Bangladeshi publisher Ahmedur Rashid Tutul took shelter in Norway after surviving a machete attack by Muslim extremists at his Dhaka publishing house in October 2015.
Every year he used to attend the Ekushey book festival in the Bangladeshi capital, but now he’s a regular at The Hague Freedom Book Fair in the Netherlands, whose second edition opened Friday.
The four-day festival that runs through Monday features appearances by Tutul and other Bangladeshi writers, bloggers and publishers who have seen their works banned in their home country, as well as displays of their books. The fair also features publishers from Britain and the Netherlands along with a special exhibition of books banned in Turkey.
Mukto-Mona, a website for free thinkers in Bangladesh that was founded by secular blogger and writer Avijit Roy – who was murdered after leaving the Ekushey fair on Feb. 26, 2015 – jointly organized the book fair in the Netherlands with the Hague Peace Projects as part of a peaceful fight for freedom speech.
It is a continuation of 2016’s Bangladesh Alternative Book Fair held in memory of Roy and other Bangladeshi writers, publishers and freethinkers who were killed in 2015.
“It is a one-of-a-kind protest against censorship. Freedom of speech and thought is the prime aim for this book fair,” Mukto-Mona chief Rafida Bonya Ahmed told BenarNews.
“Many important and truthful books have been forbidden in Bangladesh and other countries. These books should be available for readers for the sake of building a rational society,” said Bonya, who was seriously injured in the machete attack that killed her husband Avijit Roy.
Roy was a Bangladeshi-born U.S. citizen and skeptic who penned controversial works in Bangladesh, including books that were unofficially banned. Some of these works by Roy, including his books “The Philosophy of Disbelief” and “Homosexuality: A Scientific and Socio-Psychological Investigation,” are on display at the fair in The Hague.
So are books by a Bangladeshi female writer, Taslima Nasreen, who fled her country after receiving death threats. Other books being showcased at the fair and that have been officially or unofficially banned in Bangladesh include “The Satanic Verses” by Salman Rushdie, according to organizers.
Joining Tutul’s Suddhashar publishing house at the fair are Bangladesh publishing houses Shrabon, Adarsha, Ongkur and University Press Limited. Some will be attending the fair while others will showcase their banned books.
Tutul stressed the symbolism of the fair’s focus on banned books.
“It aims to project internationally the restrictions, barriers and situations created either by Islamists, who are against free thinking and free expression, or by the Bangladesh government,” he told BenarNews.
Tutul, who published books written by Roy, and bloggers Ranadipam Basu and Tareq Rahim were seriously injured when assailants attacked them with machetes on Oct. 31, 2015. Faisal Arefin Dipan was killed in a similar attack at his Jagriti publishing house that same day.
Even as he has fond memories of the Ekushey fair, Tutul has grievances with its organizer.
“It has become a habit for the Bangla Academy to impose restrictions on showcasing secular books at the book fair,” he said. “It would be helpful if the authorities had taken drastic measures against piracy.”
Secular blogger Nastiker Dharmakatha, a key organizer of the Hague event, fled to the Netherlands in the wake of the killing spree of secular writers, publishers and others in Bangladesh.
“This book fair is being branded as Freedom Book Fair with a slogan: ‘In solidarity with those who are putting their lives on the line for freedom of expression.’ So all the books which have been forbidden in different countries are important to us,” he said.
“Last year the book fair was absolutely on Bangladesh. Other countries, where press freedom is hampered, have been added to it this year. People of Turkey and Somalia are working with us.”
Along with displays of banned books, the fair features panel discussions on freedom of speech vs. hate speech in the Netherlands, freedom of expression in Turkey, LGBT-activism in religious societies, voices of dissent in Bangladesh and freedom of speech, dialogue and conflict resolution in Bangladesh.
Scheduled speakers include Bonya, Turkish lawmaker Hüda Kaya, Dutch writer Paul Cliteur and Bangladeshi activist Sultana Kamal.