Frank Denton: Finding a haven from hate and persecution
Every religion, seemingly, has its radicals — often hateful radicals — and every religion has many more adherents at the other extreme, people who actually live their better beliefs. This is a story about both ends of the spectrum, in bold colors — with the richer, brighter colors in Jacksonville. You see the dark end on TV and in the Times-Union, about the hate of the militants who have taken over parts of Iraq and Syria, declared an “Islamic State,” imposed strict Sharia law and demanded obedience from all Muslims, even executing some Shiites, fellow Muslims but of a different tradition.
We reported about the Sudanese woman who was sentenced to death for refusing to recant her Christian conversion from Islam. Last week, we saw more religious hatred in Israel, apparently with extremists on both sides now torturing and murdering children. I have written here about the Burmese Buddhists who have killed many and routed thousands of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. Ironically, the Rohingya emigrated from nearby Bangladesh, where some Muslims kill other Muslims — and where this
The central character is Saif. I am using only part of his name because he does not want to be found by people who want to kill him. Saif, now 36, had a comfortable upbringing in Chittagong, the port city of Bangladesh, then went to college in the Philippines to study computer science. After several jobs as a web developer and designer, he was laid off by an international advertising firm when it closed its Bangladesh office. Still, he made a good living freelancing as a web and graphic designer. And he blogged on his own website, which also will go unnamed because to name it could locate him. The site has two primary kinds of content. First, to attract an audience, he says, he had to decorate the site with sensational stories he labels as “Unexpected,” including photos of provocatively clad models and movie stars. But more important, the core of the website is his blogs. Saif, who learned English by watching American TV — “Seinfeld,” “Frazier” — while growing up, said that, in his teenage years, he began to question the fundamentalist Islam all around him. He began to think of himself as agnostic.
“I saw Islam taking religion too literally,” he said. “They were starting wars between themselves in the Middle East because they were not getting anyone else to fight against. Those were the articles where I got in trouble.” Most of his audience was international, outside Bangladesh, until he started advertising the site on Facebook. Then “a madrasa-based fundamentalist group” began following the site. “I didn’t know my writing was provoking their anger,” Saif said. “I didn’t directly mention our Prophet or our God Allah. I just said that all religions of the world — Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Islam — should all work together and try to move the world forward.” All of that was too much for radicals like Hefajat-e-Islam Bangladesh, a group that advocates banning women from the workplace, forbidding their mixing with men in public, an end to women’s “shameless behavior and dresses,” enforcement of blasphemy laws and execution of “atheist” bloggers. In such an environment, bloggers and even journalists become targets. The Guardian reported that, on one day last year, at least 18 journalists were injured when Islamist activists attacked them in separate incidents in three cities.
An anti-Islamist blogger was hacked to death with machetes near his home. Reporters Without Borders ranked Bangladesh 144th out of 179 countries for press freedom in 2013. Saif said the violence reached him last November, when he was riding his bicycle to get groceries: A man with a knife stopped him and said, “You have to die today in the name of Allah.” A rickshaw happened by, diverting the man, and Saif rode away but was struck by a rock — and heard “Allah hu akbar,” or, God is the greatest. Saif said he feared going to the police because of anti-blasphemy laws, so he went into hiding and tried to knuckle under, taking some of his blogs off his website. “Maybe this will solve the problem,” he said he hoped. But two weeks later, he had to go out to a pharmacy and two masked men, one with a knife, took over his rickshaw.
“Do you remember?” he said one asked. “Today is your last day, infidel.” The other said, “Allah hu akbar.” When a police car coincidentally showed up down the street, Saif said the men were distracted and he fled. “It didn’t make sense,” he said. “I took my blog offline, and still they tried to kill me. Even if I go their way, I’m not allowed.” So in January, he and his wife (unnamed here for her safety) borrowed money from her mother and fled, picking Jacksonville because her sister is here, as a student at Florida State College at Jacksonville. They found an inexpensive apartment in the Lakewood area.
Saif applied for asylum, spending his time and considerable digital-research skills developing elaborate documentation of his life and the attacks on him, complete with details and maps of the incidents. He has prepared and given to Homeland Security a 99-page report on “Bloggers of Bangladesh” and a 42-page “Bangladesh 2013 Human Rights Report” to bolster his case. He is optimistic about his chances but, while he waits, he and his wife cannot work and earn a living. So he spends his time on his computer … and thinking about his life and future, “trying to figure out what I believe in.” This is where his story brightens into full, rich color, in Jacksonville.
In search of “spiritual guidance,” Saif Googled words associated with his belief that “All the religions in the world should come together, pray together and work together.” He came upon the Unitarian Universalist Association, whose seven guiding principles include: “Justice, equity and compassion in human relations … A free and responsible search for truth and meaning … The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.”
That sounded better to Saif than what he remembered as the “signature move” of the Bangladeshi radicals, if they don’t kill you: “They cut your wrists and ankles, so you can’t walk and you can’t write.” Within an hour of his email, Saif says the Unitarians in Boston responded and referred him to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Jacksonville in Arlington. He went there and found a mixture of “Christians, Hindus and Buddhists talking about positive things, about building things. I really felt welcome there. My wife went because they told me she could be a Muslim and still be a Unitarian. She could sit with the men.” Saif had read on the Internet about meditation as way of dealing with stress, so he sat in on the church’s Soto Zen Meditation Group, led by Roger Cochran, a medical sociologist and health-care consultant.
“He is a bright, articulate person,” Cochran said. “He stayed afterward and asked to speak to me and told me part of his story, which was frankly so appalling, so surprising, that I was really taken aback by all he had had to deal with.” Cochran introduced Saif that night to Phillip Baber, the church’s 35-year-old ministerial services coordinator, who soon will become the minister. When he heard Saif’s story, including that he and his wife were about out of money and faced eviction, he gave them $100 on the spot — half out of petty cash and half out of his own pocket.
“I was struck by his sincerity and his genuineness,” Baber said. “He was so straightforward and so personable. The more I listened to him, the more my heart went out to him and his cause. The more I talked to him, the more amazed I was.” Two Sundays ago, the “UU” congregation organized a special donation, and the approximately 100 congregants present came up with $3,000, which will carry Saif and his wife until they can get asylum and go to work.
“If the Unitarians were not there,” he said, “I don’t know what would have happened. … We have nowhere else to go.” As happens when our many immigrants come to the new Jacksonville, everyone tends to benefit. Baber said Saif was a very human reminder to him of the very origins of the Unitarian church.
“He is a religious liberal in the context of his home in Bangladesh,” Baber said. “He became persecuted and had to flee. That’s a bit of a microcosm of our tradition in faith as well, going back to the Congregationalists and Puritans who left England to find religious freedom in America, the freedom to have doubt, the freedom to ask questions. It’s the proud history of people who were considered heretics and persecuted and run out of their homes. “So when we saw [Saif], we saw a kindred spirit, in the sense that he was a secular blogger speaking out against the religious persecution he was seeing.” Cochran said his experience with Saif and his wife has “given me a lot personally, a more moralist view. They have really broadened my horizons about what it means to live in America. I’ve lived overseas, in Africa, and coming back, I saw America in a different light.
“But now, seeing their experience and how we as Americans, in spite of the nasty things we say about each other, are much more open to embracing differences than other places like Bangladesh, made me appreciate the value of life in our country.”