“Religion, a medieval form of unreason, when combined with modern weaponry becomes a real threat to our freedoms”~Salman Rushdie.
On December 16th, 2014, nine gunmen affiliated with the Pakistani Taliban conducted a terrorist attack in Peshawar, Pakistan. They entered a school, opened fire, and killed 145 people, 132 of whom were schoolchildren.
A mere three weeks later, the world witnessed another tragic atrocity committed by soldiers of the so-called ‘religion of peace’. Two masked Islamists armed with assault rifles entered the offices of Charlie Hebdo (a French satirical weekly newspaper) and killed twelve people, including two police officers, three cartoonists, and seven journalists. The gunmen were heard shouting “Allahu Akbar” (“God is great” in Arabic) and “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad”.
To me, such religious extremism is like a highly contagious virus. My own recent experiences in this regard verify the horrific reality that such religious extremism is indeed a virus of the mind.
It all started with my newly published book. A national book fair (popularly known as Ekushey Book Fair) is held every February in Bangladesh. One of my recent publishers Jagriti Prakashani published my book Biswasher Virus (Bengali for The Virus of Faith) during the Book Fair of 2014. As soon as the book was released, it rose to the Book Fair’s bestseller list. At the same time, it hit the cranial nerve of fundamentalists. The death threats started flowing to my inbox on a regular basis. I suddenly found myself to be a target of militant Islamists and terrorists. A well-known extremist by the name of Farabi Shafiur Rahman openly issued death threats to me through his numerous Facebook statuses. In one of his widely-circulated statuses Farabi wrote, “Avijit Roy lives in America and so, it is not possible to kill him right now. But he will be murdered when he comes back.”
But let’s put Farabi aside for a moment as I provide readers with a bit of background information about the book. I knew there was a growing demand for Biswasher Virus way before it appeared in the market. It started when I wrote a few blogs at Mukto-Mona (a website of freethinkers of mainly Bengali descent) on this particular topic. Due to faith-based politics, a lot had happened in Bangladesh in the last year, some of which I attempted to cover in my writings. When several bloggers were put behind bars last year for being openly atheist, I published few articles including the one in eSkeptic and one in Free Inquiry,. I also covered other incidents during the Shahbag Movement, such as when the atheist bloggers, including Ahmed Rajib Haider and Asif Mohiuddin, were brutally attacked by fundamentalists. Asif was seriously wounded but luckily survived through a murder attempt in Dhaka on January 14th; on the other hand, Rajib Haider was found hacked to death in a Dhaka street a month later. I found a commonality in each of these writings: the ‘virus of faith’ was the weapon that made these atrocities possible.
Another interesting case concerns Quazi Mohammad Rezwanul Ahsan Nafis, a Bengali student who came to the United States with a student visa in order to wage Islamic jihad. Nafis was arrested in 2012 by the FBI in a ‘sting operation’ after attempting to set off a fake car bomb outside the Federal Reserve building in Manhattan. He was eventually sentenced to 30 years in prison after pleading guilty to terrorism. In my book I tried to analyze an afterlife-obsessed, terrorist brain like Nafis’s that can put our civilization in immense danger. Nafis’s deep faith in a holy text, and his belief in afterlife-rewards, led him in his Jihadi mission against the ‘infidels’; this behavior can easily be compared to an act of a virus.
Fig: The cover of Bengali book Biswasher Virus (The Virus of Faith) written by Avijit Roy.
Let me be fair. When I state that certain religious acts are viruses, I certainly do not ignore religion’s evolutionary origin. After all, religion is a product of the complex biological and cognitive processes that are deeply rooted in our evolutionary past. Perhaps, as David Sloan Wilson proposes, religion has survived by a form of group selection. Or maybe, as Richard Dawkins points out in his God Delusion, religion is an ‘accidental by-product – a misfiring of something useful’. No matter whether it is accidental or not, religion has indeed its mark on our evolutionary path. But that does not automatically make religion is true - or even relevant - in today’s world. Michael Shermer explained in his book, The Believing Brain, that humans perhaps are ‘pattern-seeking story-telling animals.’ Yes, this skill probably provided us with survival advantages in the past, but it does not justify the ‘discovery’ of Virgin Mary’s face in a cloud, Hindu symbol of ‘Omm’ on cows, a human face on Mars, or the glorious name of ‘Allah’ on the waves of a tsunami. Rape, for example, also developed as a biological phenomenon. Some researchers indicate that human males may have evolved specialized psychological mechanisms for forcing sex on unwilling women as a reproductive strategy. This may be true for ‘murder’ as well. However, people do not defend rape or murder today just because these acts may have given our ancestors evolutionary advantages. In fact, when incidents of rape and murder increase at an alarming rate in a society - as in the case of Delhi, one year ago - people declare an ‘epidemic,’ as they call for remedies.
