Freethinkers of Our Time
For over the last one and a half decades Mukto-Mona has been fighting for the development of humanism and freethinking in South Asia. The organisation's member-contributor's included linguist Ahmed Sharif and novelist Humayun Azad. In an email conversation with the SWM, three members of mukto-mona.com talk about the state of freedom in Bangladesh, and South Asia in general.
How has Mukto-Mona evolved? Can you please explain the idea behind Mukto-Mona for our readers?
Avijit Roy: Mukto-Mona came into being in the year 2000, with the intention of debating and promoting critical issues that are of the utmost importance in building a progressive, rational and secular society, but usually are ignored in the mainstream Bangladeshi and South Asian media. On 26th May, 2001, I created a Yahoo group under the name Mukto-Mona. A year later, it was developed into a complete web site (www.mukto-mona.com), which, to the best of my knowledge, was the first South Asian Humanist and Rationalist forum on the net. Our aim is to build a society which will not be bound by the dictates of arbitrary authority, comfortable superstition, stifling tradition, or suffocating orthodoxy but would rather be based on reason, compassion, humanity, equality and science.
Since its existence, Mukto-mona has been able to draw the attention of many like-minded thinkers including many distinguished authors, scientists, philosophers and human rights activists from all around the world. We have always tried to raise our voices wherever people's freedom and civil liberties have been attacked. For example, we were (still are) acrid critics of Bush's policy of aggression and invasion of Iraq in the name of the so-called 'war on terror.'
Within the subcontinent, we have affiliations with the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations and the Science and Rationalists' Association of India (SRAI) led by Prabhir Ghosh. The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) has also provided continuous encouragement and support to us. Mukto-Mona forum is approaching 3000 members. .
Can you please explain humanism further for us?
Jahed Ahmed: The type of humanism that closely resembles views held by Mukto-Mona is Secular Humanism. In simple words, it is an outlook or way of life that centered on human need and interest. Secular humanists reject supernatural and authoritarian beliefs, rather they affirm that one must take responsibility for his/her own life and the communities and world in which he/she lives. It had its roots in the rationalism of the 18th Century and the free thought movement of the 19th Century. Humanist Manifesto III, titled "Humanism and its aspirations" was written in 2003. It is not published as a dogma that Humanists must believe; rather it represents a consensus of what Humanists do believe
What do you think is the biggest impediment to free thinking in Bangladesh, or South Asia in general?
Mehul Kamdar: South Asia has a major problem of illiteracy, which makes it easy for fundamentalists from outside the region to spread hatred and false propaganda. When people cannot read critical texts questioning this propaganda they are more easily deluded by preachers of hatred. As humanists, we seek to help people develop love for other human beings irrespective of their religion, caste or creed. But we always have to fight against superior money and numbers.
Whether it is the Jihadi groups who get their money from Saudi Arabia or Middle East, Overseas Friends of the RSS who contribute to Hindu Fundamentalist groups from UK and USA or Christian groups who get their money either from Rome or from other parts of the world depending on what denomination they belong to, all of these groups are pumping money in a battle for more converts and for militancy among their followers. As humanists, we are constantly catching up to novel methods by which this hatred is being spread. We are positive about the long term, though, because we believe that most people are intrinsically good and decent and that we would be able to appeal to their logical faculties, even when they are unable to read and write.
What do you think is contributing to a rise in religious extremism in Bangladesh ?
Jahed Ahmed: There are direct and indirect causes. One of the direct causes, I would say is poverty and unemployment. Hundreds of thousands of youths are unemployed in our country. They do not have a hope to live with. Fundamentalists or militant Islamists take advantage of this psychological void through mental manipulation. They lure those poorly educated youths in the name of paradise in order to get their own political ambitions fulfilled. With some sincerity from the government this vast number of youths could be turned into a great asset like they could be trained in English, IT and put on outsourcing job projects as we see in India, China and Philippines. Our youth are no less talented than their counterparts and more over, we have people in IT sectors in the West who can help us get contracts. But before that, we need to ensure quality service. Remember, to get those jobs done, one doesn't need a very big degree from a university
The concept of a Sharia-based theocracy is a frightening one. Yet some wicked minds continue to fool people in the name of religion. Europe and America learned the dreadful lesson from the bloodshed of several hundred years when religion controlled politics. They have separated religion from the state. Unfortunately, we have yet to realise that. Even if you look within Islam's own history, you'll see Islam reached its peak under the caliphate of secular rulers such as Caliph Al Mamun, Harun-ur-Rashid. Thus a demand for a secular democracy is the most crucial demand of our time.
What kind of system of government do you think is appropriate for the establishment of a free society?
Mehul Kamdar: Constitutional democracy is the best known means for protecting the rights of all people to form worldviews and live out their commitments in a free and mutually respectful way. A democratic and secular government should promote open societies, ensure universal human rights, and be secular, having no bias against any religious or non-religious group.
In a region where a majority of the people live in abject poverty and do not have access to the Internet, how can Mukto-mona help establish a secular society?
Avijit Roy: Despite our limited resources, mind you, Mukto-Mona is not an NGO run by donations from foreign countries. We carry out activities with our own funds i.e. donations collected from our members of advisory and editorial board (who are mostly expatriate Bangladeshis such as researchers, activists, students, etc) we are trying to target the most neglected areas. For example, as our first project, we undertook the reconstruction of a primary school in remote Roumari in Bangladesh. We have additionally promised to continue our support for more years provided the school authority promote secular and rational thinking among the students. We undertook that project for many reasons: that was a place of poor rural people and thus was neglected by the rich class/government. Secondly, the most important stage of life when we can instill a value/lesson in the minds of our children is when they are in primary school.
We have started publishing books on science and rationalism. In a few remote areas, our activists have formed Rationalist Forums drawing likeminded youth and students. Such forums or associations provide a sense of cohesiveness in the mind of young humanists and they do not feel they are isolated. In the future, we plan to work on mobilising and uniting youth toward rationalism and humanism in every part of Bangladesh.
Fortunately, we are not alone. There exist vast number of like-minded people in the world and nothing can beat the internet in making friends with such people. For example, we have humanists of Bangladesh and other South Asian origin in our group from virtually every corner of the world. Lots of people are showing eagerness to help Mukto-Mona in every possible way but we have been cautious in our response because we simply don't want to turn into yet another NGO. Ours is not just an organisation, it symbolises a movement, an ideal.
Avijit Roy is author, “Alo Hate Choliyachhe Adharer Yatree” (a Bangla book on the origin of universe); he is also the founding Moderator, Mukto-Mona.
Jahed Ahmed is a humanism activist and writer; he is also co-moderator of Mukto-Mona.
Mehul Kamdar is former Assistant Editor (with MD Gopalkrishnan as editor), the Modern Rationalist, India; he is also freelance writer and co-moderator of Mukto-Mona. Originally from Tamilnadu, India, currently settled in Chicago.
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