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Rafida Bonya Ahmed: Videos help underserved populations Think

Rafida Bonya Ahmed

This speech was given on Nov. 20, 2021, at FFRF’s national convention in Boston by Bonya Ahmed, leading up to the awarding of the Avijit Roy Courage Award. Bonya was introduced by Cheryl Kolbe, president of the Portland Area Chapter of FFRF. You can watch it at ffrf.us/speeches-2021.

Cheryl Kolbe: Many of you will remember that Rafida Bonya Ahmed was FFRF’s first Forward Award recipient. She and FFRF co-sponsor the Avijit Roy Courage Award in honor of her husband, an author and well known Bangladeshi-American atheist who was killed by Islamic terrorists in 2015 in an attack that nearly killed her. Bonya has since co-founded the educational charity Think, which creates and publishes short, appealing videos on science, reason and history, and which reaches out to those in her home country and to the world to educate and inspire critical thinking.

Bonya will tell us more about the Avijit Roy Courage Award and Think. Please welcome the talented and courageous Bonya Ahmed.

By Bonya Ahmed

Thanks, Cheryl. It’s nice to see you all here in Boston. And I’m really honored today to announce the third annual Avijit Roy Courage Award with FFRF. This year’s award goes to Sushant Singh. Congratulations! 

As many of you know, this award was first announced by FFRF in 2018. Avijit Roy, my husband, and I were brutally attacked by the Islamic militants while we were visiting our home country, Bangladesh, for a book signing trip in 2015. He was killed and I barely survived. It took me a few months to recover from the wounds. It will be seven years on Feb. 26, 2022. 

Avijit love to write. He wrote about science, philosophy, religion. He wrote eight books on subjects like the philosophy of no religion, homosexuality, the origin of life. 

We were attacked because of these writings, because we were atheist, because of what he wrote, the way he criticized religion. After the attack on us, a killing spree went on in 2015. It was a bloody year in Bangladesh. The militants vowed to kill one person a month, and they succeeded. It went on for a year. Many of the secular writers, teachers, bloggers and publishers in Bangladesh were attacked. Many of them were killed. Many others were either silenced or forced to flee the country. And with that, they didn’t just kill people. They killed ideas.

The Bangladeshi government also started clamping down. They still have a very draconian digital act where you can be sued or you can be put in jail for criticizing religion, among other things. Anyway, the rich humanist content that people like Avijit had been creating for decades actually all stopped, came to a halt.

But I have told this story many times. So, today, let’s not talk about that. Let’s talk about the present, the future and how we are showing respect to Avijit, his memory, his sacrifice. After all, we only live once. 

At the core, Avijit was an educator, a humanist educator. He was all about open source, opening up the cumulative wealth of human knowledge to everybody. I wrote one book, but he wrote so much more. Mukto-Mona is the first freethinking Bangla site that Avijit founded in 2001 when he was a Ph.D. student in Singapore.

I wrote a book on evolution almost 15 years ago and it is still the go-to book on that subject. You can imagine if it’s such a big taboo here, how big of a taboo it can be over the other parts of the world. I am flattered that this is still the go-to book, but it’s also sad. There should have been hundreds of books like that. 

Avijit and I always actually wondered why free, high-quality education should be limited to the West, and only in English? There is a lot of crap on YouTube, on social media, even in English. But, you can also find good content, reliable content, dependable content online. 

But there is close to nothing in many other languages or many other countries. For the people who do not understand English, it’s very hard for them to get this wealth of knowledge that we share over here. So, I looked through the Bangla YouTube world, and it’s littered with religious content, fake news, unreliable information, pseudoscience. And sadly, those videos have millions and millions of views. 

So, we thought we would honor Avijit and the other fallen comrades by going back to the basics, going more mainstream. We created high-quality dependable content in native languages like Bangla, Hindi and Arabic that will make young people curious, will make them think, will make them ask questions and question the status quo. I’m sure you all will agree that you first have to question something if you want to break the status quo.

Imtiaz Shams, who has traveled here from London and who works with me, and I decided to start a YouTube channel. It’s kind of funny that I am a YouTuber now. This is not the age that you become a YouTuber, but we have to go where the young people are. We have to talk to them. We have to share what we have encountered, what we have seen, what we have learned.

Our first stop was Bangla, of course. That’s my first language. I lived in Bangladesh until high school. There are 250 million people who speak it. Dan Barker told me yesterday that it ranks as the fifth most-spoken native language in the world. 

We will show some of our videos and you can see what we have done so far. The “Think Bangla” channel on YouTube was started in 2020. We already have 80,000 subscribers [127,000 as of May 2022] and more than 3 million views [5.6 million as of May 2022]. It was unexpected. And we had the support of the world’s best and biggest humanist organizations, like FFRF. Thank you. 

[Video plays] This is one of our favorite videos. This is on periods. Seems benign, right? But this is a very taboo subject. Anything to do with your body, especially with women’s body or sex education is a big, big taboo. Some other YouTube channels got in trouble for making video on periods, so, we thought we would just make our own showing how it happens, why it happens. 

To our surprise, we got such a good review on those. Some organizations are telling us that they are using it for training. The people like us who have founded Think, we have built charities before. Imtiaz and I have created charities before. I have worked with Avijit on Mukto-Mona.

On every video we make, we work with researchers, professors, experts from all around the world. We are definitely the first to do that. Recently, we have worked with Humanist International to focus heavily on climate change content. At the beginning of Think, we built our first studio in London. We were really worried that we would get shut down by the government, mass reported or cancelled.They know who I am.  

But as we grew, something wonderful happened. Even our most taboo subjects, like human evolution, we got really good audiences and conversations started, comments even from religious people. 

Our audiences love our astronomy videos. Space is mysterious, mind boggling. And the animations are cool. But I think there is something else to it. I think people like astronomy videos because they don’t really challenge your ideas about religion like evolution does.

[Shows video] This video is actually one of our favorite videos that we have made. She is a trans woman in Bangladesh. As soon as we made this video, our audience started talking about how it’s important we should not ignore or hate the people who have been historically maligned. It got more than 800,000 views on Facebook. 

So that’s “Think Bangla.” Imtiaz actually will kill me if I don’t mention “Think English,” as well, because he was the presenter there. So we initially started with “Think Bangla” and “Think English,” but funding and resource issues meant that we had to pause the English channel. But, to our surprise, of very few videos that we have done so far, some of them went viral.

So that’s Think, the charity foundation that we have created. We have registered it in London, in the UK and also in the United States as a charity organization. And we think Avijit would have loved it if he were here.

It’s amazing to see that that conversation has started again and we are out there teaching a new generation of young people who are engaging with this kind of content, getting curious, asking questions.

I will end with Steven Pinker’s quote. He said “There is no universal law of progress. You have to be the progress you want to see.” I often say something in Bangla, translated as “Progress doesn’t happen in a linear way. You have to sometimes go backward a few steps to go forward.” We are trying to bring the conversation forward in places where people have very limited access. Thank you.

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