Why Does Facebook Keep Killing Bangladeshi Atheists?

Recently, several Bangladeshi atheists and secularist bloggers lost access to their Facebook accounts as they found that Facebook was mourning their apparent deaths. Alarmed and shocked, the bloggers soon realized that this was the outcome of a planned attack on many popular online activists/bloggers within the Bangladeshi blogosphere. Facebook is still one of the most popular social media platforms for a wide demographic of Bangladeshis. For public figures, losing access to their official Facebook account has a huge impact, as it results in losing access to a large portion of their audience.

Atheist Republic had the opportunity to talk to Arifur Rahman, a London based Bangladeshi atheist, humanist and secularist blogger, about this fiasco. Arifur kindly shared with us his recent experience regarding discovering his apparent death on Facebook, the shutting down of his popular account, as well as his journey into activism.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Atheist Republic: When did you find out that your Facebook profile started showing that you had passed away and you had lost access to your account? Do you know of other free-speech advocates who went through a similar incident?

Arifur Rahman: I learned about this on the morning of January 20th, when I tried to check for the usual FB catch-up. The mobile App suggested that my account is in a special 'memorialized' state.

This new spell of attack started happening to a few other well-known figures. Taslima Nasrin, who's a veteran in this field, lost access to her account a few times over the past few weeks. Also, Asad-Noor, another Bangladeshi blogger, faced similar action against him. I know of a London-based activist, Lopa Rahman, who also lost access to her page. We talked over the phone to try and appeal to the Facebook overlords.

Atheist Republic: Who do you think is responsible for this?

AR: At first, my reaction to this was that it must be the work of DGFI or CRI, unpopular Bangladeshi government agencies, who are regularly known to shape public discourse through various malicious acts. I knew that it can't be just a few Islamist thugs, as my focus had recently widened from just Islamist militants to Narendra Modi's authoritarian government and its links with the Bangladesh government. My suspicion was that these agencies are also connected to the Bangladeshi oligarchs, who are now ruling the country by the acquisition of power through buying seats in the parliament.

Atheist Republic: How hard or easy was it for you to get your account back in order? Did Facebook respond promptly or did you have to go through a lot of hoops to recover your account?

AR: It wasn't easy. FB is notorious for its lack of customer service. We're not even their customers, rather just raw materials. I've been sending them the required ID and evidence for over two weeks and no one from FB even sent me an email confirming or denying it.

Atheist Republic: Given that you have been blogging about secularism/atheism and also speaking out against corruption in Bangladesh for almost 15 years, have you ever faced this sort of “shutting down” before?

AR: Yes, since the very beginning, circa 2006/07, we've been blogging/shouting/protesting using various platforms. In the beginning, the then-popular (and only publicly available) platform SomewhereInBlog banned my account many times. Finally, they revoked my access in 2010. The account tombstone is still there, but I am not allowed to log in. Upon enquiring with the admin of the platform, I was given a vague answer that they are forced by the government to disable me from making further noise.

This theme was repeated in another platform, AmarBlog, although short-lived.

Since the era of Facebook, my account has been under attack almost daily. The attackers have used all methods known to man to delete my posts, ban or take over my account through phishing, etc. I've written about this when the Atheist Republic Facebook page was banned. Here I explained some technical tactics used by the attackers to ban accounts. Since then, the attackers have mutated and have also come up with newer tactics to curtail freedom of speech.

Atheist Republic: Do you think the shutting down of your Facebook account is something that’ll reoccur? Do you have any backup plans in case you lose your Facebook privileges permanently?

AR: I suspect this may repeat. Facebook has no way or willingness to prevent this from happening. However, Facebook seems to be very selective about taking action on this. Other than the Facebook account, I use my personal blog, Twitter and YouTube to communicate with my audience.

Atheist Republic: How did you get into blogging publicly about secularism and reasoning?

AR: That's a very long story. I recorded this podcast 6 years ago trying to capture, from my point of view, how this blogging movement started.

Atheist Republic: A lot of us, atheists/agnostics, face a variety of traumas based on our background. These traumas, at times take a while to fade, and at times stay with us perpetually. How do you think we can help people going through these struggles?

AR: It is a vast topic and goes quite deep in the subject of mental health and philosophy of life. I have a better understanding of the subjects through life lessons, personal observations, as well as reading about how the world actually works. I learned that it's actually the government, who we assumed to be custodians of law and order, behind a lot of killings and attacks. I wrote about this phenomenon in my blog.

Some, if not most, of the Bengali activists/bloggers who were murdered, during 2013-15, were known to me. I've had regular interactions with some of them. In 2015, I witnessed the death of Avijit Roy, a Bangladeshi-American atheist writer. This had a tremendous impact on me. When Avijit was declared dead, I was standing there, next to his father, Professor Ajoy Roy.

While Bangladeshi Islamist right-wing media was vilifying atheist bloggers continuously, in the UK, mosques were preaching about me and how to outcast atheists. The police were of no use. All in all, it was very stressful and traumatic. Deeyah Khan, a famous documentary film-maker interviewed me and recorded some of my peril in her documentary Islam's Non-believers.

Atheist Republic: How has your work changed over the years? What are your focuses now in terms of creating awareness?

AR: I no longer blame Islam to be the soul source of all problems. In fact, my perspective has expanded from being angry against religion to focusing on raising awareness of the importance of understanding of the current world, who pulls the strings, and how religion is used by people in power. Unfortunately, some of my fellow activists are still stuck in blaming only Islam and thus being used by bad actors. I wish there was a way for the overall activism to mature and gain real power to exert some kind of positive change.

Atheist Republic: What do you think of the “Atheist movement in Bangladesh”? Has it evolved over the years?

AR: The movement has been disconnected from the potential progressive group since 2013. This was orchestrated very well by the Bangladesh government. During 2011-2012, the atheist movement gained momentum and became a concern for the ruling elites, and they attempted to disband us. You may have heard about the famous list of 84 atheist bloggers, a sort of “hit list” for Islamic fundamentalists. Many of the unfortunate souls who ended up on this list have since been killed. However, we no longer see this free-spirited collection of progressives in the Bangladeshi blogosphere, due to the dominant narrative that free thinking is bad for your well-being. Free thinkers know that if they speak up, they may be attacked in broad daylight, and their families may be punished as well.

The current Atheist online community in Bangladesh has been infiltrated by government cronies, Islamists, and other extremist groups. They are vile and will use any tactics necessary to shut down anyone trying to shine light at them. I always believed that the youth of Bangladesh would come out and be free from the dogma that religion imposes in Bangladesh. However, the space we have created no longer feels safe and trustworthy.

Over time, I have witnessed our culture, language and history being overwritten and wiped off. I assumed religion was the sole reason why this was happening. It turns out the equation is not that simple. I still dream of a nation based on education, culture and freedom. It's a fight not only Bengali people, but the world at large, is facing.

Atheist Republic: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us and give such detailed answers Arifur!

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