Defying Fear: Secular Rescue Story

Secular Rescue is a program of the Center for Inquiry that identifies those writers, activists, and everyday citizens in countries such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Iraq who live under the threat of violence and death and provides financial and diplomatic assistance to help these them escape to safety.

Nur E Emroz Alam “Tonoy” is known in Bangladesh for his columns at major news outlets such as the Dhaka Tribune, where he has taken on controversial issues, championed equality and free inquiry, and aimed a critical eye at extremist religious beliefs and political ideologies.

But as has become sadly predictable in Bangladesh, his work has made him a target for those very extremists. Overwhelmed by threats to his life, Tonoy fled Bangladesh and began to seek the help he needed to keep himself alive and to keep writing.

Tonoy reached out to Secular Rescue and told us in no uncertain terms, “I’ll certainly be killed if returned to Bangladesh.” He feared murder at the hands of Islamist militants, such as those who slaughtered Avijit Roy and several other freethought writers and activists. (Tonoy is also a contributor to the website founded by Roy, Mukto-Mona.) He knew that the Bangladeshi government has turned a blind eye to this crisis, often blaming the victims of truly grotesque public killings. He even had to fear retribution from distant relations unhappy with his heretical point of view.

Tonoy’s case was a challenging one and required collaboration among several organizations, individuals, and governments. Secular Rescue was joined by German NGOs Giordano Bruno Stiftung and German Skeptics, Alice Knight of Progressive Atheists Inc. Australia, and Eran Segev of Australian Skeptics. In recent weeks, he has begun the process of getting asylum in the European Union.

After getting the good news, Tonoy shared some of his thoughts with us. He lamented the “overwhelming exaltation of ignorance” in Bangladesh that has led to an “arrogant form of Islam” spreading across the landscape “like a chronic disease.” He and other secularist writers are therefore burdened with a harrowing task: stopping the spread of ignorance while coping with the terrifying reality of violence and retaliation from extremists.

“For us, in the last few years, threats are an everyday part of life and killings by Islamists is a reality,” he said. “We have learned to live with the fear of being killed.”

All the while, Bangladeshi authorities offer no help but rather hostility. “We’re fighting against threats, violence, and killings by the religious hard right, as well as sanctions and injustice by the state,” he said.

Tonoy is now able to continue this fight, far from those who would see him silenced with a bullet or a machete. “CFI has proven itself as a trusted partner of the Bangladeshi writers in this fight,” he told us. And we’re proud to be that partner.

You can read Tonoy’s column at the Dhaka Tribune and his special contribution to CFI’s website last year.

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