Perhaps this is true for religion as well. Sam Harris, author of best-selling Letter to a Christian Nation, writes, ‘That religion may have served some necessary functions for us in the past does not preclude the possibility that it is now the greatest impediment to our building a global civilization.’ But is it only now that religion is an impediment to the building of our modern society? Religion has been used all throughout history to justify war, slavery, sexism, rape, racism, homophobia, polygamy, mutilation, intolerance, and oppression of minorities; killing in the name of God has endured through the ages. The ancient history of Sumerians, Mayans, Incas, and Aztecs reveal ritualistic killings of fellow human beings to gratify each civilization’s invisible gods and goddesses. In many cultures, children were buried alive beneath the foundations of newly built structures to ensure the structures would be robust. Other cultures repeatedly sacrificed virgins or first-born children in an effort to overcome natural disasters and climatic tragedies. In India, Hindu widows were burned alive so that they could serve their recently deceased husbands into the next world. Even in the West, around two million women were tortured and burned into confessing that they were witches. And let’s not forget the millions who have died in holy Crusades, Jihads, and the war between Protestants and Catholics produced the largest religious death toll of all time.
Let’s call a spade a spade. These atrocities are the products of virus-infected minds. On September 11th, 2001, Americans experienced an atrocity in their own land that killed almost 3,000 people and caused at least $10 billion in property and infrastructure damage. It was, of course, the virus of religion that persuaded Mohamed Atta and eighteen others that perpetrating this bloodbath was ‘not just a moral act, but also a sacred duty.’ In recent Charlie Hebdo attack, Kouachi brothers killed twelve people and injuring several others in the name of Allah and their prophet.
Kouachi brothers, Nafis and Mohamed Atta’s cases are not isolated acts of the religion virus. Rev. Michael Bray, the American minister who was convicted of a series of abortion clinic attacks in the eighties, used Biblical verses to defend his act of terrorism. In 1992, Hindu fanatics destroyed Babri Masjid, one of the largest and oldest mosques in Uttar Pradesh of India, based on a religious myth called ‘Ram Janmabhoomi.’ The incident ignited riots in India and its neighboring countries. As I am writing this article, ISIS - one of the most infamous extremist groups - is still torturing minorities and beheading people in the name of Allah; and Boko Haram, another terrorist organization in Nigeria is not only forcing women and girls into prostitution but also massacring thousand people mercilessly in the name of God. These are only a few examples of ‘the viruses of faiths’, and they’re happening all around us.
I don’t claim to have come up with any new or novel concept in Biswasher Virus. The concept was already there. Those who are familiar with Richard Dawkins’ revolutionary idea of Meme (a concept introduced in his 1976 magnum opus The Selfish Gene) are acquainted with the viral metaphor of religious meme. Based on this idea, numerous authors suggested the religion memeplex can behave like a ‘biological virus’ acting in a living organism. Computer scientist Craig James (author of The Religion Virus) and psychologist Darrel W. Ray (author of The God Virus) independently proposed that the ‘religion meme’ can be viewed as virus. Philosopher Daniel Dennett (author of Breaking the Spell) suggested that religions exhibit behavioral control among people in the same way that parasites invade organisms. For example, the rabies virus infects very specific neurons in the brain of a mammalian host, later inducing the host to bite or attack others. Lancet Fluke (Dicrocoelium dendriticum), a parasite, infects the brain of ants by taking the control and thus driving them to climb to the top of the blade of the grass where they can be eaten by a cow. Another parasitic hairworm, scientifically known as Spinochordodes tellinii, infects grasshoppers’ brains in a way that makes grasshoppers more likely to jump into water and commit suicide.
