drew many young admirers.
“One of his ingrained qualities was his clarity of language,” said Ajoy Roy, adding that he believed Avijit’s politics were “not ideological but more liberal democrat”.
“He is the pioneer [of online writing] in our country,” said Farid Ahmed. “It’s not just that I lost a friend, so many people they lost a big, big personality.”
In 2005, just a few years after its creation, Avijit wrote that the website had been banned in the United Arab Emirates and “probably in other Islamic countries as well”. But the hate mail had been coming since almost the start of the project.
‘If we have to give blood, we have to give blood’
Roy moved to the United States in about 2006. He had met Rafida Ahmed Bonna, a resident of Atlanta, Georgia, online the previous year. Friends say she was drawn to his writing. They fell in love and Roy left Singapore to live with her and her daughter from a previous marriage. He worked a day job as a software developer. By this point Mukto-Mona had become a fully fledged website, publishing on a broad range of subjects from a wide variety of contributors, including a host of new younger writers.
The death threats started around 2010 but, friends recall, were really only taken seriously after the murder of Ahmed Rajib Haider, a Dhaka-based atheist blogger murdered in a strikingly similar attack to Avijit’s in February 2013.
Haider, who had contributed to Mukto-Mona under a pseudonym, was dragged from his home and hacked to death by a gang of machete-wielding assailants in February 2013. His brutal murder happened as tens of thousands of people took to the streets demanding the death penalty for prominent Islamists who had recently been convicted of war crimes committed in the country’s Liberation war of the early 1970s.
“Avijit took the threats seriously [then],” Farid Ahmed recalled, “[But he said] we know that nothing comes easily. If we have to give blood, we have to give blood.”
It was around the time of Haider’s death that Roy first contacted Michael De Dora, director of public policy at the Washington-based Center for Inquiry, a global secularist NGO. The pair would frequently talk about the increasing death threats he had been receiving, particularly from Farabi Shafiur Rahman, an extremist blogger and member of the banned pan-Islamist outfit Hizb ut-Tahrir, who this week was arrested in connection with Roy’s death after posting death threats to Facebook before the attack.
A revealing March 2014 email exchange between De Dora and Roy, shared with the Guardian, shows that Roy appeared more concerned that the threats had resulted in his books being taken off the shelves than any fear for his life. Roy wrote:
I am astounded to see that no legal action has been taken against this maniac. Instead, Rokomari [ an online bookstore that received death threats for selling Roy’s work ] decided to withdraw my books from its store. This incident proves that even Facebook threats from figures as minor as Farabi work effectively in Bangladesh.
At a press conference in Dhaka on Monday, local police said Rahman was known to have “exchanged [Roy’s] location, his identity and his family’s photographs with various people” and had posted to Facebook that upon Roy’s return to Bangladesh he would be murdered.
Roy reported Farabi’s 2014 threats to the FBI, who this week sent a team of investigators to assist authorities in Bangladesh.
That year Roy published Biswasher Virus (Virus of Faith), which he claimed in blog post had “hit the cranial nerve of fundamentalists”.
“The death threats started flowing to my inbox on a regular basis,” he wrote.
He didn’t bother reporting them to the Bangladeshi authorities.
“I think he sort of felt hopelessness, in terms of the Bangladeshi government really going after people making death threats against authors and writers. I don’t think he felt they really cared,” De Dora said.
Just after Haider’s death in 2013, Islamist political leaders issued a list of 84 atheist bloggers they considered were defaming the religion, resulting in three arrests and the dismantling of around a dozen websites.
Certainly, the death threats prevented Roy from attending the 2014 Ekushey Book Fair.
“The festival was something that was near and dear to his heart,” De Dora said, “For Avajit, writing, spreading ideas, engaging in dialogue, engaging with other people was at the centre of things he enjoyed in life. To not be able to do that would have a been a painful thought for him.”
But attending in 2015 became irresistible. Those closest to him say it was a mistake.
“We had forewarned him,” said his father. “I have been a target for a long time of fanatics myself, but I travel very carefully. He lived abroad and didn’t understand the conjuncture [conditions here] in Bangladesh.”
Many of Roy’s close friends who spoke to the Guardian had only met him in person a handful of times, forging their close relationships online over daily interactions.
Jahed Ahmed, who met Roy face to face for the first time in 2006 described him as a “softly spoken, shy person” with a “beautiful voice” and deep intellect.
But despite his softly spoken nature, De Dora describes Roy as one the most “devoted and hardened” advocates of free expression “not just in Bangladesh, but the world over” who would constantly lobby international organisations to bring issues of secularist struggle in Bangladesh to the fore.
Friends say that Bonna has returned to the US after recovering from the injuries sustained during the attack on her husband. She is said to be grief-stricken but unavailable for comment.
Following Roy’s death, her daughter, Trisha Ahmed, a freshman student at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, issued a brief statement on Facebook.
To say that I’m furious or heartbroken would be an understatement. But as fucked up as the world is, there’s never a reason to stop fighting to make it better. I’ll carry the lessons he taught me and the love he gave me forever. I love you so much, Dad. Thank you for every single thing,” she wrote – ending “#WordsCannotBeKilled.
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