This is point of inquiry for Monday, June 29, 2015. This episode was recorded before a live audience at Center for Inquiries Reason for Change conference on June 13th, 2015.
I’m here today with a Seife man in Bangladesh. He is a celebrated activist for the separation of church and state, a well-known blogger in Bangladesh. And he’s currently living in exile in Germany because his controversial writings have run afoul of religious fundamentalists in his home country. Welcome to the program. Thank you so much. Can you tell us a little bit about how you came to be sitting here today?
I know CFI since 2013 when I was in prison, the from the time I was in contact with Michael Ghidorah and a few months ago, he asked me to come here and I said, yes, of course.
What kind of topics do you write about and what venues do you write in?
I especially write about Islamic fundamentalism, Sharia law and rights of women, LGBT rights and this kind of human.
Everything about human rights. I write every almost everything.
And you didn’t set out to become a professional blogger. You had a career in a different field before you started.
Yeah, I was a computer engineer and I was in I.T. firm. I was an assistant manager of an I.T. firm.
But later I decided to the fire. Actually, they fired me from my job. So I. I decided to do something else now.
And can you tell us a bit about the bank? I did not realize this until you were tiny in the preinterview, that Bangladesh has a very long and rich tradition of secular dissent. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Yeah, of course. Bangladesh as of us about it, from Pakistan with secular views and secular constitution. But for the last 40 years, idea the Islamisation in Bangladesh, it is growing very now. It is very strong. And that is that that is because of the mother side auction system. I always write about what this education system I and I write against a mother’s education system.
Most of the madrassas in Bangladesh, they are financed by Saudi Arab and they promote Wahhabism and radical Islam through the madrassas. And there is nothing in madrassa education system or about science, philosophy and questioning authority. So, yeah, it is.
Now, it is a very dangerous place for free thinkers.
So Bangladesh was founded in 1971 as a secular republic. Correct. Yeah. And then there was a military coup in 1975. And that was would you say that was when the genesis of the Islamist ization of society really got going?
During our liberation, where we there was a genocide in Bangladesh and the Islamic political party jumped Islam, they they were supporting the Pakistan army to further genocide.
And after the liberation, while our secular part of our population, that they were trying to bend that political party down with Islam, but after 75, they become very strong and financially now they are financially they again control forty five of our economy to the economy. And they have a little bit they don’t have much votes. People don’t support them, but they can control almost everything.
So the party was known as Jamaat al Islam. Yeah. And it teamed up with the Pakistani military during the War of Independence. Yeah. And that was the conflict where three million people died. Three million Bengalis. Yeah. And what kind of accountability has there been since then for those killings? Have have people been brought to justice?
No. That time we balance sheet people, they tried to bring them to justice, but that time we failed. Bangladeshi people failed because they had that strong political powers. But last couple of years, we were fighting against them and we were riding and we are doing protest in the streets in two 13. We started a movement called Shahbag Movement against that Islamic political party to ban that Islamic political party and ban all other Islamic political parties and to separate state and church and to being the war criminals to justice. That was our very huge achievement from bloggers. The bloggers organize that movement. And more than one hundred thousand people joined in that movement. And but after that, they started killing bloggers.
So what does the word shahbag mean?
Shahbag is a place in Kassidy, so we named it Shahbag.
That’s the capital city of Boston. And was that the place where you got 100000 people on the street together?
Yeah, that and they were in the street for more than one month, day and night, all the time they were there.
So it was kind of anarchy. It was an occupation of the neighborhood. Yeah. So tell me about the blogger scene. Who are some of the major figures other than yourself in the in the Shahbag blogger community?
Yes, we had a lot of bloggers and we don’t believe in any kind of leadership. We all together and we all are all very equal. So we don’t I don’t want to name anyone as our leader or any any superstar of the blogging. We all were the same.
If people want to read more of your writings in English, yours and your colleagues, there would be a good place to go to learn more.