Don’t we see similar occurrences in our human society? Take the horrifying videos of hostage beheadings by ISIS as an example. Regardless, President Obama has made it abundantly clear that the United States is not at war with Islam. On laying out a strategy for dealing with the Islamic State (ISIS, or, alternatively, ISIL), Obama uttered,
‘Now let’s make two things clear: ISIL is not Islamic. No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim. … ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple’.
On the same issue Obama also remarked,
‘ISIL speaks for no religion. Their victims are overwhelmingly Muslim, and no faith teaches people to massacre innocents. No just God would stand for what they did yesterday, and for what they do every single day’.
Whatever the motivation behind President Obama's statements – whether it is simple strategy or so-called ‘political correctness’ - there is very little doubt that ISIS speaks exactly for Islam. ISIS is when the virus of faith is taken into action and the outbreak becomes an epidemic. The Quran clearly states, ‘when ye meet the unbelievers (in fight), strike off their heads’ (Q. 47:4), ‘smite ye above their necks’ (Q. 8:12) and ‘kill them wherever you find them’ (Q. 2:191) etc. According to the early biography of Prophet Muhammad by Ibn Ishaq, Prophet Muhammad himself sanctioned the merciless massacre of the Banu Qurayza, a vanquished Jewish tribe. Some 600 to 900 men from the Qurayza were lead on Muhammad’s orders to the Market of Medina. Trenches were dug and those men were beheaded with swords, their decapitated corpses buried in the trenches in presence of the prophet. Citing the references of the massacre from Shahi Bukhari, The Pakistani Talibans (Tehreek-e-Taliban), considered their recent killing in Peshawar to be consistent with what Prophet Mohammed did with his enemies 1400 years ago. Even Karen Armstrong - who has become immensely popular among Muslim apologists for ‘correcting western misconception’ about Islam - was so disgusted that she compared Muhammad’s massacre to the Nazi atrocities of the Jews. Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of holy Islam, still utilizes public beheading as a form of capital punishment for crimes including ‘apostasy’. When a person is convicted, he is taken to the square, and he is bound to kneel in front of the executioner. The executioner uses a sword to remove the criminal’s head from his body at the neck, following Islamic Sharia law.
ISIS is merely following the tradition that its holy prophet established fourteen hundred years ago. We know the stories of Daniel Pearl, Nich Berg, Kim Sun II, and Paul Johnson, who were captured by the soldiers of Allah and then beheaded in the past. We were bound to watch the same unfortunate fate for American journalists James Folley and Steven Sotloff, as well as British aid worker David Haines. ISIS’s cruel way of killing infidels is indeed sanctioned by holy texts and Islamic Sharia laws. Biologist Jerry Coyne is absolutely right in his statement – ‘If ISIS is not Islamic, then the Inquisition was not Catholic either.’
It seems as if the American president has made a vow to avoid criticizing religion at all costs—particularly Islam. Such an attitude is nothing new. Coming just after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, President Bush famously proclaimed that Islam is a “religion of peace.” However, a rational scrutiny can show hundreds of verses in the Quran, which, by any standard are not ‘peaceful’ but inhuman, parochial, and dangerously viral. For example, the Quran tells believers to: ‘not to make friends with Jews and Christians’ (Q. 5:51); fight them ‘until they pay the Jizya (a penalty tax for the non-Muslims living under Islamic rules) with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued’ (Q. 9:29); ‘kill the disbelievers wherever we find them’ (Q. 2:191); ‘murder them and treat them harshly’ (Q. 9:123); ‘fight and slay the non-believers, seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem’ (Q. 9:5); ‘fight the unbelievers until no other religion except Islam is left’ (Q. 2:193) etc. Such instructions can easily incite hatred and violence in the mind of a fanatic believer. Just as a parasite can hijack the brain of a grasshopper to promote suicidal behavior, certain texts of a holy book can influence a terrorist’s mind – as seen in the cases of Rezwanul Ahsan Nafis and Mohammad Atta – into blowing up the Federal Reserve building or World Trade Center through an insane sacrifice of the host’s life.
