There’s an old joke that people in Alabama can be rest assured that when scholars tote up social statistics there’s always Mississippi to make sure that their state isn’t the last one listed. Sometimes I feel that way when thinking about comparing Bangladesh to Pakistan. Right now it is big news that an atheist blogger has been killed in Bangladesh, presumably by Islamic militants or sympathizers thereof. Naturally people are bringing this to my attention because 1) I was born in Bangladesh 2) I’m an atheist 3) I’m a blogger. But there are some important differences. From what I am to gather this blogger was focused on issues relating to atheism and secularism, and, his core audience was Bangladeshi. I write to a mostly American audience, and religion as a political issue is not a primary focus of mine (as opposed to a scholarly interest). Honestly I am more frightened of dying of a disease than being hacked to death by Islamist radicals if I were to visit Bangladesh, because I’m not that prominent.* Though this is certainly another argument for why I might want to avoid that country. In How The Scots Invented the Modern World the author points out that the last person killed on account of their atheism in the British Isles lived around 1700. Though the killing of Avijit Roy is not quite analogous, because it was a vigilante action, it illustrates the social sentiment broadly in society that blasphemy may be a capital crime in some parts of the world, hundreds of years after this sort of fanaticism abated in the West.
Of more interest to me is that there is an atheist movement in public in Bangladesh at all. This is after all a very underdeveloped nation (Pakistan is still more economically developed) which is highly religious. It is also a nation where religious minorities occupy a somewhat precarious position. Nevertheless, against the standard and trajectory of Pakistan Bangladesh is relatively liberal and advanced when it comes to religious liberty from a Western perspective. The chief justice of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh is a Hindu. Unlike Pakistan the Ahmadis receive some official protection. One of the two major political parties, and the one currently in power, has maintained a stronger commitment to secularism in the face of pressure from the religious elements than its socialist analog in Pakistan (though it too has caved to aspects of Islamicization of society since the 1970s).**
The reasons for this difference are multifaceted. It could be as simple as the historical contingency that the United States buttressed the Islamic autocracy of Zia ul-Huq in the 1980s. Though today Pakistan is a byword for Islamic extremism, I tend to be of the opinion that its origins can be understood more as an instance of ‘religious nationalism,’ akin to Revisionist Zionism. The founder of Pakistan had a religious background which would be unacceptable to many Pakistanis today, and his personal piety was minimal. Pakistan initially served as a redoubt in the Indian subcontinent against Hindu numerical dominance, not the catspaw in Sunni radical millenarianism. It was a place where the traditional Muslim elites could take their rightful role as the political leaders, rather than being marginalized as would have been the case in a democratic India. Over time this national identity, of which religion was a part, though never a totality, has become more and more tied in with currents in international Sunni Islamic radicalism (to the obvious detriment of the non-Sunni minorities, including Shia such as the founder of the nation himself).
But this isn’t just a matter of sentiments on high. Rather, the reserves of secularism and tolerance for heterodoxy run deeper in modern Bangladesh than they do in Pakistan. Though >80 percent of both Pakistani and Bangaldeshi Muslims agree that Sharia should be the law of the land, less than half of Bangaldeshis who agree with this proposition believe that those who leave Islam should be subject to the death penalty according to Pew. It is notable that there are people willing to speak the record on video defending the right to Roy expressing his atheism. An English language newspaper in Bangladesh reflects this sentiment. Looking around the web about Pakistani atheism, it seems quite closeted, and columnists who write about it seem to parse their words carefully so as to avoid vigilante attention.
Writing about the modest protests The Guardian notes:
The attacks starkly underline an increasing gulf between secular bloggers and conservative Islamic groups, often covertly connected with Islamist parties. Secularists have urged authorities to ban religion-based politics, while Islamists have pressed for blasphemy laws to prevent criticism of their faith.
It is important to note that despite the groundswell of anger from the usual suspects among Muslims, there is still a strong enough secular liberal intelligentsia in Bangladesh which can speak in favor of someone as religiously marginal as an atheist from a Hindu background. The murder is a tragedy, but the reaction is to some extent heartening, and I hope heralds a future where social conflict can give way to the driving of religion into the private sphere (I think banning religious parties is usually counterproductive, for the record. I’d also oppose banning them on principle even if it was productive).
* Though I checked, and it is interesting that I have more Twitter followers from Bangladesh than Germany, probably on account of my name.
** The Awami League and the People’s Party respectively.