Most of them I must have made, I think said in English, in Bengali. But some of them were translated and I’m planning to translate something. But in 2013, Bio-Energy Government banned my blog account and the deleted of everything from the server, from the database. So now I’m trying to publish my blogs in as a book.
But when I tried to publish that book, the publisher refused to publish that book.
You ended up going to prison. Tell us about that. What happened?
I was arrested in 2011 for organizing a protest against the government for the government decided to increase the semester fee, tuition fee of the poor students.
So I organized a movement against the government. Then police arrested me and I was in police custody for 18 hours and they tortured me. And they read my blogs and they saw that I am an atheist. And they they asked me many questions about LATISM, why you are an artist.
And they ask me that do it park or do you drink alcohol? Those things. I told them that, no, I don’t want to answer those questions. Discussions are very personal. I don’t want to answer then. The students of the university, they gathered outside of the police station and they demanded my release.
Then police had to release me after 18 hours. And in 2013 I was attacked. And after one month, we organized that Shahbag movement. After that, police at police just banned my blog and they arrested me and I was in prison for two and half months.
But the interesting part was I met my attackers in prison and we talked and we discussed about.
You were in the same cell as people that tried to kill you.
Yeah, we were in the same cell. And I asked them why you tried to kill me. And they told me that why they tried to kill.
So they were a bunch of them. And, you know, do you think the authorities were hoping that the people would try and hurt you again? Yeah, I guess so. Yeah. That’s very brave of you to actually approach the question of. So why did all of you guys try and kill me? I think I might just pass that by under the circumstances. How did it feel to be sitting in a cell next to each of these people that it just plunged dives into your throat back?
In the beginning, first two weeks, I was very afraid and I, I couldn’t go to for the shop for shower because they threatened me.
They will kill me. The prisoners that told me that we will accept murderers, rapists, bank robbers, everything, but not an artist. So I was really very afraid and shocked. And I was sitting in my cell for two weeks. But after that, I talked to some police officers in prison and there was a deputy jailer. He came to my cell for several times and we talked about history, about Islam, about these things. And then he became an artist after a few days, and he provided me some good food. And he provided me some kind of security. So after two weeks, I felt good. Okay, so okay, it’s fine. I can live here for. I thought that time I thought that I have to live here for ten years. So I thought I saw given I can live here and I can talk to the prisoners then I can talk to the police about my ideology then.
So you’re in kind of an apostate evangelist in prison, huh? I like Charles Colson, but for now, God, than many of the prisoners.
They were most of them were drug dealers. They talk to me and I found many supporters, my supporters in prison.
So they are less guarded me as they always guarded me for shower and for going out anywhere. So after two two weeks, I felt safe. And they told me that if someone tried to attack me, they will save me.
And so you were charged with the violation of the blasphemy law. At that point. Yeah. Can you tell us a bit about that? Pass me laws in Bangladesh. How they came to be and what the implications of them are for people like yourself.
That is a very bad law. The blasphemy law, they don’t call it blasphemy law. But that is actually blasphemy law in 2006 about BNP and Jemmott. Movement, Jemaah Islamiah was the time in a part of the government. They introduced the blasphemy law that last say at the time that laws.
A law said that if someone criticizes any religion and if that hard religious sentiment of some people, they can arrest without any warrant and the punishment will be 10 years imprisonment and two fifty thousand dollars, fine. But we started demanding to abolish that blasphemy law. And we had a we had to protest in the streets. And then the secular government came to power and they changed that law a little bit and then the law became more bad. Now the law says that police can arrest anyone without any evidence or warrant and there will be no bail for that. And the punishment will be 14 years imprisonment.
Wow. Why did you like it so much worse so quickly?
Because of the Islamic movement, because of the government and now our secular government that they call themselves secular is the secular. But I don’t feel they are very secular. They are so-called secular.
They are very afraid of the Islamic movements and they want to get votes from the Islamic people. So they just made that law more difficult for us.
