Religious freedom advocates need to speak out on Bangladesh killings (COMMENTARY)

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Activists with flaming torches shout during a street march in Dhaka on November 2, 2015. The night time protest was held in response to the recent murder of Faysal Arefin, a publisher of books by critics of religious militancy in Bangladesh, as well as the murders of secularist writers in Bangladesh in recent years. Picture taken on November 2, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Ashikur Rahman
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-FIDALGO-COLUMN, originally transmitted on Nov. 12, 2015.

Activists with flaming torches shout during a street march in Dhaka on November 2, 2015. The night time protest was held in response to the recent murder of Faysal Arefin, a publisher of books by critics of religious militancy in Bangladesh, as well as the murders of secularist writers in Bangladesh in recent years. Picture taken on November 2, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Ashikur Rahman *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-FIDALGO-COLUMN, originally transmitted on Nov. 12, 2015.

(RNS) Right now, a contentious debate over religious freedom is tearing at the social fabric of a nation, and partisans seeking to take advantage of the uproar are fueling the fires of mistrust and division. 

But I’m not talking about the U.S. and arguments over contraceptive mandates and same-sex marriage. (And I’m certainly not talking about red coffee cups!) This struggle for religious freedom is taking place in Bangladesh, and the “debate” is being waged not with words and laws, but with machetes and terror.

In the past eight months, five people have been hacked to death by Islamic extremists associated with terror groups such as Ansar Bangla and al-Qaida. Each victim was targeted for writing or publishing works that advocate for secular democracy and criticize religion and fundamentalism. Many other writers have been injured in these attacks.


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While this terror campaign has become a flashpoint for protest and political gamesmanship in Bangladesh, few outside the country have addressed this human rights crisis. Secularist and humanist groups in the U.S. and elsewhere have been among the few to take up the cause. My own organization, the Center for Inquiry, has launched an emergency fund to relocate and support as many of the dozens of other targeted secularists as we can, and we have already helped a number of writers to safety.

But, as serious as the bloodshed and terror in Bangladesh is, we have heard little to nothing from many of the major American conservative religious organizations that claim to care so deeply about religious freedom. And make no mistake, these murders are as ferocious an assault on religious freedom as one can find. The killers target those who do not conform to their narrow religious beliefs, and they know that the horror and fear they instill with each slaughter will not only silence their victim, but countless others who might otherwise speak out against them as well. 


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When asserting the right to hold no faith at all places a person on a public hit list — a list with too many names already crossed off — there is no freedom of conscience. 

Whatever one’s opinion about them, conservative religious organizations in the U.S. hold enormous political power. In recent years, many have concentrated that power on the fight to grant individuals and corporations the freedom to disregard the law when it stands against their religious beliefs. Untold millions of dollars and a staggering amount of political capital have been spent so that public employees may shirk their constitutional duties in granting same-sex marriages, or that religious pharmacists can refuse to sell contraception to women. 

Groups like mine vehemently oppose these efforts and will continue to do so. But surely these faith groups that claim to value religious freedom and the right to freedom of expression and freedom of conscience, regardless of their theological outlook, should agree that the situation in Bangladesh is unacceptable and that no human being should have to live in fear of being killed simply for expressing dissenting views on religion. 


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We in the American secular humanist community are doing all we can to save lives and change the course of events in Bangladesh, from the grass roots to the halls of American and international diplomatic power. We have done the same in the past, passionately and proudly, when conservative Christian groups asked for help supporting their fellow believers, like Asia Bibi in Pakistan and Meriam Ibrahim in Sudan. But we can only do so much. Our resources and reach are limited, and frankly dwarfed by those of American churches and conservative Christian organizations. 

Paul Fidalgo is communications director for the Center for Inquiry. Photo courtesy of Paul Fidalgo

Paul Fidalgo is communications director for the Center for Inquiry. Photo courtesy of Paul Fidalgo

So we’re asking for their help. Join us in confronting this human rights atrocity. Use your political influence to demand that the U.S. government pressure Bangladeshi authorities. Use your resources to save the freethinkers and religious minorities running for their very lives. Use your cultural influence to rally grass-roots support from your own legions of supporters. These persecuted need you now.

Here in the United States, secular humanists and religious conservatives will continue to fight over our own battleground of “religious liberty” — the reproductive rights of women, the equal treatment and dignity of our fellow LGBTQ citizens and, yes, the consciences of religiously conservative bakers. But as that plays out, right now in Bangladesh, dissenters are being butchered in the street for exercising the most basic of human rights: merely speaking their conscience. Help us defend that religious freedom. Help us save them.

And forget about the color of the coffee cups.

(Paul Fidalgo is communications director for the Center for Inquiry.)

LM/MG END FIDALGO

  • Larry

    Because these “Religious Freedom” organizations are really a front for support of legalized discrimination and Christian privilege. People who frequently call atheists “immoral”, “tools of Satan” or claim they deserve no civil liberties.
    We see plenty of nonsense from those who automatically equate secular government (the founding principle of our 1st Amendment religious freedom) with cults of personality by autocratic dictators.

    Lets be honest these organizations have more in common with the people doing the killings than its victims.

    People actually concerned with religious freedom have spoken out about the issue
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/2015/03/bangladesh-is-killing-atheists/

    http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/27/american-atheist-blogger-hacked-to-death-in-bangladesh

    http://religionnews.com/2015/05/12/third-atheist-blogger-is-killed-in-bangladesh/

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  • The Great God Pan

    These killings have not been ignored only by conservative Christians, but also by progressive Christians (*) and the so-called faitheist crowd. To call attention to “oppressed” religious extremists slaughtering secularists (aka the foot soldiers of Western imperialism, according to social justice rhetoric) just doesn’t serve the dominant narrative among the Millennial Left. In that narrative, it is the religious (especially Muslims) who are endangered by “militant” secularism! (**)

    (*) Within a day of Avijit Roy being murdered and his wife maimed, a progressive Christian blogger at RNS tweeted that atheists are never physically assaulted by religious people. The tweet remained up for at least a month but has since apparently been deleted.

    (**) See the recent furor in the UK over human rights campaigner Maryam Namazie supposedly representing a physical danger to Muslims.

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  • Joseph carson

    What, specifically, do you desire which specific organizations to do or say?

    Hawe you explicitly requested them to do so? If so, what was their response?

    Like it or not, “carrots and sticks” is a valid tactic with them – you need to increase the cost to them, in terms of their own agendas, of their bystanding and/or increase the benefit to them, in terms fo their own agendas, of not bystanding.

    Joe Carson, PE

  • Lynn

    Perhaps you need to look a little wider first. I’ve seen no attention grabbing articles about this in the NY Times, Washington Post, or LA Times. For that matter, there’s been only a brief mention on the BBC news summary podcasts, and certainly nothing to indicate the extent of the disaster.

    In the meantime, might I suggest that your sneering at people is not a great way to elicit support. I realize it’s an accurate reflection of your feelings, but it’s simply not productive. Unless, of course, your goal is to claim the moral high ground rather than get support.

  • Larry

    Actually it was really more or less an attack on various conservative groups which claim to be “protecting religious freedom”. The reality is they advocate sectarian discrimination. The very opposite of religious freedom.