January 9, 2019
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.
A woman going by the name of Durba Zahan has been at the epicenter of the crisis from before the time of the Center for Inquiry’s direct involvement with the threats to secularists and free expression in Bangladesh. A student of art and history, Durba was familiar with the work of the secularist bloggers and activists that had been hacked to death or gunned down for their outspoken criticism of religious extremism.
In 2013, hardline religious political parties cast women bloggers as threats to the state. “They tagged us as being whores, that we did not belong to good families and we should be raped and killed,” Durba told us. That same year, fellow atheist blogger Rajib Haidar was hacked to death. It would be the first in a long line of similar killings meant to terrorize the population, freethinkers in particular.
Durba kept her head down for a time, refraining from public writing but still taking part in activism and protest. Then in early 2015, beloved author, teacher, activist, and CFI ally Avijit Roy was publicly murdered at a book fair in an attack that his wife, Bonya Ahmed, barely survived. “The day Avijit Roy got murdered was a black letter day,” said Durba. “I realized the secular free country I loved has suddenly become hell.”
In the proceeding years, several other of Durba’s friends and allies would meet similar fates until events reached a horrible climax. In June 2018, Durba’s father, a respected publisher, was gunned down.
“I started writing online before him, but my father is dead and I am still alive,” said Durba. “Everybody knew at that moment that I am an atheist daughter of an atheist father.” Investigators told Durba her father shouldn’t have been “hurting people’s feelings” with his writing, and death threats began to emerge on social media and even to her personal phone.
The situation had gone from untenable to desperate. When Durba reached out to Secular Rescue, she told us that while at one time she feared only a couple of specific extremist groups, “now I can feel death lurking around the corner.”
Working with secular rights advocates in the European Union, alongside US-based conscience-protection allies such as the Freedom from Religion Foundation, Secular Rescue was able to help Durba relocate out of an extremely dangerous Bangladesh to safer shores.
Durba told us that what Secular Rescue did for her was more than just help her out of danger, but show her that she was not alone. Frightened for her life and reeling from the murder of her father, Durba says the genuine concern for her well being, shown particularly by Secular Rescue coordinator Matt Cravatta, made all the difference.
“I was so scared, but Matt helped me,” she wrote to us. “He even contacted my host organization to assure everything about me is okay. If Matt and CFI hadn’t helped me, I don’t know what would have happened to me. Now I’m safe here, writing to you because of Secular Rescue and Matt.”
Durba’s escape was a long time coming, and many more people like her need our help. You can make a difference by supporting Secular Rescue.