Do you feel like Saudi Arabia and exerting a lot of international pressure to influence the supposedly secular government of Bangladesh?
Yeah, of course. Yeah, of course. And Saudi Arabia. They are financing most of the madrassas in Bangladesh. And that is really very bad. And they have very good connection with Jemmott Islami and they can create pressure on Bangladeshi government to become more and more Islamic.
And can you tell us a bit about how the education system works in Bangladesh, how the madrassas fit into that larger system of education?
There are chick end of education system in Bangladesh. One is government provided education system and another is English medium education system. And the third one is Islamic education system. It is called madrassa. The important thing is most of the madrassa government here don’t have any access of private madrassas that is called Commy Madrassa and the syllabus in going madrassa, that is really very bad. And they read the Wahhabi books, I.B. books from Saudi Arabia and the leaders of Jemaah Islamiah. They read those books.
So most of the people in Bangladesh are very poor and most of the children in the street, they don’t have any home. They don’t have any food to eat. They don’t have any education, any kind of education. So most of the families families send their children to madrassas because in madrassa, they can get food, they can get education, they can get a shelter. After five, six years, they become very fanatic. They’ve just been much masters for children and they become very fanatic.
And I met my attackers in prison. He was like that. He was. I’ve never felt that he’s a bad person. He was a good person. He thinks that he’s good, doing good things for his God. And I tried to convince him, but he was brainwashed. I cannot do anything for him.
And he was a product of these. These were harvest madrassas.
Like, I don’t I never blame those attackers. I told them that I don’t blame you. I blame your education system, your brainwashing system and your ideology, your religion. I never blame you.
Do you think it’s possible to create a parallel to to beef up the secular education system in Bangladesh so that it can compete with these madrassas that are offering poor kids room and board and some kind of instruction?
Yeah, actually, I started a secular school in Bangladesh in 2011 with some bloggers, donate some money and we organize the small school. We introduce Siegler’s, secular education, science and I introduce sex education for children. That was very important.
No, there is nothing about sex education in Bangladesh education system. So I introduce I tried to introduce those things, but in 2013, I was really I became very poor because I had a case against me. Then I stopped that school. But now I’m trying to do that again.
The people who attacked you, they were initially in prison. But there’s a lot of problem with people who attack secular bloggers not facing any consequences. How did your attackers end up getting into prison and what consequences did they ultimately face?
Actually, who attacked the bloggers? Who murdered the bloggers there? They’re not part of the whole group. They only do killing. They don’t know much about the main planner. I mean, they’re like sleeping cells. So the mud, the main planner they ordered for killing and they are lies. The killers don’t know much about the organization. The unsaddle among Latinos. That is the Islamic terrorist group. When police arrest even police arrest those those killers, they cannot reach the main planner of those groups. And one of the planner of that key of every killing, his name is Rana. Police couldn’t find him. He was a member of Jemaah Islamiyah.
Is that a sort of a militarized arm of the Islamic party that you guys are trying to ban?
Yeah. Government. Just one month ago, government decided to ban Ansarullah Bangla team. That was the killer organization. But we were trying to ban Jamot Islami for a long time. Now we are very close to Benjaman Islam in Bangladesh. Maybe in a few years we can ban Jemaah Islamiah and any kind of Islamic politics. But before that, a lot of bloggers will die, I think.
So tell us about in the last two years, there have been many, many bloggers who’ve been who’ve been murdered for their secular beliefs. Can you tell us a bit about some of them and what happened to them in 2013?
They started with me. They started with me in January 2013. And after one month, they killed Ahmed Jaji. Hi there.
He was very close friend of mine and he wrote many blogs criticizing Mohammed.
And after that, they attacked many other bloggers. I know everyone personally. And this year they killed Origi. Why she could Barbu and honored to be joined.
Those cheap were very good friend of my very good friend. And OBD Drive was my best friend. So when I saw with his dead body and onto videos dead body, I was shocked.
