6 Horrors of Being an Atheist in a Fundamentalist Country
"Turncoat" Jo is an atheist from a country where that kind of shit can land your unbelieving ass in prison. He's been shot by religious extremists and hunted down for the unspeakable crime of writing a blog, and he's alive today only because he fled the hell out of Bangladesh on a student visa. Cracked sat down with Jo to hear about life in the shadow of religious extremism and to find out what it's like to have a dude straight up shoot you in the street. Here's what we learned:
If You're a Non-Believer, They Will Find You
When I was 8 years old, I saw a pigeon poop on a Quran while we were outside doing an Islamic studies class. I showed the book to my grandma, who decided the pigeons were possessed and needed to be executed. So, some men got together and murdered all those pigeons in the name of God. We didn't know which bird actually did the pooping, so they had to kill all of them. So, you know. Just to give you an idea.
Not that anyone who's ever lived in any city feels much sympathy for these guys.
In theory, things have gotten better since then -- the supreme court of Bangladesh upheld religious freedom in 2010. But it's also a country that is nearly 90 percent Muslim, and Islamic studies courses are very much mandatory. (Strangely, we were taught evolution in school, from sixth grade biology on. So there's that, I guess.)
I had come out as an atheist to some friends before the laws changed, but I kept that fact secret because did you read that thing about the pigeons? But being a teenager, what I couldn't avoid was getting into an argument with my teacher. It didn't take long for one of my classmates to blab that I was a non-believer. That was the beginning of a sequence of events that would lead to the whole "getting shot and fleeing the country" thing a few years down the line.
So yes, bullying does get worse than this.
But at the time, I just had to settle for a good beating. Teachers could cane the shit out of students in Bangladesh until 2010, and he did just that, for like 15 minutes straight. And that wasn't the end of it. We got death threats. I have a little brother, and someone sent a letter to my dad saying they knew when he got off from school and they'd be coming after him for the crime of being related to me. My dad had to hire bodyguards for three months. And I felt terrible, because this was all my fault.
And if you think that classmate of mine was a jerk for ratting me out, you have to understand ...
Everyone Forces Fundamentalism on Each Other
When you hear about some country on the news with crazily strict religious codes of dress or conduct, it's easy to imagine that it's just a small group of officials enforcing the rules on the common folk, who just roll their eyes and go along with it. But that's not the way it works: The fundamentalists are your neighbors, co-workers, and classmates, all getting more extreme as they try to top each other to prove they're the purest of all.
In America, the most extreme people get reality shows.
You've probably heard about revenge porn, where jilted exes post compromising nude pics of their former lovers to be gawked at in the worst parts of the Internet. This happens in Bangladesh, too, only replace the naked pictures with pictures of women wearing jeans and suits, or even just not wearing hijabs. If someone shares a photo of a woman who isn't covered from head to toe, she'll be shamed as a slut. And while "slut" is a nasty word everywhere, there it's a prelude to straight-up violence -- our extremists consider things like this to be stoneable offenses. I should note that a picture of the health minister's daughter ended up on one of these sites, and that time it was the photographers who went to jail. Funny how that works.
Once, a friend of mine was driving a scooter past a madrassa with a bunch of kids out in front of it. As she passed, they pelted her with bricks and stones, calling her a slut. We came out there and asked what the hell they were doing, and they told us this was all part of comedic play, intended to teach proper values via hitting people with stones. We called the cops, and they told us the kids would probably stop on their own, eventually. We just needed to give it a few hours.
So yes, police get worse than that one dick who ticketed you for going four miles over the damn limit.
And that's the thing -- once the extremists know the police won't respond to their craziness (or might even back it up), all sense of proportion vanishes. In 2012, a single Buddhist man insulting Islam was enough to get hundreds of people rioting and burning temples in the street. Living in the shadow of religious extremism is like having an invisible beehive hovering above your bed, and also being the kid from My Girl.
Your Beliefs Can Screw Your Family Over
A lot of you reading this are already saying, "Well, I would stand up for my beliefs, regardless of the danger!" And that's fine, as long as you remember that it's not just you who'll suffer the consequences.
Yes, there are places in this world where blogs matter.
See, it doesn't matter if your family shares any of your beliefs (or lack thereof); being associated with you can be enough to screw up their lives, too. My dad was an army officer. Word got out that I was a kafir, and immediately there was a neighborhood meeting, where I kept getting grilled on why I didn't believe. My dad's boss strongly suggested that I be sent to a madrassa, and I went there for three months.
I hated it, as you can imagine, and eventually I ran the hell away. At that point my dad said it was OK -- I could quit and he wouldn't force me to go back. That was the end for me, but not for my dad, and after another month or so he quit the army. We were lucky that he'd saved up enough money to start his own business, but even though he was his own boss, I still had to attend mosque every week so my family wouldn't be shunned.
