Rationalist, humanist, and anti-religion activist Avijit Roy was brutally chopped to death in Dhaka on the evening of February 26. Although a religious extremist group has claimed responsibility for the attack, speculations are rife as usual in our distrust and paranoia-besotted community about the perpetrators, their motives, and their methods.
I want to say exactly what I said only a couple of months ago after the Charlie Hebdo massacre: It matters little who carried out the attack, far more important is the fact that tens of millions around the world are cheering and supporting the attack. When tens of millions support a particular kind of killing, when tens of thousands profess themselves to be ready to carry out such killings, when hundreds actively look for opportunities for such killing, is it surprising that a few score actually do the killing?
What invited such wrath of millions? Avijit Roy was the pre-eminent anti-religion author and activist in Bangladesh in recent decades. He wrote several books on science and religion that forcefully pointed out the inadequacy of religions to stand up to enlightenment, science, and humanism.
His books and articles were always meticulously and exhaustively researched, his arguments were systematic. His books inspired tens of thousands of curious minds to know more about the beauty and wonders of science and to be bold enough to question religious dogmas that fail to stand up to reason.
Therein lies the source of insecure rage of the religious fundamentalists; they cannot counter him with words and reason, so they had to silence the most pernicious threat to the coherence of their world of faith. And I say it again, it matters little who actually silenced him; the millions who wanted him dead are more of concern.
Avijit Roy wrote against religion and in this overwhelmingly Muslim country with hypersensitive religious issues, he became known as an anti-Islam author. But that is a travestied characterisation of his works. He was an equal opportunity critic of religions.
He wrote many articles that skewered dogmatism of fundamentalist Hinduism. He attracted furious responses from Hindu zealots from both sides of the Bengal divide for his critical writing on religious icons like Swami Vivekananda and Ramkrishna Paramhansha.
Only a few months ago, he wrote a hilarious article titled “Sob-e ache Bed-e” (everything is in the vedas) when Narendra Modi created worldwide bemusement through his claims of ancient surgery and stem cell technology of India.
Avijit Roy fought indefatigably against mindless and slavish devotion to deities, be them mortal or immortal. He was a dedicated fan of Rabindranath Tagore and could cite hundreds of songs and poems at the drop of a hat.
In fact, just in this years’ book fair, he published a book on Rabindranath’s stay in Argentina and interactions with the famous Latin intellectual Victoria Ocampo. And yet Avijit, the devoted Rabindra fan, was a fire-breathing crusader against the oleaginous deification of Rabindranath that is so prevalent among a section of Bengalis.
He wrote meticulously researched critical articles about allegations of musical and scientific writing plagiarism against Rabindranath; articles that again attracted Rabindra devotees like furious hornets.
The golden test of tolerant free thinking is when one has to defend the right to expressing opinions that are most odious to him, and that is why free thinking is so hard. Avijit tried his best to incorporate the free thinking ideal that is the mission banner of all his works.
He staunchly defended the right of political opponents to express opinions that could hurt the sentiments of sentimental partisans, and he provided space in the blog for free political debate. He regarded reason as the means and the end for all debates.
As I said, free, absolutely impartial thinking is hard and almost impossible to make a permanent habit for even the most enlightened man. Avijit may also have faltered a few times in upholding the standard that he set himself and let partisan emotions cloud reason. He may also have been needlessly strident sometimes in provoking deep sentiments of the religious.
And last but not the least, he had surely been foolhardy in moving about unprotected in Dhaka city knowing how his enemies may take advantage of the ongoing disintegration of the polity.
And yet, Bangladesh did not have a better, braver, and more learned champion of free thinking than Avijit Roy. He showed us that enlightenment and reason are by themselves necessary and sufficient tools to combat fundamentalism. We do not need to erect small gods to combat the crazed followers of big gods.
We do not need to resort to emotions to counter communal passions. Free thinking and reason have a triumphal track record of defeating religious and ideological fundamentalisms one after another all over the world, and we cannot do any better than adopting free thinking and reason as our own weapons to defeat fundamentalism and obscurantism of our lands. Let that be the legacy of Avijit Roy.