When did you first realize that you were doing your part of a life and death struggle, that you might actually, you know, this might actually be lethal for you or people that you care about? Was that was there a moment when you suddenly realized.
I started debating with a man in my city about religion, about philosophy, about history for a long time. Now, almost 17 years I’m doing this.
But I started blogging in 2005 with a Wichita guy, which I ask me to write something and I wrote something.
And then from that time I started writing in blogs. I felt that doing debates it is more easy to write in blogs because of I can reach more people than debate before blogging.
I realized that it is a dangerous thing to do. So I. I accept that, that I will be in trouble.
What does your family think about your activism?
My family, five, six years ago, they were against my writings and they told me to stop this writing. This country cannot be changed.
But last five years they changed. No, my. I have six sisters. Five of them are at this now and very feminist. So that is good for me.
So you grew up in a religious household. Yeah.
And how did how did you come to second I thought. What shaped your your thinking on these matters?
Because I found a library when I was a kid.
I found a library and I read all of the books of the library. And I question a lot in my school, in my family. And when I was eight, nine years old, I, I question to my religious teacher so much that they told me, oh, you are an atheist. So after all, it’s good to hear from authoritative source that I didn’t know that. What is that is and what is a non believing. But when I was in I was 13 years old, I read a book of RLJ Illimitable. He’s a philosopher, among others. And then I realized, yes, I am an atheist.
Tell me more about this guy, the philosopher, the sort of secularist philosopher, Varro Bangladesh. I was reading a little bit about him. He sounds like a really fascinating figure.
Yeah, we have many philosophers. We have a very secular culture. And we had many very secular culture before, like Clellan folkish. He wrote many songs about secularism and humanism and out of Delimiter Bar and Charif and Humana Dad and Dusty Monastery and wrote many books about feminism.
So we had a secular culture. But the international politics, internationalism, Islamization, it is growing very fast now.
Can you tell us more about how that slipped away? We had this really rich, secular culture with a lot of free thought and then then that became destabilized. How did that happen?
It happened very slowly. I told you about the mother so far as the they captured those madrassas. And they I called those madrassas the production house of terrorism and fundamentalism, and they captured those madrassas. And now every year, more than six million people are student in madrassas.
And that is a big number. And if they tried to protest in the street, the government will fall.
So government there are our government, every government, they’re very afraid of those people and those 10 million people, more than more or less, 10 million people.
They can see people live in Bangladesh. In total, it is 160 million people.
And the government thinks that the madrassa contingent could bring down the government at any time. Yeah.
So whenever whenever we protest against any kind of Sharia law, any kind of Islamic law, we don’t have Sharia law.
But we have some kind of Islamic laws. We protest against the Islamic laws. Then a big amount of people come to streets against us and they demand that law, that Islamic law, as the example of we started a movement to marriage between Hindu and Muslim.
And that is illegal in Bangladesh. And we started demanding that it should be open. It should be legalized then. Many people came to the streets to protest against us. Then government decided to not do that. And the property love son and daughter. That is also very bad law. I we organized a few protest in Dhaka Street, but after that they came to a street and they take over our movement. And we were also very afraid that when we protest in the cities, they post our pictures in newspapers and we were threatened that them.
So the inheritance laws that male children inherit and female children don’t. How does that work?
That is the female will get half of the portion. That is the Islamic law and.
And then that’s still the law of Pakistan.
What can keep concerned people in the West due to support efforts of freethinkers in separation of church and state in Bangladesh?
I. I will say that the U.S. policy and European Union policy, they should never support any Islamic political party in Bangladesh. Last year, the U.S. ambassador in Bangladesh, he said that madrassa education system is a very good education system and we were very shocked to hear that. How could they say say that? And after before that, they said one time they said that Jemaah Islamiah is a very Democratic political party. That was not true. We know that Jemaah Islamiah tried to kill me five times and we know that. And in their website that is clearly written that if government don’t give me death penalty, then they will take care of me. So that is a clear test.