At one point I did stop going to services, and my dad immediately started getting harassed. He actually asked me to tell people I wasn't living at home anymore. See, the theory was that if I was an infidel at home, he was failing as a father. But if I did my consorting with devilishly bejeaned women in the hidden opium dens of Dhaka, then that was on me.
Skinny jeans are bullet trains to hell.
But I wouldn't keep quiet, and things kept escalating.
A Blog Can Get You Killed
In America, there's nothing less powerful than an atheist with a blog. In Bangladesh, though, apparently it's a real threat. I started a blog when I was 16, along with some other writer friends I knew. We were frustrated and angry with the status quo, like basically all teenagers everywhere. We wanted to live in a moderate, liberal society where women could do what they wanted with their faces, and that's the kind of thing we wrote about. The worst we should have faced were some aggressive ASCII dicks in our comment section.
Or something along these lines.
But there was a massive Islamic uprising late in 2012, and they came after my friend Thaba Baba and beheaded him in his own house -- he was the second blogger killed that month. We'd had a meeting just two days earlier saying we needed to deactivate our blogs. We didn't act fast enough. Most of my co-bloggers left the country after that, and now I live somewhere free enough that no one cares when atheists complain on the Internet. We don't blog in Bangladesh anymore, though.
See, it's easy to be ballsy and provocative when your friends aren't literally losing their heads over it. We'd all like to think we'd stick around and make a stand for what we believe in were it ever threatened. But think real hard: What do you believe in hard enough to have your goddamn head severed over it? My guess is "Not much, and even less with the actual saw in front of you."
Courage doesn't fare well against serration.
Not that any of this stopped me from throwing a concert.
Islamic Extremists Really Hate Heavy Metal
I was in a black metal band as a kid, and when I was 16 we did underground shows. The whole country was under a curfew at that point, which basically meant "If extremists blow up your party, it's on you." We gathered money, rented an auditorium, and sent out the invitations via private Facebook messages. One dumbass printed posters once, and someone in the printing company blabbed and brought down enough heat that the guy had to pull out of music entirely.
When you can't trust the printing press, who can you trust?
The show I got shot for was supposed to be just 20 to 30 people, and we had a no-camera policy. It was us and one other band, and we trusted everybody in the audience ... but of course word still got out. Blame the fact that we were teenagers. You want people bragging about your concerts in America. That's ... not the case there.
Somebody videotaped me holding a goat head and saying some pretty negative stuff about the local extremists. It was metal as fuck. But the day after that, we were stuck in traffic and this guy walked up to our car, knocked on the window, and told me to get out or he'd shoot me in the face. That's the kind of request you listen to. So I got out of the car and he shot me in the knee instead. That part was also metal as fuck, come to think of it.
It sure wasn't rubber as fuck.
My dad called the cops, but they were like, "There's not much we can do about it." They said they couldn't find a "motive" behind it. My dad didn't want this to get out and lead to more people shooting at us, so he hushed it all up. You have to cut your losses at some point, and that point is the tip of a bullet entering your kneecap.
Eventually You Have to Run
At the height of all the violence, I had three blogs going. I was anonymous in two of them and used a pseudonym for one. Well, one day I came home and the secret service was there waiting. They told me I'd made a list of atheist bloggers to be "dealt with" and were there to take down my blogs for my own protection. But "If you're not going to be careful, we can't protect you."
And that was that.
Plus a cranapple soda.
I got a student visa and moved to America. It's a wonderful place. You've got freedom of speech here. That is the most wonderful thing you can have as a human being. I think the rest of the world sees things like the Duck Dynasty guys as a portrayal of America, but it's not like that at all -- some of the population is backward, but you can argue with them. They don't shoot you in the knee (and I lived in Oklahoma for a while). TV censorship is rampant in Bangladesh. Throughout the '90s, we had lots of TV, but after the conservatives won in the 2000s, they blocked HBO and banned the American shows. The Internet is heavily censored, too. Porn is pretty well blocked unless you use a proxy. So, yeah ... I love being in America (and Canada).
The whole free world of porn, really.
But I might not get to stay much longer. As I said, I'm on a student visa right now. Those don't last forever, and I'm already feeling pressure to return. The most extreme party in the country was just banned, which you might take as a sign of hope, but 18 people died at polling stations this January alone, and that's almost never the sign of an improving political climate.
For now, I'm going to enjoy my unfiltered Internet, hope no one deports me, and try to appreciate the fact that my local pigeons can poop in utter freedom.
Related Reading: We've also talked to an actor in one of those weight loss infomercials and gotten the whole dirty truth behind that business. Cracked got the inside scoop on growing up in a fundamentalist Christian household and also spoke with a 911 dispatcher. We've learned some ugly (and heartwarming) facts about working at Disneyworld and also interviewed a Dominatrix.
For more ridiculous ways you can get busted, check out 22 Insane Laws You Won't Believe Exist in the Modern World.