Of course I know, most of the Muslims are not terrorists, they are peaceful. The reason behind is, they do not follow Quran literally. As Taner Edis (author of An Illusion of Harmony: Science and Religion in Islam) pointed out in one of his essays, ‘Ordinary Muslims depend heavily on local religious scholars, Sufi orders and similar brotherhoods, … They hold Quran sacred, but their understanding of what Islam demands comes through local religious culture.’ The moderate Muslims are however, quite happy with these sorts of ‘religion of peace’ like rhetoric from seasoned politicians. Osama Bin Laden, Anwar al‑Awlaki, Kouachi and Coulibaly, Nidal Hasan, Al-Qaeda, and ISIS who follow the scripture literally are blamed for mass destruction while their cherished dogma remains unquestioned. Now, those who wish to be ‘factually correct’ rather than ‘politically correct’ will be outcast or even physically threatened.
This is exactly what happened to me. Farabi, the known cyber terrorist of Bangladesh, issued laughably ironic death threats for my writing of Biswasher Virus. I found there was no difference between them and the ‘peaceful’ Muslim demonstrators in Britain who were photographed (after the Dutch-cartoon controversy) bearing banners that read, ‘Behead those who say Islam is a violent religion.’ While the term ‘the religion of peace’ gives me a belly-laugh nowadays, the terrorist- association of its followers never surprises me. It has been revealed that Farabi is linked to the radical Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, and a terrorist organization, Hizbut Tahrir. Last year, Farabi threatened to kill a Muslim cleric officiated at the funeral of Ahmed Rajib Haider (the aforementioned freethinker who was hacked to death). Under tremendous public pressure, Farabi was arrested, but to everyone’s surprise, he was granted bail within few months. Since then, he has continued to threaten many progressives in Bangladesh; however, no official action has been taken against him.
The story doesn’t end there. Farabi also wrote a death threat to Rokomari.com (Bangladesh’s first online bookstore) and ordered the site to stop selling my books. In his Facebook post, Farabi specified the office address of Rokomari.com and called upon his “Islamist friends” to attack the adjacent locality. He also told the owner of Rokomari.com (Mahmudul Hasan Sohagh), that he would suffer the same fate as Ahmed Rajib Haider if he did not comply with Farabi’s demands. As a result, Rokomari took my books off its list. The news created a huge uproar, and the issue came to the attention of national media and beyond. Prominent online newspapers of Bangladesh (such as bdnews24.com, dhakatribune.com etc.) featured the news as a cover story; other international sites and newspapers (secularnews.org, freethinker.co.uk, ucanews.com and investigativeproject.org etc.) also reported the incident with due importance. The government, however, was reluctant to take any action. Farabi was not arrested, nor did Rokomari apologize for its wrongdoings.
Regardless, many of my friends, readers, fans and well-wishers took the issue quite seriously. Numerous bloggers and writers protested by withdrawing their books from Rokomari, while others organized a campaign to boycott the company products. The situation drew continuous attention in news media, Facebook, Twitter, and other circles devoted to free speech and free thought. After two days, Rokomari issued a statement on its Facebook page saying, ‘Rokomari is an online bookstore that does not sell or distribute books that has been banned by state.’ Rokomari also mentioned that some vested groups are trying to tarnish its image and reputation. I found Rokomari’s statement to be rather amusing. It is important to note that nobody ever went to the court complaining about my book; furthermore, neither the state nor the government banned any of my books. Most of my writings deal with modern science and philosophy and include proper references to journals, newspapers, and other academic literature. Nevertheless, Rokomari withdrew my books from its site solely based on Farabi's demand. Rokomari’s actions contradict the statement it issued. The site coordinators could have simply said, “Look, since these books were not banned by the state, we can’t withdraw them without a proper investigation.” Or, they could have simply asked, “Where exactly is the objectionable material?” By getting rid of my books in a medieval fashion, Rokomari failed to conduct their business in a professional manner.
During a total solar eclipse in 1919, Sir Arthur Eddington’s historical experiment paved the way to test Einstein’s theory over classical Newtonian physics. In a similar way, I think the publication of Biswasher Virus created grounds for testing the hypothesis if religious faith can and does act as a virus. The aftermath of the Rokomari-Farabi episode and recent Charlie Hebdo massacre proved the hypothesis to be correct. If one thing is certain, it is that the virus of faith is dangerously real.