And so the United States Pyu, U.S. government officials are saying that this is a good and democratic organization.
Yeah. That is written in their Web site. And still. U.S. officials say that that is a Democratic political party.
Why are they so invested in saying that an organization that wants to kill people extrajudicially is a good and democratic organization?
I don’t know that I know that. But I don’t have proves to say that. I know that the Jemaah Islamiyah is the Jemaah Islamiyah work as a double agent on board with the terrorist groups. And. And they give information to U.S. Secret Service and any other U.S. officials. So they are very close related with them.
So it’s useful for you think it might be useful for U.S. intelligence purposes to have warm relations with this terrorist supporting party because they can talk about. But al-Qaida is up to.
Yeah, they have done with this. Let me say that they can control all the terrorist activities in South Asia, but that is not actually true. They finance all the terrorist activities in South Asia.
And so the US thinks that this is kind of a more moderate broker that you could deal with.
They are upset and they claim themself as moderate Islamic parties, though. But I don’t think so.
So do you feel hopeful that this is you said that maybe in a few years the party might eventually be banned? What would have to happen in order for that to come to pass?
Yeah, we have to fight. We have to keep fighting. And if we can write freely, then we can change our society in 10 years. I think because most of the big portion of our population, the young and the educated, now they can understand many things. Last five years when we started blogging, we saw that only 10 people, they can write about secularism now, more than 30000 people, they’re writing. And if we have the chance to write or continue writing in 10 years, they can we can change our society. I think so.
So thirty thousand people writing. How big would you estimate that the total audience is for secular content? Yeah, it is more than 200000 people. And you got one hundred thousand people on the street. And just how did that feel?
Yeah, that time that was my memory, the most memorable incident in my life, that we organized a protest. And one hundred thousand people came to support us. That was a big event for my life.
I bet. So when we talk about the QPAC movement, it’s it’s a sort of spectrum of people, right? They’re not all atheist. Some of them are free thinkers and other kinds of stripes of belief. Right?
Yeah. That them we didn’t care at his dad, who is a Muslim. We don’t we didn’t care because that that was the issue with separation of state and religion. So many Muslim, they wanted to subvert that, that. So we invited them as well.
So it’s like in the United States where there are people of faith who value their own ability to practice their religion but still support separation of the two. Yeah, of course I do.
Does your movement attract religious minorities like Hindus and Christians as well?
Yeah. That they were the supported us because we. Organize, protest for them as well before that. So they were. And they were supporting us.
And can you talk a bit about the intersection between your movement and feminism?
I am. I wrote about feminism in my blogs and in our movement. Most of the leaders were women. We introduce our young women leaders as our leaders, like I should mention one name, Lucky Actor and Chummy Hug. They were very energetic and powerful women leader of our movement. And we told them that you have to be in front of the movement and we will stay behind. And, you know, the prime minister of Bangladesh is a woman and opposition leader. She’s a women and the speaker of our parliament.
She’s a women. So Bangladesh is a very strong country for women empowerment. So in our movement, we also tried to introduce that, that women should be in front of every protest of our movement.
So how do you reconcile the fact that women hold so much political power in Bangladesh and yet you still have laws like the Islamic inheritance law that gives females only half of their legacy that their parties get?
That is, I should tell you about another Islamic organization that is called Heifer’s that Islam and the leader of deficit, Islam, said that they demanded our death penalty. That was their number one agenda, their movement’s agenda. And their second second agenda was to stop women in education. And we we were fighting with that Islamic organization for a long time. We always criticize that that organization. And yet every time a fight is going on in Bangladesh between who support women’s rights and who don’t support women’s rights, but still we are winning because you can see that our women, prime minister and opposition leader and speaker.
But still a big portion of our population that think that women should not be in in any kind of leadership. So we need to change the education system first.
I see. That’s all the time we have. Thank you so much for coming on the program. Thank you so much.