In South and Southeast Asia, incidents of religious violence often erupt in places where the number of followers of major faiths happens to be lopsided.
The majority Hindus in India clashing with poor Muslim minorities, for example; or Muslims in Pakistan harassing or killing Christians; or the Buddhists of Myanmar persecuting the Muslim Rohingyas, who are told to go back to neighbouring, Muslim-majority Bangladesh and are now fleeing desperately out to sea. In places like Malaysia and Indonesia, there are still simmering ethnic and religious tensions between majority Muslim Malays, who generally hold power, and ethnic minority Chinese communities, which are mainly Christian.
But we may now have a new candidate for the loneliest, most dangerous religious affiliation: Having none at all.
Though numerically tiny compared with the fleeing hordes of the religiously persecuted, these are grim times for secularists and atheists in the region – particularly in Bangladesh, where three bloggers have been murdered in recent months.
The most recent came this week: A 33-year-old banker named Ananta Bijoy Das was hacked to death by four men wielding machetes as he walked to work. He had been a contributor to Mukto-Mona, or Free Mind, a blog for free-thinking secularists, atheists and those opposed to Islamic fundamentalism in Bangladesh. Mr. Das, a month earlier, had applied for a visa to visit Sweden. He wanted to attend a press freedom event being held by PEN Sweden, a branch of the free speech organization. The Swedish embassy in Dhaka turned him down, reportedly thinking he might not want to return to Bangladesh.
And now he is dead.
The founder of Mukto-Mona, the Bangladeshi-born U.S. writer and author Avijit Roy, was slashed to death in Dhaka in February – an attack that also wounded his wife. In March, Washiqur Rahman, another secular blogger who critiqued Islamic fundamentalism, was likewise killed.
No one has been arrested. In Bangladesh – as in India, another nominally secular state – persecuted minorities are forced to deal with an establishment (police, government, etc.) staffed almost entirely by the dominant religious majority. In Bangladesh, there is fear that secularists are now easy targets who can be murdered with impunity.
"We are worried about our own safety, because the killers can easily kill and then they can get away," Binoy Vadra, a friend of Mr. Das and a fellow blogger, told the BBC. "We don't know what's going to happen – whether there will be any police to protect us."
Religious violence in the developing world is often sparked by non-religious matters: A competition for scarce resources, say, or scuffles among groups of idle teenagers. In some ways, this makes the overt, targeted killings of secularists calling for an end to fundamentalism even more worrying. After Mr. Roy's murder, some atheists in neighbouring India were said to be getting nervous about whether they might be next.
There are no political parties in this part of the world for the faithless; and sticking up for persecuted atheists is unlikely to count as a foreign policy coup, particularly when many hold opinions unpalatable to Asian electorates.
Taslima Nasreen, a well-known secular Bangladeshi poet, author and feminist, has lived in exile since 1994 because she feared for her life at home. After fatwas, mob assaults and break-ins, she fled Bangladesh – which has banned her books – bouncing between Europe and India, with her mere presence in certain Indian cities sparking violence. After the death of Mr. Das, Ms. Nasreen tweeted a link to a poem Mr. Das wrote about her – and later tweeted out an image of Bangladesh's flag with a cleaver superimposed on the red circle at its centre.
Figures like Ms. Nasreen often fight a lonely battle, occasionally gaining support from European nations – like France, which trumpeted support for Charlie Hebdo after the massacre of the newspaper's secular staff in Paris at the hands of Islamist extremists. But even many liberals have a hard time supporting stubborn secularists: Members of the PEN American Center who thought the magazine unfairly targeted Muslims recently led a boycott over a gala where surviving Charlie staffers were to get an award. This enraged PEN member Salman Rushdie, who knows what a fatwa feels like.
It is not difficult to see why support for Asia's atheists is hard to come by if one looks at Singapore: There, Amos Yee, a 16-year-old atheist blogger, recently got himself into serious trouble by daring to post a video titled "Lee Kuan Yew is Finally Dead!" The young rabble-rouser mocked the late statesman – whose authoritarian shadow still looms over Singaporeans who push the boundaries of free speech – saying he and Jesus were "both power hungry and malicious." He later posted a cartoon of Mr. Lee having sex with Margaret Thatcher. One member of the public slapped Mr. Yee as he walked into the court.
He was eventually convicted, since Singapore has tough rules on offending the faithful, and got off with a sort of probation. But in a region where being secular could be more dangerous than being a religious minority, it is still better than being killed.