Dr. Avijit Roy is a Bangladeshi-American blogger, published author, and prominent defender of the free thought movement in Bangladesh. He is an engineer by profession, but well-known for his writings in his self-founded site, Mukto-Mona—an Internet congregation of freethinkers, rationalists, skeptics, atheists, and humanists of mainly Bengali and South Asian descent. As an advocate of atheism, science, and metaphysical naturalism, he has published eight Bangla books, and many of his articles have been published in magazines and journals. His last two books, Obisshahser Dorshon (The Philosophy of Disbelief) and Biswasher Virus (The Virus of Faith), have been critically well-received and are popular Bengali books on science, skepticism, and rationalism. He writes from Atlanta, Georgia.
 Taliban go on killing spree at Pakistan school, 132 students dead, Reuters, December 16, 2014
 Charlie Hebdo shooting: At least 12 killed as shots fired at satirical magazine's Paris office, The Independent. January 7, 2015.
 Bangladeshi-American Writer Censored, Threatened by Radical Islamist, IPT News, April 4, 2014
 Avijit Roy, The Struggle of Bangladeshi Bloggers, eSkeptic feature article, May 8th, 2013; ISSN 1556-5696.
 Trisha Ahmed and Avijit Roy, Freethought Under Attack in Bangladesh, Free Inquiry Magazine (OP-ED, Volume 33, Number 6), October/November 2013
 David Sloan Wilson, Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, University Of Chicago Press, 2002
 Richard Dawkins, God Delusion, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006
 Avijit Roy, The Glorious Name "ALLAH" Appeared on the Waves of Tsunami! : A response, Mukto-Mona.com, 2005.
 Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer, A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion, A Bradford Book, 2001.
 David M. Buss, The Murderer Next Door: Why the Mind Is Designed to Kill, Penguin Books; Reprint edition, 2006
 Trisha Ahmed and Avijit Roy, The Enigma of Rape, Mukto-Mona.com, January 10, 2013
 Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, Vintage, 2008
 Nigel Davies, Human Sacrifice in History and Today, William Morrow & Co, 1981
 James A. Haught, Holy Horrors: An Illustrated History of Religious Murder and Madness, Prometheus Books, 1990
 Bruce Lincoln, Holy Terrors: Thinking About Religion After September 11, 2nd Edition, The University Of Chicago Press, 2006.
 Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, University of California Press; 3rd Edition, 2003
 Avijit Roy, Obisshahser Dorshon (The Philosophy of Disbelief), Shuddhashar, 2nd Edition, 2012.
 Boko Haram leader says God ordered him to carry out massacre, LA Times, January 21, 2015
 Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene. New York City: Oxford University Press, 1976.
 Craig A. James, The Religion Virus: Why We Believe in God, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013
 Darrel W. Ray, God Virus, The: How Religion Infects Our Lives and Culture, IPC Press, 2009
 Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Penguin Books, 2006
 Transcript: President Obama On How U.S. Will Address Islamic State, npr.org, September 10, 2014
 Statement by the President, The White House, whitehouse.gov.
 Ibn Ishaq, The Life of Muhammad, trs. A Guillaume, Oxford University Press, Karachi, 2004 imprint, p545; Also see, Tabari, Abu Ja’far Muhammad b. Jarir, ‘The Victory of Islam’, vol viii, pp.35-36.
 Peshawar killing consistent with Prophet Mohammed's teaching: Pakistan Taliban, IndiaToday.in New Delhi, December 18, 2014.
 Karen Armstrong, Muhammad: A Western Attempt to Understand Islam, Orion, 1991
 Jerry Coyne, If ISIS is not Islamic, then the Inquisition was not Catholic, New Republic, September 15, 2014
 Taner Edis, A False Quest for a True Islam, Free Inquiry 25, no. 5, 2007
 Related news can be found here:
a) Bangladeshi-American Writer Censored, Threatened by Radical Islamist, IPT News, April 4, 2014
b) Bangladesh online bookstore drops author after death threats, ucanews.com, March 18, 2014
c) Threat takes book out of list, bdnews24.com, March 16, 2014
d) Death threat stops book sale, Dhaka Tribune, March 16, 2014
e) Islamic death threats over books, The Freethinker (freethinker.co.uk) March 20, 2014
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