On February 21st The Hague Peace Projects in collaboration with Mukta-Mona, a free mind platform, organized a Bangladesh alternative book fair in Humanity House The Hague. The “Bangladesh Solidarity Book Fair” in The Hague was a reflection of the Ekushey National Book Fair held annually at Dhaka University, a major date on the intellectual calendar of Bangladesh. It was at Ekushey that the first of last year’s targeted murders of secular writers took place, with the assassination of author Avijit Roy as he left the fair on 26 February 2015.
To remember the victims and to exchange ideas on how to approach the suffocation of freedom of speech in Bangladesh a mixture of fled Bangladeshi bloggers and organizations gathered in The Hague. After the book presentation was launched, a documentary impressed the audience about the hostile and insecure environment Bangladeshi freethinkers have to live in. The documentary showed: fundamentalist Muslims who evoke citizens ‘to smash [atheists] into pieces’; Premier Sheikh Hasina who doubled the penalty for breaching the blasphemy law and religious insult up to fourteen year of custody; The government that lacks investigation and prosecution for crimes against atheist. Where does the increasing influence from extremism come from?
The first panel, existing of bloggers and writers from Mukto-Mona, explained the threat. When Pakistan became independent from India, secularism grew in the region along with a free culture. However, when Bangladesh signed their declaration of independence in 1971 from Pakistan, secularism reduced due to a change of its constitution. Nonetheless, the main influence from extremism comes from Saudi Arabia. The country is funding ‘madrassas’, koranic schools in Bangladesh from a distance. The underprivileged Bangladeshi children in madrassas benefit from healthcare, food and education, but cannot avoid their fundamentalist doctrine which leads to serious problems.
The second panel consisted of Avijit Roy’s wife Bonya Ahmed and speakers from Amnesty International, Humanistisch Verbond and The Hague Peace Projects. Bonya Ahmed started off the debate explaining that Avijit Roy’s death not only caused grief but also created a well-connected community of Bangladeshi bloggers who seek for constitutional change in Bangladesh. The panel agreed that need for change is necessary from the core of Bangladesh citizens itself, but also calls on other states and international organizations to get involved in short- and long-term solutions. The representative from Amnesty International emphasized their cooperation with the United Nations, and Humanistisch Verbond elaborated on their cooperation with the Dutch government in order to put pressure on Bangladesh’s current regime. What will eventually happen to Bangladesh is unsure, but we know one thing: the bloggers and writers will continue their work, even outside their country.
Bonya Ahmed highlighted the latter by introducing her new project: the establishment of an online encyclopedia to publish knowledge about science, philosophy, art, religion, literature and many more. She mentioned that bloggers and writers are not only atheist, they are much more than that. They have wide interests and different ideas, she wants to share that with the locals in Bangladesh. With this initiative she invites Bangladeshi to learn, to change perspective and to contribute to change in Bangladesh.