My love affair with books began at an early age. A love of reading turned into a love of writing, which turned into a passion for publishing. I started my very first magazine when I was in my first year of college – I called it Suddhashar, which means “True Sense” or “True Voice.” The magazine was a platform for my young friends to speak freely and share their ideas. We were excited to share our stories with the world – this wasn’t just a magazine, it was a movement.
From the beginning I was attracted to secular writings. I come from Bangladesh, where we have a long, storied history of secular culture. I sought out others who felt the same way and convinced them to let me publish their work. We published stories on topics some might consider taboo, like homosexuality. Our team of mainly volunteers cared deeply about promoting freethinking – to us it was much more than a business.
My little magazine steadily grew, and fifteen years later I established a publishing house under the same name. In the mid 2000s blogging caught on in Bangladesh, making it easier than ever to identify new secular writers and thinkers – our community came together online. We found young writers with fresh, bold voices, to keep alive that spirit of secularism that is so ingrained in Bangladeshi culture. I firmly believe that literature plays a prominent role in promoting democratic values and tolerance – and my fellow Bangladeshis seemed to agree with me. They embraced our work and we continued to grow.
However, the internet that brought our community together also empowered and emboldened extremist forces in my country. This is not a phenomenon unique to Bangladesh – we have seen the rise of extremist Islamic groups around the world. Yesterday night we have seen them at Manchester. They grew in power, tacitly endorsed by our supposedly democratic government.
Like all extremist groups, they began to target anyone they deemed a threat to their new world order. We embraced critical thought, progressive writing, and education in the arts, humanities, and science. For this, they branded us “infidels.” And the threats began.
Many of you have heard of Abhijit Roy. He was a warrior of the pen, a dedicated fighter against the tyranny of religious prejudice and hatred, and much more. He was also my friend.
Two years ago, after leaving a book launch event at my publishing house, Abhijit was attacked by a gang of men armed with meat cleavers and was brutally hacked to death in front of his wife, who was severely injured.
That same year, Ananta Bijoy, another writer who worked with me, was murdered in similar fashion. Over the next few months, Bangladesh became a dangerous place for anyone who spoke for free thought – writers, bloggers, activists, teachers, spiritual leaders, baul artists, and champions of the LGBTQ+ community. One by one, the voices of writers Babu, Neel, Dipon, Samad, Xulhaz, Tonoy, and Rezaur and many more were brutally silenced.
In this time of terror and chaos, the Bangladeshi government refused to act. Not only did they fail to prosecute the killers, they actually blamed these deaths on the writers’ own actions. To this day, journalists who try to report on what is happening to secular writers and bloggers are subject to government harassment and censorship. This is the same government that doesn’t allow a free press, censors social media, and relentlessly persecutes its critics.
After Abhijit’s murder, I knew there was a price on my head. I began receiving threats – calls at my home and office, written threats, they even published a photo of my office online and threatened to blow it up. I went to the police to file complaints, and they advised me to give up my publishing business – not because of the threats, but because the authorities felt Bangladesh is not a suitable country to have such discussions. This illustrates the painful truth of free thought, free speech, and free expression in Bangladesh. But I refused to give up my work.
I began to feel like I was followed everywhere I went. I changed my route each day, varied my routine. I began to make plans to leave the country.
On October 31, 2015, a group of men with machetes broke into my office, looking for me. Two of my colleagues bravely tried to stop them, but were unsuccessful. The attack was brutal, and I barely escaped with my life. I was on the verge of death.
I was airlifted to other country in critical condition. 18 months later, I’m still not fully recovered. The injuries inflicted to my face, to my eyes, ears, and head continue to plague me. Most of my hearing is gone. I cannot sleep and have lost so much strength that I feel like a shadow of myself.
But I’m still here. I’m still breathing. I am now living in the security of Norway, where I do not have to keep looking over my shoulder in fear of an attack. Many of my fellow writers and publishers have not been so lucky. Those who were not killed have fled into exile.
I have recently moved the publication of my magazine online, but I have been unable to source any of the material from Bangladesh. Writers are now afraid to write. Whenever I am able to speak to a writer, a blogger, a publisher, or any supporter of free speech, I can feel their anxiety and their fear. And, frankly, it terrifies me too, because I know it all so well.
In this situation, what should we do? What can I do? Since I have survived and now live in safety, I could just be silent! But I refuse this. Lying in a hospital bed and speaking to a daily newspaper in Bangladesh, I refused to retreat. I have been steadfast in this promise. I was forced to leave my country, my home, to save my life. But no one can stop us from continuing our work to liberate people from the dangers of religious dogma, prejudice, and superstition.
The writers of Bangladesh, now in exile, have continued this fight with our pens. We fight for those in Bangladesh who are alarmed by the rising tide of extremism and are gripped by fear. We want to support them. We want to speak up for them and to stand up for the better Bangladesh we believe in. We want a world where people can speak freely, express opinions, criticize, and criticize those same criticisms with openness. We do not want fatwas issued against any writer or artist, or anyone to be threatened for simply expressing their views. We want all people of the world to live in democracies that protect secularism and human rights.
Despite everything I have seen, I still hope. I dream that things will get better. The youth of Bangladesh are the future. They are embracing secularism, and freedom, and democracy.
I have made a new start here in Norway. Shuddhashar now has a home online. We are forging ahead with the publishing of e-books and magazines. We are refusing to stay still. Whenever a writer, a blogger, an editor, a publisher – whenever anyone is threatened for free thinking, we will stand beside them. I ask you to stand with us.