The Guardian view on the murder of Ananta Bijoy Das: an assault on a universal value

The Guardian view on the murder of Ananta Bijoy Das: an assault on a universal value

The slaughter in the street of the Bangladeshi science writer Ananta Bijoy Das by assailants armed with machetes marks the third time this year that an atheist has been murdered in that country for his opinions. The government’s reaction has been weak, where it was not indifferent. Two young men were arrested after a previous murder, but only after they had been seized by onlookers, not the police.

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Like Raif Badawi, imprisoned and flogged in Saudi Arabia, the brave men who have been murdered are guilty of nothing more than honesty and integrity. Those are virtues that fundamentalists and fanatics cannot stand. They should inspire us. The struggle for free speech, for free inquiry and for the liberty of atheism need not be a fight against religion, unless religion is opposed to human dignity. It is a struggle against cowardice and conformism, and against everyone who would crush both truth and imagination into a cramped coffin of orthodoxy.

Nor is it confined to Bangladesh. That country is still at least in theory opposed to the murder of people for their opinions. Others have sleepwalked further into darkness. In Pakistan, laws against blasphemy and apostasy mean that the state takes an active part in the persecution and sometimes judicial murder of the unorthodox. It’s also true that atheists in Muslim countries cannot always count on the support and understanding of their families. That makes it all the more urgent that they should have ours. Yet their plight is largely ignored. The Swedish government refused Ananta Das a visa when Swedish PEN invited him to discuss the persecution of atheists. It claimed he might not return to Bangladesh so, when he should have been in Stockholm, he was murdered on the street at home instead.

Violent jihadis have circulated a list with more than 80 names of free thinkers whom they wish to kill. The public murder of awkward intellectuals is one definition of barbarism. Governments of the west, and that of Bangladesh, must do much more to defend freedom and to protect lives.

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